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Subject: Writing the Rules rss

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T.E. Nitta
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Hi all,

I'm an amateur board game player, but I've loved games since I was a kid, and over the past few years I've found bgg to be a great resource.

One thing I've noticed a lot is that board games tend to have, well, pretty terribly written rules. They're terrible for a diverse set of reasons, ranging from poor presentation, to unclear definitions, to omissions for certain situations. As a matter of fact, learning rules and flipping through the rulebook has to be one of the most aggravating and difficult part of boardgaming, at least in my experience. And in addition, I'd posit that some games seem unnecessarily complex not because the mechanics are actually that complex, but because the rules are just badly written.

Obviously I imagine there's a great deal of playtesting that should reveal when players, opening the box for the first time, are going to find particular rule sections unclear. At the same time, I can't help but notice that well-funded games from established publishers and designers seem to occasionally have poorly written rules.

In any case, as I mentioned: I'm an amateur board game player, but I'm a professional rule writer (I'm a lawyer). I am posting here to solicit the opinions of the community: would it be at all helpful to designers like you all to have someone like me (I have a few other lawyer/gamer friends who have talked about this at some length) review rules for clarity and organization? Or even if not to give specific advice, to at least give a few broad "rules of the road" that I think would help craft a good rulebook?

I honestly think that learning to communicate rules well is a bit of skill - one that can be taught and conveyed. It's about more than just telling people "here's how to play." There's a lot that can go into it. Additionally, I understand that rule drafting is probably often designers' least favorite part of the process! But before I start really spending time thinking about this, I thought I'd see whether the community agrees / feels like this is an issue / feels like this is a good use of time.

Is there a need here? Is there interest?

Thank you all so much!
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Dave Eisen
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I would be careful before assuming that a lawyer would be a good rules book writer. Even if you are in fact a good writer, and I assume you are.

Rules books are tutorials, reference books, and marketing documents all rolled into one. The three have competing needs and writing a document that does all that for audiences of a variety of skill levels and learning styles is challenging.

I believe that I also write well in technical documents and that I have an ability for explaining rules clearly and without gaps or ambiguities. But I have no sense at all about graphic design or layout and that is also a challenge in rule books.

There's a reason why so many rule books are bad. I can't think of a good reason why so many are *so* bad, but it's not an easy task to write a good one.
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Andrew Baker
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First, yes, it is very difficult writing clear rules. It is always harder than you imagine it will be.
Second, game designers always appreciate people willing to review their rules for clarity.
Thanks for reaching out to the community.
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T.E. Nitta
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dkeisen wrote:
I would be careful before assuming that a lawyer would be a good rules book writer. Even if you are in fact a good writer, and I assume you are.

Rules books are tutorials, reference books, and marketing documents all rolled into one. The three have competing needs and writing a document that does all that for audiences of a variety of skill levels and learning styles is challenging.

I believe that I also write well in technical documents and that I have an ability for explaining rules clearly and without gaps or ambiguities. But I have no sense at all about graphic design or layout and that is also a challenge in rule books.

There's a reason why so many rule books are bad. I can't think of a good reason why so many are *so* bad, but it's not an easy task to write a good one.


Absolutely agree. Let me be clear (I definitely wasn't in the OP): I don't think rule writing is a matter of being a "good writer." Just as I'm sure you know from your profession, being a good technical writer doesn't mean being a "good writer," just being a good journalist doesn't mean being a "good writer." That's just because we usually associate being a "good writer" with being a good literary writer. I certainly wouldn't hold myself out as a "good writer" in that sense!

Also, that's very interesting that you mention there are different purposes animating the rulebook, and it was not something I had considered. Of course you're right: rulebooks are a lot of different things and serve multiple purposes. That seems especially true when it comes to, e.g., games being kickstarted.

Obviously, I don't mean to suggest that I could offer any help whatsoever with respect to, for example, how to design the rulebook visually (though including helpful graphic design can make understanding how the game works much easier). I more just mean the literal rules. I really do think there are some basic techniques that, if designers followed, would very much help players understand how things work. Simple things like using "must" and "may" intentionally, providing a definitions section, bolding words that have definitions, to name a few very simple ones.
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T.E. Nitta
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gamesforbryan wrote:
First, yes, it is very difficult writing clear rules. It is always harder than you imagine it will be.
Second, game designers always appreciate people willing to review their rules for clarity.
Thanks for reaching out to the community.


I can definitely see why writing rules are difficult. And I think part of it is the fact that designers know their game inside and out already - they approach it with a totally different perspective. It's like teaching a kid to drive a car: there are things you do so naturally as a driver, you hardly notice you do them. But when you're trying to teach your kid to check the mirrors, watch for oncoming traffic, also be sure there isn't a pedestrian crossing, oh shoot also signal and make sure the guy behind you sees you're slowing down...what you thought was a pretty simple task can be hard to actually teach!

The whole reason I started talking about this with my friends is that there are two games I own that I don't play, just because the rules are so frustrating. And it's awful, because I bet they're really fun, if you know how to play them!

If we can give even a 30% increase in rule-reading efficiency, I'd consider my effort well-worth it.

In any case, your response is very encouraging. Maybe this weekend we'll sit down and do a "test rewrite" to see if we can draft better rules for a particular game. Then if that works, see if the general process is replicable.
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Jeremy Lennert
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I wouldn't expect experience as a lawyer to help very much with rulebook writing or editing. In fact, if I had to pick a single category of document that's worst at explaining things to the reader, I'd pick legal contracts.

There's a good reason for that, of course: contracts are primarily designed to resist reinterpretation by experts, not to explain things to laypeople. But by the same token, I don't see why skill at one would help with the other.


There are lots of reasons that rulebooks are often bad:

1) Technical writing is hard.
2) People with technical skills can often find higher-paying work outside the board game industry.
3) Technical reading is also hard, which can cause players to report that a rulebook is worse than it actually is.
4) A majority of players learn the game from another player, so rulebooks get less testing and less priority than one might expect.
5) A common failure mode is for a player to think they understand the rules when they actually don't; this failure mode is hard to detect in testing/proofreading stages.
6) Many games are translated, or are worried about translatability. (For instance, Ghost Stories has very simple rules that are very hard to decipher because of bad translation.)


For my most complicated published game (Darkest Night), I've had the curious experience of many players telling me the rulebook is especially good and many other players telling me the rulebook is especially bad. (People who say it's good often site its precision; people who say it's bad rarely give a specific reason, which is immensely frustrating to me personally.)

Of course, I'm a computer programmer, which may skew things a bit. (Computer programs never overlook an instruction, but they also never use context or common sense to get past your errors or omissions.)
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Jeremy Lennert
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seakelp wrote:
providing a definitions section, bolding words that have definitions

I've included definitions sections in several of my rulebooks, but I think one should try to rely on them as little as possible. They're great when you're looking for a specific definition, but they are AWFUL if you have to simply read them start-to-finish.

If you do a good job of choosing terms that make sense and introducing them in context, then I think players should rarely be consulting a glossary.
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John Albright
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seakelp wrote:

I am posting here to solicit the opinions of the community: would it be at all helpful to designers like you all to have someone like me (I have a few other lawyer/gamer friends who have talked about this at some length) review rules for clarity and organization? Or even if not to give specific advice, to at least give a few broad "rules of the road" that I think would help craft a good rulebook?

I honestly think that learning to communicate rules well is a bit of skill - one that can be taught and conveyed. It's about more than just telling people "here's how to play."


My first college undergraduate degree was in English Literature, and I can say with certainty that even with my training I would make a terrible rulebook writer at this point because of lack of practice. The only way to write good rulebooks to create them in same manner that we create games: Through an iterative process of draft and redraft until the finished result meets expectations. Training and experience will invariably reduce the reduce the number of iterations. Also I would add that technical writing is very sensitive to the specific field, subject and genre for which it is written. Lawyers tend to provide excessive verbosity, medical journals typically rely on excessive bibliographies etc.

I suspect that game rulebooks are terrible precisely because little attention is given to their redraft process because much of that attention has typically been exhausted through the iterative design process.

I also believe that rulebook writing for game design would benefit from some kind of process criteria guide (if one doesn't already exist) to help aspiring designers focus on important details of game description and the order and manner in which they appear.


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alex bermudez
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I'd be interested in seeing how a lawyer would rewrite rules. Instantly I think that there would be clear advantages to it, but then I also wonder how your familiarity with legal documents might influence the way you lay out a rulebook. What might work for one thing might not necessarily work for the other.

I personally don't think I'm amazing at writing rules, and sometimes I just brainfart and can't put words together correctly, but I think I do a good job in thinking of several in-game possibilities that might affect how a rule interacts with another, even before I've played the first game. In the one game I've self published, I haven't been told that my rules were badly laid out or unclear, unless there was an obvious error (omitting a rule completely or forgetting to update a change across the whole book). All that said, I would 100% appreciate more pointers as to how to do things better, so I'm very interested to see where this thread goes!
 
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secoAce -
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It's a sad reality that most of the time game manuals are an afterthought and not given the same care in creating, proofreading, and blind testing.

It would help a great deal if game rulebooks are more of a collaborate effect by professionals across several disciplines.

A rules lawyer would certain help to ensure rules are written accurately with precision and clarity. But an exact legal document does not make a good game manual.

It also needs an education specialist who knows how to effectively present and teach the rules,
an information architect to categorize the rules in an intuitive organization scheme,
a technical writer for conciseness and methodical instruction,
a desktop publisher to layout the contents of the manual so that everything is easily accessible,
and a graphics artist because pictures and diagrams to visual can help describe things much quicker and clearer when words are cumbersome.
 
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Fynn
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Maybe somebody should make a specialised company, sounds like it might be quite profitable? Or at the very least, it might make my life easier.
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Patrick Brennan
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Re competing demands: In my experience as a rule editor, there have been times when I've been pushing for more technically oriented detail to be included only to be told by the publisher, for good reason, that it's not a good idea to include it (and they'd address it in FAQ if ever needed). The main reason is that the objective of the rules is initially to get the gamer excited by the game and playing as quickly as possible. Detail that might only affect the odd game and certainly won't impact the first game (I'm thinking LCGs and the like) clutters the rules-read. It's why FFG have moved toward 2 rules documents - the first is a get-started document for which there's a technique re thematic fluff, picture content, example content, sidebars, etc, plus an easy-reading layman style approach. The second is a comprehensive rules reference which can be written technically because it's not meant to be read cover to cover - it's a reference. They're two very different styles of writing.

Most companies try and find a middle ground with a single rulebook (which can be done with small rulesets ...) but thereby lies most of the issue. Gamers who want a technical rules book will be dissatisfied, and gamers who want an easy-to-read rules document will also be dissatisfied. And that's why, for nearly every rules book written, there's an audience who didn't like it.

The other issue that needs to be taken into account is that there are rules-readers who comprehend best through the written word, and rules-readers who comprehend best visually. How does one cater for both without leaving one camp dissatisfied by the approach taken?

Also, most rules FAQ aren't caused by the rules-book itself. It's generally the interactions between different card effects, so not only does the editor need to parse the rules, but all the effects on the components as well, and play through all the combinations in their mind.

If I remember back to lawyer-type rules, like the old-school wargames with paragraph numbers et al, they were horrible, horrible reads. Rule-books these days are light years ahead by comparison.

In short, it's not simple. And there's always the problem that writing/editing/proofreading complex rules takes a LOT of time, and often-times small-time publishers with constrained budgets just can't fund external help and still turn a profit from a game. As such, there's a lot of relying on playtesters and BGG volunteers to help out, and how often will the best editors be prepared to freely volunteer days of free time simply to help out. Sometimes, but not on tap.
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Anthony K
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I feel like the most difficult part of rule writing is that you are trying to explain something to the general public that you have a clear and comprehensive understanding of. Subconsciously, you often forget that your players will not understand the intricacies of your game.

Especially if you have been developing it for 2+ years!
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Jim Cavallari
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I started playing games (War games at first) in the early seventies. I've played board games, CCG's, Miniatures systems of all kinds, and a couple of RPG's over the years. I've read a lot of rules manuals, including some heavy hitters like ASL. I'll admit, there are "bad" rulebooks out there, but here's what I've really learned about rules comprehension:

1) Face it, sometimes your brain isn't wired like the designer's. What makes sense on the page to him/her, confuses you. There isn't enough detail, rules you're trying to refer back to are not where you think they should be in the manual. I never use the word "intuitive" when describing a set of rules. What makes perfect sense to me may not make sense to you.

2) New concepts that buck the system. Designers challenge themselves to create new mechanisms in their games that fly in the face of "But this is the way we've always done it". We find these changes refreshing and often welcome the change, but still, we may struggle implementing these new rules. Our brains are simply used to the more traditional ways.

3) Some designers are simply too verbose. I wish I had a dollar for every rulebook I've read that was 60 pages long, but could have been condensed to 25.

4) The opposite of #3. At best the designer has written a clear set of rules. There may only be 15 pages, but every bullet in that manual is packed with important information. It's a lot to memorize, and usually we can't, so we miss things the first few times playing a new game. At worst, there are gaping holes in the rules that don't cover events happening on the board. The game is practically unplayable without a ton of house rules to patch it up.

5) The designer tries to implement complex situations into the game, but also attempts to keep the complexity level low. Again, more gaping holes between the rules and the game play.

It's easy to say a set of rules are badly written, but IMO there's much more to it than that.
 
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T.E. Nitta
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Wow! Thanks to all of you who have posted in this thread so far - there's a lot for me to chew on.

I guess from your responses, it seems clear to me that there is at least some opportunity here for a person with my skills to help with the design community. I think a lot of good caveats and cautionary warnings in here are definitely things I'll keep in mind.

Let me also emphasize that my specific job as a lawyer involves drafting rules (not contracts, and not briefs). The legal profession as a whole is massive, and there are tons of different sorts of lawyers. I just think that my particular job has given me a tiny bit of insight.

That having been said, drafting rules and laws is way, way different compared to drafting rules for games! They may be so different as to be totally incomparable; but that remains to be seen.

I think what I will do is, this weekend, sit down and draft up some rules for a game I really like but whose rulebook leaves much to be desired. Then maybe I'll post a copy of my revised rules, and folks who are interested could critique it? Maybe we could start a conversation about what in the revision works, what doesn't work, etc.

I definitely would prefer this to be a collaborative process with people like you all who know far more about game design and have more experience!

EDIT: Also, if you guys have particular strategies that you believe work well in rulebooks (a few very good ones have already been posted in here), I'd really like to hear them.
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Ryan Byrd
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When I write rules for my designs, I tend to keep the following general order of topics (more, or less):

Short intro
Basic win conditions
Parts list
Definitions (if needed)
Parts explanations (with images)
Setup
Basic game play
Detailed win/loss conditions
Detailed game play
Example turn
Other rules

The above is not an exact science (I may have a few extras sometimes, and maybe a slightly different order), but I find that this keeps the learning curve from being too steep.
 
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Robert Biang
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While trying to shorten the length of my rulebooks (A not very complex mechanic took me 7 pages to explain), I looked around at a few examples. I was very impressed by a rulebook that was over 50% visual. It conveyed the rules very cleanly, and used text when necessary - but something that might have taken a full paragraph to explain was cleverly shown in one diagram, and helped me understand the concept much more quickly than if it had been text.

I could imagine well-done visual components could reduce the length of my 7 page manual by 50% while also making it easier to comprehend.

 
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John Albright
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seakelp wrote:
if you guys have particular strategies that you believe work well in rulebooks (a few very good ones have already been posted in here), I'd really like to hear them.


This thread for reference might be a good start.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/405444/rule-book-writing

and particularly this link which is included in the above thread.

http://indietabletop.net/rule-book-writing/

or

http://ryanmacklin.com/2015/02/11-rules-board-game-writing/

Antistone wrote:

There are lots of reasons that rulebooks are often bad:

1) Technical writing is hard.
2) People with technical skills can often find higher-paying work outside the board game industry.
3) Technical reading is also hard, which can cause players to report that a rulebook is worse than it actually is.
4) A majority of players learn the game from another player, so rulebooks get less testing and less priority than one might expect.
5) A common failure mode is for a player to think they understand the rules when they actually don't; this failure mode is hard to detect in testing/proofreading stages.
6) Many games are translated, or are worried about translatability. (For instance, Ghost Stories has very simple rules that are very hard to decipher because of bad translation.)



Jeremy mentions quite a few good examples. Additionally, video "How To Play" guides have become so prevalent that I wonder if that has had any impact on the quality of written guides.
 
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Jeremy Lennert
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robertbiang wrote:
I was very impressed by a rulebook that was over 50% visual. It conveyed the rules very cleanly, and used text when necessary - but something that might have taken a full paragraph to explain was cleverly shown in one diagram, and helped me understand the concept much more quickly than if it had been text.

I've probably never read the specific rulebook you're referring to, but in my experience, rulebooks that use images to replace text almost always end up ambiguous. Pictures can only show examples, not abstractions, and there is inevitably more than one way to generalize an example. (The designer thinks the correct generalization is obvious, of course.) Examples are great, but one should never try to explain a rule purely through examples.

Exceptions:

1) You can use examples instead of an abstraction if your examples are exhaustive--that is, they cover every possible case. For instance, it's OK to list the allowed movement directions as "north, east, south, and west" instead of using concepts like "cardinal directions" or "orthogonal" (and therefore, it's OK to illustrate those directions with pictures instead of text).

2) You can substitute pictures when you're trying to explain something that actually is visual--for example, where on a particular component to find a particular piece of information, or how to interpret a certain style of diagram. If you ever find yourself using text to describe an actual picture, then it's a good idea to replace the text with a picture.

Otherwise, I think pictures (and other examples) are best used as a supplement, not a replacement.
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Robert Biang
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Antistone wrote:
Otherwise, I think pictures (and other examples) are best used as a supplement, not a replacement.


The rulebook I cited was based on memory. I went to go look at it, and lo and behold: it is not 50% pictures. Somehow I was amazed by the amount of visuals the first time I saw it. Not sure what I was thinking.

https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/116388/barony-rules-engli...

And from what I call tell, the visuals are more or less following the rules you have just laid out.

You make good points. Maybe what I need to focus on is using more simple language and keeping my explanations concise and to the point.
 
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marc lecours
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There are a lot of badly written rule books but there are a lot of players who are bad rule readers. I knew a guy who would misread almost every sentence in rule books. He would twist every sentence (in his favour). He could not see how the rule could be interpreted any other way. To me the rules were well written and clear. But still they got misinterpreted.

No matter how well written, rules in a complex game will need clarification. This is because, the players have subconscious motivation (They truly believe that they are right) to interpret the rules in their own favour.
 
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Paul Zagieboylo
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seakelp wrote:
I think what I will do is, this weekend, sit down and draft up some rules for a game I really like but whose rulebook leaves much to be desired. Then maybe I'll post a copy of my revised rules, and folks who are interested could critique it? Maybe we could start a conversation about what in the revision works, what doesn't work, etc.

I definitely would prefer this to be a collaborative process with people like you all who know far more about game design and have more experience!

I will be very interested in the result of this experiment. Which game do you foresee trying to rewrite? I checked your collection but nothing you own stood out to me as a notoriously bad rulebook compared to the actual complexity of the game. Also we have relatively few overlaps.
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Tim AU
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I agree that rules can often be poorly written and confusing.

One thing that trips me up is often unclear or loose language. This can quickly become a topic of debate around the table as each person offers their view.

My memory is a bit dated but this happened playing Zombicide once. I don't recall exactly the words but the scenario was along the lines of going to get a package and then for 'players to leave the area in a car'. As the player who got the package also happened to be close to a car and an exit, we spent a full ten minutes debating whether ALL players had to exit, or just the player with the goods.

Your legal background may best be used to help tighten up ambiguous language in draft rules. I'm an aspiring designer, but nowhere close to having a prototype. I'd imagine having someone with an eye for language 'red-team' your work would be beneficial. Particularly, as you point out, constantly harking back to rule books is what chokes up a game and gets players bored.

Just another complete amateur's two cents
 
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T.E. Nitta
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Zahariel wrote:
seakelp wrote:
I think what I will do is, this weekend, sit down and draft up some rules for a game I really like but whose rulebook leaves much to be desired. Then maybe I'll post a copy of my revised rules, and folks who are interested could critique it? Maybe we could start a conversation about what in the revision works, what doesn't work, etc.

I definitely would prefer this to be a collaborative process with people like you all who know far more about game design and have more experience!

I will be very interested in the result of this experiment. Which game do you foresee trying to rewrite? I checked your collection but nothing you own stood out to me as a notoriously bad rulebook compared to the actual complexity of the game. Also we have relatively few overlaps.


Well, I tried this out with Grimslingers (I can't remember if that's in my collection or not - I think I just added it).

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/173018/grimslingers

This game isn't very complex, but the rule booklet still leaves a lot wanting. Plus, I'm a Kickstarter backer for one of the expansions, so I figured this would be a good way to help the designer out, perhaps. And most of all, I wanted to try writing the rules with something relatively simple, something I could sit down and do with a degree of ease.

A few things I discovered: first, this took way longer to type out than I expected! I probably spent a decent two to three hours or so writing up these relatively simple rules. In fact the rules I did produce basically included only the "duel" version of the game, and did not include the variants or the "Tall Tales" version.

Second, I was surprised to find that I had to substitute a few of my own house rules where I thought the official rule booklet had some big gaps.

Third, my girlfriend helped me proofread the rules. She suggested I used a few words some younger players may have trouble with ("omit" and "preclude" for example). I'd be interested in hearing what you all think, whether these are SAT words that need to be removed for simplicity's sake.

Fourth, as a few of you noted, images make a world of difference. Since I typed this up in Word, and since I don't have the images necessary, I left a few notes where I suggested images would be particularly useful.

Fifth, my rules are MUCH longer, I expect, than the official rule booklet. I probably have way more words, but I still think it's clearer. While you might expect that removing words makes things simpler, I sometimes think it's rather like removing the wheel off a bicycle: taking one off doesn't make it easier to ride. Removing words doesn't make a document easier to understand, either!

In any case, I produced a PDF. I uploaded it to the Grimslingers page but it's not appearing - I guess it has to be approved by an admin? I assume that rule rewritings are permitted uploands, since they're not modifications or whatever of the game itself (which, I understand, are not permitted if the game is in print).

Last but not least, with respect to your particular question about which game I'd revise: Mistfall has probably one of the poorest rulebooks I've seen. But that will be a bit of a bear to take on, and I wanted to start with something smaller and more manageable.

Looking forward to everyone's feedback! And if you see the games in my collection and would like to nominate a more complex game for further rule revision and experimentation, let me know. If no one has suggestions, I might try and flush out the rest of the Grimslingers rulebook that I didn't take on.
 
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John Albright
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seakelp wrote:

Fifth, my rules are MUCH longer, I expect, than the official rule booklet. I probably have way more words, but I still think it's clearer. While you might expect that removing words makes things simpler, I sometimes think it's rather like removing the wheel off a bicycle: taking one off doesn't make it easier to ride. Removing words doesn't make a document easier to understand, either!


Words, like bullets, deliver more damage through the patient eyes of a sniper. Good luck with your work!
 
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