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Rules can feel hard to write. They have to make a game feel understandable to the reader, clarify your intentions, and make sure players feel like they know what they’re doing. It’s a weird blend of technical writing that shouldn’t sound like technical writing.

In this post, I’ll be focusing on writing clear rules, but also on the process of putting together the rulebook. It’s more than just the text, of course.

What’s my experience, you ask? I’ve written plenty of rulebooks for my own games, but over the last few years I’ve also professionally edited or proofread a number of rulebooks for publishers or other designers. If you’d like some help with yours, head to https://entrogames.com/editing to learn more.

Some required watching:

And with that introduction, let’s jump into it, shall we?

What does a rulebook need to do?

A game’s rules have three slightly different audiences, each with their own goals and needs:

  • The player that’s playing for the first time – for them, the rulebook is their primary way to learn the game.
  • The players that are currently playing – for them, the rulebook is what they will be looking at to answer a rules question or how to handle something different.
  • The player that’s returning to the game – for them, they need a reminder of the important rules.

A rulebook needs to be written for all three of these audiences, and with all three of them in mind.

Start with a structure

See my personal rulebook template

 

Go ahead and open that in Google Docs in a new tab, then make a copy to edit it.

For more structures, just open any game in your collection.

There’s a ton of structures around, and the ‘best’ one is one that empathizes with players in their process to learn the game.

Who are you, again?

Opening paragraph

The intro paragraph typically answers the following questions, in this specific order more or less:

  • Who are you? (Set up the theme of the game)
  • Where and when are you? (Set up the place of the game, which should pair nicely with the previous ‘who are you’ question)
  • What are you trying to do, and why? (Set up the conflict or reason for doing what you’re doing, along with the ultimate goal of the game)
  • How will you do this? (This question helps transition to the more mechanical side of the explanations, including how to win)

The emphasis here is a paragraph of introduction – I’m here to play, not read a novel! If there’s more to the story that desperately needs to be told, include it near the back. Even better, make it part of the marketing so that more of the story comes out before it gets to the table.

Perhaps the most important part of this introductory paragraph: how to win. Don’t leave the player wondering how to win, since it’s going to affect how they understand the game and their incentives as they read the rest of the rules.

Explaining the setup

Orbit setup

  • Pictures and diagrams are worth a thousand words – even if the game’s still early in development. A screenshot of the game all setup in Tabletop Simulator or on the table is a great start. Use a photo editing program to add some letters or numbers to the different decks, boards, markets, or other things to set up. They don’t have to be perfect.
  • Put things in the order of operations – separate these different cards, shuffle these decks, place them face-down in a specific place, and so on. Give the directions in text, but use the picture to reinforce what the text is saying.
  • Explicitly explain ‘face-down’ and ‘face-up’, or whether something is public-facing or secret information. Do not ask your new players, still setting up the game, to assume anything about what should be publicly known or secret information. If anything in the setup or gameplay will be strongly counter-intuitive to players (think ‘holding your cards face-out in Hanabi’), make these parts bolded, italicized, a different color, etc.
  • Now that the game is all set up, add a sentence to select the starting player. I personally love having the theme help to determine the starting player (one game’s all about colors, so ‘The player wearing the most colorful outfit starts the game’ is the rule there. Even if you want players to choose randomly, state it explicitly.

How do you play, anyway? What to do on your turn

Orbit on your turn

I find it helpful to give a brief overview of the thing(s) you can do on your turn, then go into more details in the next paragraph. For example, ‘On your turn, take any two of the following actions: Dodge, Dip, Duck, or Dive’ might be the brief overview, then more details would follow in a bullet-point sort of list.

Since how you play the game is a very difficult thing to generalize, let’s focus on the things that matter:

  • Focus on the order of operations. It may help to ask another designer or another player to read through the rules sentence-by-sentence to ensure things are in the right order.
  • Along these same lines, avoid making the players jump around the rulebook. What do you need to know, and when do you need to know it?
  • Avoid repeating yourself. The important stuff can be bolded or italicized to emphasize it, and repetition usually adds bulk without necessarily adding understanding
  • Examples are helpful, whether they’re text or pictures – sometimes they’re best used as part of a sidebar to avoid disrupting the flow of the rules.
  • Write with authority and confidence – as the game designer, you make the rules.
  • Avoid flowery language and humor – again, think back to the three different audiences. For games that have lots of humor or story built into the game, I’ve seen some rulebook use sidebars to bring in those fun little moments or pictures to add some flavor. Don’t let flavor get in the way of the flow.

At the end of a playtest, ask the winner how they would teach the game. They’re going to naturally add their own spin on things, especially if they learned it from you, not the rulebook.

How it all ends – how to write rules for the end of the game

There may be two different sections here: end of round and end of game. This isn’t always strictly necessary, but it’s really helpful to go through any resetting steps or ‘check for end of game’ triggers. This is also the one time I’m OK with asking players to jump to a different section, mainly because it’s the next section and usually on the same page.

It goes without saying that players need to know how the game ends, along with what might trigger the end game. Be explicit and simple here: ‘The game ends at the end of the 7th round’, or ‘The end game is triggered when any player reaches 50 points’ might be all you need.

Be sure to mention what to do after the end game is triggered but before the game actually ends, if this happens. ‘Finish out the round so all players take an equal number of turns’ is a fine example.

Alright, who won? Writing rules about scoring

If you’re scoring as you play, you may not need a separate section here – just incorporate the scoring rules as you teach the various actions. If scoring is part of the end of the round, it probably belongs in that section.

Most of the scoring happens at the end? Great, let’s write it up. If there’s a scoreboard, share a picture of it. The more complex the scoring is, the more examples are needed.

As you write the rules, it’s worth considering the order in which things score. Should they happen in a specific order? This is helpful for ‘point-salad’ style games. Can all players handle their own scoring in their head, or does it help to have one player go around and ask ‘alright, who has the most Gold?’.

Write the steps out in the order you want them to happen. A numbered list makes this more intuitive and obvious.

Scoring can also be combined with a bit of clean-up, so long as the cards / elements aren’t about to be scored another way. Something like ‘After scoring your Gold, set them aside or put the cubes back in the bag.’ can make that clear. Need to hang onto something for a later scoring phase? Try to group them together if possible, or have an explicit reminder: ‘After scoring your Gold, keep it in front of you.’

Other sections

There might be a section to focus on specific segments of a game. In Orbit, I have a section for the different icons at the very end of the document, mainly as a reference guide. (The same icons / info is on the reference card):

Orbit resources

This level of organization is all you really need during playtesting – and even pitching. Clear iconography helps (most of these come from the Noun Project), and headers / bolded text help define the terms. I’m not worried about exact formatting here.

Iterating on the rulebook

As the game gets better, it’s a good idea to get pickier about the exact wording of things:

  • Focus on the verbs, since the verbs are really telling the player exactly what to do. I’ll usually try to start the sentence with a verb, or move the verb to be earlier in the sentence, since that helps keep things in the active voice.
  • Follow the ‘one-breath’ rule: you need to be able to speak each sentence in the rulebook in one breath. If you can’t, it’s probably too long.
  • In general, use the mechanical term and not the thematic term. The mechanical term is typically the ‘boring’ name for the component: the pawn, the card, the tile, etc. Pair it with another mechanical term to help differentiate, say, the Resource tiles from the Scoring tiles. I personally avoid thematic terms on their own – imagine using ‘Assistants’ or ‘Magicians’ without first understanding that these are the pieces you’ll be placing in a worker placement game.

What about the FAQ’s?

I try to deal with these on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s better to have them as one section, and other times the Frequently Asked Questions fit one at a time on a sidebar in the appropriate section. Sometimes the best thing to do is to engineer them out.

In simpler games, I try to write (or edit) the rulebook such that no FAQ sections are needed. Consider why such Questions are Frequently Asked, after all: it often comes from someone looking for a rule and not finding it where expected, or having an edge case and no idea where to look.  I’d rather deal with edge cases in the section where they’re most likely to come up. This is another great use of sidebars (and don’t worry about graphic design here – just type {sidebar} or something similar to make it clear that this text is intended to be part of a sidebar…)

Speaking of edge cases or exceptions…

Your playtesting has (hopefully!) already informed you where the edge cases are creeping in. I personally try to frame the rules dealing with edge cases as an ‘If / then’ sort of statement: ‘If you ever have more than 7 hand cards at the end of your turn, discard down to 7.’

Exceptions are sometimes needed, and the best place for them is right next to or below the rule they are the exception to. Highlight them in some way (bold or italicized text). I’d personally prefer to see it inline with the text as opposed to a sidebar, especially if the sidebar has been used for strategic tips, story elements, or other non-crucial sorts of things.

Best practices for writing a rulebook

Now that you know the ‘how to write a rulebook’ part, let’s clarify a number of best practices:

  • Expect to rewrite your rulebook many times. Just like the rest of your game, you’ll iterate on both frequently.
  • Keep your rulebook in sync with the rest of the game. When you change the components, run through the rulebook, and vice versa. The last thing you want is for your cards to be on version 3, the board to be on version 4, and the rulebook to be on version 2…
  • Recognize what your players need to know, along with what they already know. Doing this well requires a fair bit of empathy or reading it through in order a fair number of times.
  • Be consistent with your terms, capitalizations, spellings, and so on. This part’s harder than you might think, so make a style guide. I’ll use a dry erase board personally, but you might find a separate document or piece of paper to be what works for you.
  • Don’t make players guess your intentions or what they should be doing.
  • Avoid slang, Americanisms / Britishisms (Briticisms), or cultural references.
  • When referring to players, use the singular ‘they’. Not ‘he/she’, and definitely not ‘he’. If writing an example, feel free to use proper names.

It doesn’t need to be perfect… yet

As mentioned, the rulebook iterates and evolves with the game. Even after it’s been signed, publishers will typically develop the game and edit the rulebook further to match their style.

One exception here: if you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to take the time and effort to ensure more people get a chance to review and improve the rulebook. You do need to get it perfect… eventually. Get the game working great, make sure the rules explain the game, and you’re on your way.

Looking for some help?

As mentioned at the top, I’ve professionally edited or proofread a number of rulebooks for publishers or other designers. If you’d like some help with yours, head to https://entrogames.com/editing to learn more.

Professional rulebook editing

 

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