On Rules

[In this issue, we welcome James Davis to our pages. As James says about James:

“James is of “that age” where he was a gamer before gaming became cool and hip. (Do they say “hip” anymore? Probably not.) Being a colossal nerd, he played many of the old Avalon Hill wargames and the original D & D before it got weird(er). He still likes many of the old classics like Advanced Civilization. But he has also embraced all these newfangled games and loves the gaming renaissance we are living in today.

James works as a web developer and graphic designer. He loves art, gardening, history, science and kittens. Not necessarily in that order. He and his wife, Sheila, also have a 12,000-plus game collection that he is happy to share with his very lucky local gaming group each week. Thus proving that he is still very much a colossal nerd, despite being a bit older.” In his first contribution to GA Report, James tackles something all of us have had to tackle at one time or another in our gaming lives and gives us his insights…..]

Reviewed by: James Davis


rules-to-follow-25158190Reading rules for these games of ours is similar to the inevitable suffering we all experience in life. No one likes it, but we just have to push through and endure until it is over and we can begin to enjoy ourselves again. Even listening to someone else explain the rules is unpleasant because of the interminable time it takes and the inevitable misunderstanding of that critical rule that costs you the win. I’ve met quite a few people who dislike learning game rules so thoroughly they always want to learn the game by playing it. A great idea of course, but not always possible if the game is too complex.

But however annoying reading rules are, it would appear that some people apparently want us to suffer more than we need to. I’m sure we all have come across rules that were obviously written by illiterates with a penchant for cruelty, rules that have so many gaps in logic that you have no better idea how to play the game than before you started reading and, of course, rules with mistakes so glaringly obvious it’s completely beyond belief they were actually published. Rules To Follow Stock Photo – Image: 25158190

Everyone who enjoys building a puzzle, for example, hates it when they finish and find a piece or two missing. It’s just as annoying and frustrating when you’ve put so much effort into reading a game’s rules and you still aren’t done. You find you still need to search for the inevitable FAQ or a rules clarification on boardgamegeek.com.

But fortunately, horribly written rules such as these are a rarity. The majority of game rules we are subjected to are simply OK. Not horrible, but not all that good either. They get the job done.

Mercifully there are the outliers where the rules are clear, logical, complete and concise. It is always nice to notice when the rules author knows what an editor is and how to use one. I personally love it when I come across well written rules. Instead of the normal drudgery of interpreting someone else’s ideas from a poor description, reading well written rules instead turns into an intriguing enigma I want to solve. If the rules are clear (and the game itself is good of course), figuring out how everything fits together and discovering new innovative ideas scratches the same itch as solving a logic game. But if the logic game isn’t logical, then it just becomes an exercise in frustration.

But please let me be clear: Yes I am complaining about bad rules, but at the same time I completely understand the reasons why so many board games are published with rules that are less than perfect. Board game publishers are running a business. And they are almost all very small businesses with a minuscule staff of maybe one or two people. And like all similar small businesses, very few things can be accomplished as well as the owners would like. I am convinced that virtually every game company owner would prefer to ship every game with well thought out and clearly written rules. But that is simply not always possible in the real world. The owners need to make hard decisions every day to ensure their company makes money. And sometimes improving a game’s rules simply isn’t financially feasible or even physically possible.

And so while I am definitely ranting about bad rules, I’m not ranting about the game companies. The vast majority of them are doing the best that they can under the circumstances. And as long as they are trying their best, they should never be criticized for what they simply can’t do. On the other hand, if a company is just lazy and relies on a FAQ to fix their published rules, then that company deserves the bad press they receive.

In a similar vein, I’m not talking about honest mistakes. No one is perfect and so no rules will be perfect. Even the well-written ones. So back to complaining.

There are many things that can make game rules horrible and frustrating to read. I’m sure that you, dear reader, have your own pet peeves and your own very long list of annoyances. Here’s my abbreviated list of things that drive me nuts:Cartoon Man Wondering And Puzzled Royalty Free Stock Photos – Image: 15398098

cartoon-man-wondering-puzzled-15398098• Rules that never name, describe or have an image of the game pieces. Instead it forces you to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and perform a logic test to figure it out. “So which of these almost identical wooden bits is supposed to be the victory point pawn and which one is the worker?”

• Similarly, poor graphic design can be a problem. For example, if the rules reference a playing piece with a shield, then there should be only one playing piece with a shield. Either that or the author should describe the piece with more detail.

• Describing a concept of the game without first illustrating how it fits with the rest of the rules. If what is being described makes no sense and has no context for the reader when he or she reads it, then the author has missed a step or had not organized the rulebook very well.

• A poor translation from another language. Using Google Translate is convenient, but it shouldn’t be used for published work. There are plenty of international gamers who’d love to help.

• Including examples of a rule is extremely important. But the examples should never contain the only mention of an important rule. The rule should be described first and then only clarified in the example.

• And burying an important rule within an unrelated block of text. For example: The rules describe how cards are played in one section. But the rules for how to play a card in response to someone is only described in the section about player actions.

The cause of these complaints listed above can be distilled down to one problem: lack of play-testing. Not necessarily play-testing the game itself, although that is a critical step to publishing a game and should never be ignored. I instead am talking about blind play-testing. For those who’ve not heard of this, it is the idea of giving the pre-published game and the current set of rules to a group of people who’ve never seen the game before and then let them figure out how to play by themselves.

The critical point of this is that they are not taught the game by the designer or publisher. The gamers need to figure out how to play by reading the rules without any outside assistance. This simulates how the game will be played once it is published, because it’s rather hard to include the designer in each game box. And the questions that the blind play-testers have after reading the rules and trying to play will help solve the majority of the overlooked problems, the problems that the designer, publisher and rules author don’t think to address because it’s usually glaringly obvious to him or her. The rules authors are deeply involved in creating the game and they become so focused on it that they can easily miss the details; missing the woods for the trees. The written rules will always make sense to the designer because he or she wrote them. The designer already knows the game inside and out. This is why blind play-testing is so crucial.

There is also the fact that writing rules for a board game is very hard. Not everyone can do it well, although some people do have an intuitive knack for it. But even the natural-born communicator can’t write effective game rules without first understanding the basics of writing with clarity, specifically, the process of how a message is delivered via the written word, as well as issues surrounding content and context.

There is a concept called heuristics which describes, among other things, how to aid a person to discover or learn something for themselves using mental shortcuts and assumptions. A person who writes rules for board games should have an awareness of what this involves as well as an insight into how people learn. You don’t need a Ph.D. in these fields of course, but even a rudimentary understanding will vastly improve a game’s rules.

I’ve listed a few examples to illustrate this. It is of course not an exhaustive list. But I hope it is enough to illustrate my point that there is a methodology that can be followed to improve rules writing.

• Everyone’s brain is wired differently and so each of us learn differently. Therefore a rules author should not write rules based solely on how he or she learns. That will work very well for people who learn exactly like they do, but might leave everyone else scratching their heads. Writing rules that will work for everyone is extremely hard and sometimes impossible to do. But knowing about this problem may help the rules become more inclusive. Follow The Rules Stock Photography – Image: 28912872

follow-rules-28912872• People don’t pay attention to something that is boring. Most gamers hate reading rules for the same reason no one reads the instructions for their new electronic gadget. It’s as dry as dust. And putting people to sleep before they play a game isn’t a good selling point. So spice it up a bit. Work in a more conversational tone into the text. Or find a way to communicate that doesn’t require the reader to down a six pack of energy drinks.

• It is also the case that a page filled with nothing but dense, non-interrupted text is intimidating and tough for almost everyone to slog through in one sitting.

• On the other hand the rules author should not go to the other extreme and write rules so funny and entertaining that the logic of the game is lost. Funny text is great, but it shouldn’t interfere with teaching the game.

• Repeat the critical points of the game. It has been proven that the most effective teachers repeat the important message of their lesson at least three times during their lecture to help ensure the students remember and understand it.

• Not everyone is a visual thinker, but nearly all of us learn faster by seeing or imagining the concept. Vision tends to be the best method of piecing together a puzzle. It’s a trite saying, but it is nonetheless true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

• Similarly, a number of savvy game companies have started publishing videos of gameplay. This is a great idea. In this way you actually can include the designer with the game. But never rely on the video. It should be an addition to the rules, not a requirement.

• The author should never assume the reader knows the finer points of what he or she is explaining. They typically don’t. Details are important.

• And gamers don’t necessarily love reading rules but they do love to learn. Tap into that interest and you are halfway there.

So these are examples of what can help a person write clear and easily understood game rules. But on the other side of the coin, neither blind play-testing nor understanding heuristics will fix all of the problems with a game’s rules. And as I mentioned above, not everyone learns the same way. So there will always be a group of people for whom a set of rules will be unreadable, no matter how well written they might be. There is no such thing as perfectly written rules to a game.

Writing rules is difficult because there are so many variables that are quite difficult to manage. But I think that, with a little extra effort and some understanding, we can all try to improve these games of ours. And more importantly, bring in more would-be gamers into the fold.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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