Writing Game Rules

Sitting down to write out the rules of a game is one of the most daunting tasks a games designer will ever face. The thought process, methods, and interests of a designer, a writer, and a player are all very different. As designers we need to first understand the design of the game, become a great writer to express it, and think through as what information a player will need to understand and successfully play the game. As designers shifting into the role of a player is not all that hard, but becoming a writer is somewhat more challenging.

The first thing a designer could try is switching gears and do some research on general grammar and sentence structure. Focus on articles that talk about active vs. passive voice. I am sure if you have been reading my blog, you know that I am not an English major, so I will not make a crude attempt to try and explain more on that topic here.

I would like to point something out about the hobbyist board game industry in general. Traditionally it has been a one-person show. Designer games have a single name on the box. Other media like movies and video games have credits, sometimes very long credits. Giving someone a little credit for helping you might not be a terrible idea.

Contacting a fellow board game designer for help is a wonderful idea, and you as a designer should be actively trying to build a rapport with as many of them as you can. Just keep in mind that they are busy people who may not have the ability to sit down with you and help you with your writing. I have heard a lot of designers say that writing rules is a hard for them. Brian Henk founder of OverworldGames even told me that writing game rules would be the #1 task he would outsource. Writing and design are not the same types of tasks.

Consider sitting down with a local high school English teacher and collaborate on the rules document. I am not saying higher a writer but people have worked for things like having their name listed before. The main point of this advice is to try and find a person who knows how to write and is also someone who will have and take the time to give you more than just a tip here or there.

When I asked Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games what he thought about asking English teachers for help with writing rules he said:

“I’m not sure, but it’s worth trying. I think they might need to be a gamer as well.”

I can’t guarantee that the first English teacher you contact is going to jump at the chance to sit down with you.  However, I started adult life as a dyslexic high school dropout. I have found that the best local source for advice on writing is going back to an English teacher. They generally have a heart for teaching and I have found several over the years who were willing to sit down with me in person and share what they know and help me with my writing in a way that a busy fellow game designer might not be able to do over the internet.

While an English teacher can’t necessarily help with the rules from a design perspective, they could help you to become a better writer and express yourself better with words. This is just something for you to consider trying.

You might also try finding a way to build a rapport with a good friendly blogger (who you can see writes well and you respect).  The main goal is to seek out help with your writing from writers.

Note: Special thanks to Jay Vales AKA radioactivemouse the designer of Conquest at Kismet for pointing out to me that it might not help all that much to contact just any random blogger. Look for one that has well written and frequent posts, that is the type of blogger I mean. If they are also a board game designer, that is ideal.

Now, if you are going to try and tackle the rules on your own or you still want a few tips for that first rough draft. There is a lot of great advice on this topic floating around the internet so I will try not to go over the general stuff you can get from other sources. Here are some tips that I think might help in drafting your rulebook.

Start by writing the sort of “description” of the game as you might find on an already published game. Include the dominant mechanics, number of suggested players and an overview of the theme and how that relates to gameplay. Board Game Geek (BGG) is your best friend for this, just go look through the descriptions for your favorite games and model your description after a similar pattern. Once you have a good brief summary of your game, you will have gained three key things. First, you now have a simple way to share the game’s core ideas with others. Second, you will have that description to use on BGG and the box. Third, you will have finished a writing task that will give you positive reinforcement for the tasks that will follow.

General Advice & Tips

Read other game’s rules, but don’t just read them, analyze them and think about how they got the point of their game across to you as a player, think about what mistakes might be in those rules and try to classify any mistakes into categories. Things like typos or poor word choice. Once you have done this a few times you will look at your own rules with a new light.

Make a list of all the actions a player can do in the game, Make a list of all of the mechanics in the game, Make a list of all of the components in the game and what they are used for. Then use these lists as checklists when writing the rules, until you have talked about them all your rules might be missing something.

Try writing the basic outline for the rules before you finish the first prototype. Doing this might shake ideas loose and help you to list all the components that will be needed in the prototype. This is not to say write the first draft, just a short basic outline of the order of play or what phases there will be. Getting things like the action order, and components listed out will aid you as you move forward.

Your rules should be tailored or written to fit your game, don’t try to fit your game into a rules template. There are many great templates available online, but they should only be treated as guides. You may need sections not found in the templates. Just remember to try and follow the logical flow of your game and try not to leave out anything important.

Note: One thing I plan to try is just recording myself explaining the game out loud to one of my kids and then take notes from that.  

Don’t go back and start editing until you are finished with the first draft. It is more important to first get all of the ideas and concepts out of your head and down on the paper before you start worrying about how it sounds. You can’t really edit something that has not been written anyway so leave the editing until you truly have something to edit.

The expression a picture is worth a thousand words has been around for thousands of years. It is still good advice today. Adding a few well-placed images can go a long way to helping players understand what you are trying to say at a glance. Just do your best to make sure graphics and images are a professional as you can make them, and don’t go overboard. That is what videos are for.

When you get to the meat of the rules and find yourself having trouble explaining something STOP! Don’t write a failed attempt to explain something. First go back to the prototype and play that part of the game and see if the difficulty comes from the game or from you. Sometimes you just don’t have the words and sometimes the game has an issue that might need to be addressed or simplified before you more on. It is just a great chance to make sure before moving on and having just tested and played that part of the game you might have an easier time. That brings me to my next tip…

Have your game out and set up when you are writing the rules. This can be very useful for visualizing the mechanics as you explain it in the document. It is also a great chance to take some reference pictures for the parts of the rules that might need them. If you don’t have a full prototype and you are just getting a head start on the rules first, sketch out the layout of the board, tableau, and components just how the game would be when it is set up. The main thing here is to have a visual aid to reference while you are writing.

Tool Tip: Get yourself a tablet of graph paper. Many times this helps me when laying out the games set up. It is easier to keep component sizes and spacing consistent, clear and neat.

Don’t spend time on any special formatting! If you must you can bold section headings, but don’t do anything else until you are completely finished with the complete first draft. Yes, I said complete two ways in the same sentence, it is important enough to add that double emphasis. I don’t mean once you finish writing for the first day and come back for a second session. Finish the rules before you do any formatting! This includes things like worrying about the size the finished rulebook will be. I don’t care if, in the end, the booklet needs to fit in a card box until you have finished writing those things just don’t matter. Keep in mind that if anything changes you will need to un-format the rules and re-format them to change styles and having a non-formatted version is just a good idea.

Summary

Writing game rules is not like other types of writing, so don’t treat it the same way. The many of the tips and tricks for being a better writer do still apply but they need to be tailored some to fit this more technical and informative style. Remember to take breaks when you need to and stick with it.


This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.


“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”

@BHFuturist 

“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”

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