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Subject: Challenging rule books.... rss

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Heath Stockburn
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Two things I think that can make a game easier/harder to learn.

Language and Format

One: The language of the rule book.

The example I would cite is Android: Netrunner. This game is excellent to play. One of the best two player games out there. But the language of the instruction manual is almost (as close as can be) prohibitive to learning the game itself. I have played this game upward of 10+ times and I still struggle with some game mechanics because my head is translating game terms to normal terms e.g./ Rez=Reveal, Grip=Hand, R+D=Discards etc...

When I get a game I actually just want to play it. The playing it is where that action and fun is. Using fancy, environment inducing language is nice and fancy when in the background story (Twilight Imperium) or the blurb for the game but is totally counter productive when learning the game.

Good instructions should have only one tier of learning e.g./ this is what you are trying to achieve and you can do this by doing this and that and so on...the rules, the mechanics. Leave the nuance to the game itself.

When a set of instructions has more than one tier it adds extra unwanted learning that then starts to tip the learning:enjoying ratio away from 'game' and into 'work'. Netrunner's instructions have two tiers of learning:
1)You have to learn the games very specific and exclusive new language
2)Once the language is learned you can learn the rules.

Learning the rules in Netrunner becomes a second tier of learning that is deprioritised by the need to learn the first tier of language. This makes the game very inaccessible. I persisted with the rules for Netrunner based on its brilliant reputation, if I hadn't known it was a good game I would have dumped it. All because of its rulebook.

If you are writing an instruction manual for anything, and there is a well established body of language, for that instruction manuals topic, that is accessible because of its current and continuous use....then don't change it; use it

Two: The organisation of a rule book.

I have recently and reluctantly got rid of a very good game that I enjoyed immensely. Mage Knight.

Now I know that this is an age old discussion but it does bear mentioning in light of this blogs topic.

I believe that this games accessibility to the gaming market was undermined by it's very poor rule book organisation.

The first time you play this game it is reasonably difficult to learn and takes quite a bit of time and commitment.

There are two problems with the rule book that exacerbate this:

1)The niggly little rules, that you need to find as you learn this game, are jumbled about all over, not one, but two rule books.

I am an Actor, and one thing you learn quite quickly in theatre is that you need to spoon feed the audience, lead them by the nose so to speak. There is so much going on in a play that you need lead the audience around the plot with good direction as there are many places that they can get lost.

Only once the audience are familiar with the landscape (from multiple viewings) can they begin to focus out a little and take in some of the nuance hidden in the wider context of the play and characters.

The same happens with board games. The problem with Mage Knight is that it has so many little nuance's to discover and dark corners to light up that it takes hours of play to get to grips with it.

The length of the game prevents it getting to our gaming table very often, which means that by the time it comes back around I have forgotten just enough of the rules to need to refresh. Only, the rule book doesn't facilitate a refresh, it only caters for a complete relearn from scratch. It doesn't have a very good system for brushing up on the odd rule here or odd rule there that you need to fill those gaps.

When and audience sees a play the first few times, they need big sign posts and arrows saying 'look here', 'notice this' and 'look at me'.

Once they know the play well they then can look where they want and will still keep track of the story unfolding.

When a player is playing a game for their first few times they need big sign posts in a rule book that say 'look here for this', 'remember this' and so on and so on.

So what I will finish by saying is that I got rid of Mage Knight because there was no way built into the rule books to easily brush up on the few missing gaps in my memory from not having played for a couple of months. And I was unwilling to completely relearn the rules from the set up scenario every couple of months.

My thoughts are:
1) Use simple, every day established language to instruct on games.
2) Organise rule books so that they are very easily navigable.

Note: Will edit for spelling and grammar.
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Connor Cranston
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Rule books are so very important.

I think rule books should start with a very detailed step by step of everything. I Always dislike when they say something like "here you can do...which we'll explain 12 pages ahead". I automatically flip back and forth.

I Always like a detailed component list, to check if everything is included, folowed by a set-up WITH picture. Then, a very detailed rules explanation, followed by a shorter rules summary for future plays, and on the last page/back of the rules should be a player aid with explanations of in-game cards and such. With big boxes I also really like if there is a picture which explains where all the components go inside the box.

Also like FAQ inside the rule book, for second (or more) editions.

Basically, I want too much.
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Russ Williams
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Khonnor wrote:
Also like FAQ inside the rule book, for second (or more) editions.

Often merely releasing a FAQ is misused as a "complete" solution to a bad first edition rulebook; many times a company fails to also improve the rules text, so that the first edition's unclear rules are made clear in the second edition rules.

(Of course, it is still useful to provide a FAQ, for people stuck with using the unclear first edition).
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Gimo Barrera
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Those are some great points! I'm currently working on a game, in which I started making up it's own "language", and man did play-testers hate it. Although I thought it was a good idea, specially since it added to the theme, it just made it difficult for players to remember what everything was. We ended up scrapping a lot of the terms, and just keeping a few that were easily relatable to the game mechanic.
Just like you said, you want a rulebook were it shouldn't take you longer than 2 seconds to find the location of the ruling. This gets tricky when you're writing rulebooks for euros since they tend to be very long.
So yes, the rulebook is CRUCIAL! and writing a good one is an art by itself.
 
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Colin Marsh
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there are lots of things that go into making a great rule book but one feature that's part of all the Keyflower rule books which is outstanding is the use of a quick reference margin along side the detailed rules explanation. this is fantastic because when an edge case comes up you can quickly scan the margins to find it without having to read the detailed rules write-up. i'm sure there are other games that do this but I think Keyflower is the only game in my collection which did this consistently with their base rule book as well as the expansions. i wish more games would adopt it.

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Chris Laudermilk
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While I generally agree with Connor's post, I like to have a quick synopsis up-front. The more interconnected the different game mechanics are, the more I prefer this. That way when going through the detailed sections, if one mechanic references another that you have not gotten to yet you at least know "ah, well I know they will cover that on the next page and I have some idea of what they are talking about"

I've recently read through a couple of rule books that do it the way Connor prefers and it was a tough read the first time due to the interconnectedness of the mechanics. On one, after one read-through, it just took a quick second read to get what they were telling me; on the other I had to play part of a game, then read through again before I had the ah-ha moment and grokked the mechanic.

Then there are the monsters that I have no better solution for. I'm looking at you, ASL. That beast really takes two rulebooks: 1) A conversational one to learn the game (like the Starter Kit books), and 2) the technical manual/legal document format for rule lookups later (main rule book).
 
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Joe Kundlak
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Wargame rulebooks may exemplify the whole range from easy-to-read ones to tough ones.

For instance when I played Normandy '44, I had tough time to grasp the game as the rulebook, while chaptered by subject, was hard to reference on a "one-step-after-the-other" basis. Therefore I started the (ultimately futile) effort to transform the rules into a sequential format. As said, this failed when I moved to other games and stopped playing N'44 (it was played on Vassal, so that might have contributed, but still).

Conversely, other games have good rulebooks, say Valor&Victory or more recently Wing Leader (which utilizes the aforementioned sidebar details and examples) and the game as a whole uses the incremental approach to learning the game (through gradually adding rules used in the scenarios).

For me the most important things are clear language, no obscure names for otherwise obvious mechanisms and clear structure (where I lean towards sequential rules instead of a reference-by-subject).
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Quantum Jack
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People want rule books to do two distinct things:

1. Teach you the game.
2. Act as a reference for corner cases during gameplay.

Being both is VERY hard to do, unless the game itself is super simple (no corner cases possible). I think Mage Knight handles this challenge quite well (along with Space Alert, by the same designer) by having 2 books. One to teach, and one for reference. Mage Knight goes one step further by having most of the "fiddly" mechanics included on cards for player aids.

After the first walkthrough, you shouldn't need the "learning book" unless you are using it to teach someone else. All of the actual rules are laid out in an organised and precise way in the actual rules reference. If you are looking at the walkthrough for rules explanations, you are doing it wrong.

Magic Realm's 3.1 edition rulebook is an excellent example of a document designed for reference, but horrible to just read through to learn the game.

On the other hand, I have had several Fantasy Flight games that teach the gameplay, but takes forever to find a rules clarification for a corner case, if it even exists.
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Bryan Thunkd
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Quantum_Jack wrote:
2. Act as a reference for corner cases during gameplay.


Quantum_Jack wrote:
I think Mage Knight handles this challenge quite well
I think the way they've divided the rulebook, walkthrough and location cards works well to teach the game, but isn't so good as a reference. I constantly find myself looking for answers in multiple places. I've been told repeatedly to ignore the walkthrough to solve that problem, yet the walkthrough is usually where I'm best able to find the applicable rule. MK isn't the example I'd use as success that works for both teaching and as a reference.

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J M
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Augh Mage Knight rule book. Stop with the chatty banter, just tell me the ****ing rules!

ON YOUR TURN YOU

- Do Stuff

etc.

Battlecon's rule book takes this to 11 with 10 pages of Chibi cartoons chatting when I just want three actual pages of rules. Augh!
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M Jenkins
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heathandliz wrote:
I have played this game upward of 10+ times and I still struggle with some game mechanics because my head is translating game terms to normal terms e.g./ Rez=Reveal, Grip=Hand, R+D=Discards etc...

I'm in the same boat with you on this one, though I know plenty of people that really like this type of terminology because it matches the theme of the game much better. In these situations I find myself explicitly just calling it whatever I think easier.
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Bobby Bob
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I find a lot of rule books are very poorly set out.

I work in medical publications where methodology has to be clearly written. A lot of rule books I have read, to me anyway, seem to be structured incorrectly. Often rules that should be in a single section are often separated and within different parts of the rulebook. I think a lot of rule books would benefit greatly from some editorial support from someone who is used to writing technical documents.
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James Arias
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I tend to use the rulebook only for basic familiarization. Then I hunt the BGG files section for play aids and cheatsheets to help me write my own, and then use the forums for corner cases or rules interpretations. Most games I get secondhand after a few years in print so there's usually plenty of material to leverage. E.g. Just did all this for Invasion from Outer Space: The Martian Game

The most challenging rulebook (but not the longest) was Intruder. Took me forever to flow that one out.

One rulebook I really liked for skirmish games (which can get as complex as wargames or RPGs) was Infinity.

I read somewhere that rules are like programming, so in that metaphor I like things to be simple and procedural. Games with "event-driven" rules drive me crazy.
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Michael Draper
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I think GMT Games does a good job of this. Yes, "GMT Rulebook" is a thing denoting insane complexity, but their Playbooks are often a great way to walk you through the rules. Andean Abyss, Fire in the Lake, and Navajo Wars all give you walkthroughs, basic strategy guidelines, and historical background.

While not EASY rulebooks by any stretch of any imagination, for grognards they are a far cry from old school The Avalon Hill Game Co rulebooks.
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Kyle
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mld0806 wrote:
I think GMT Games does a good job of this. Yes, "GMT Rulebook" is a thing denoting insane complexity, but their Playbooks are often a great way to walk you through the rules. Andean Abyss, Fire in the Lake, and Navajo Wars all give you walkthroughs, basic strategy guidelines, and historical background.

While not EASY rulebooks by any stretch of any imagination, for grognards they are a far cry from old school The Avalon Hill Game Co rulebooks.


I only have experience with twilight struggle and dominant species, but I agree GMT rulebooks are excellent.
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