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Subject: Poorly Written Rules rss

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Mario Lanza
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The one thing in "boardgamedom" that vexes me above all others is the poor delivery of rules, either verbally explained or poorly written. Of the two, I am more agitated by rules that are poorly written. Less polish is to be expected in an off-the-cuff explanation, but not in final copy that was afforded its due production time. I mean what is a game but its tangible (the board and bits) and intangible counterparts (the rules)? With the rules being at least half the deliverable, the publisher should painstakingly polish and clarify. To boot, they ought conduct a few blind playtests with fresh players. I realize that even the most sincere effort to author the clearest of rules may fall short. Nevertheless, the regularity with which poor copy appears in print has me fearing that it's becoming the accepted norm.

I'll address several obvious rules shortcomings:

Ambiguous Rules
Ambiguity goes hand in hand with underdeveloped rules. There are too many times playing games when someone asks a valid rules question that the rulebook should clarify but doesn't. We're left to make and play out a reasonable ruling until the online errata can be checked later. It is human imperfection that causes the occasional ambiguity, but it is unadulterated neglect that causes gross ambiguity. It can be downright aggravating during a game to be repeatedly pricked by questions that the rules do not clearly answer. The rules are the law of the land, the means by which a contest exists. When those boundaries become increasingly hazy, thus wanes the fun of playing. Even one unclear rule can vex an entire game.

Worse, though less frequent, we have:

Wrong Rules
Il Principe, which I played for the first time on New Year's Day, was received with favorable comments as the game progressed. Then when the exhausting of the building cards brought about a surprise last turn, the game fell flat. The rules implied with step one being skipped that no money would be dispensed. The skipped income caused a perfunctory ending in which no one could do anything worthwhile.

The rule was improperly worded so that it was not merely ambiguous, but flat out wrong. This was confirmed in the downloadable errata. A game which by all rights could have been lauded, turned stinker. Though I will try it again, I'm growing increasingly tired of so little attention being paid to rules copy. Even the fabulously simple Clocktowers, another game I played on New Year's Day, had rules that were short, sweet and, as you might have guessed, unclear. Apparently, it's just as easy to write unclear rules for simple games.

Poorly Organized Rules
Because there is no clear, objective means by which the average writer can gage good organization, lots of rules are poorly organized. Though the rules may be complete, their unnatural organization decreases their intelligibility. The aim of writing rules is to make grasping them both as quick and easy as possible. Polished, tested copy won't have to be read and re-read. This goes back to blind playtests. Hand the game (or prototype) and the rules to a group of fresh players and have them make an unguided attempt at playing it. Observe, tweak, and repeat until you've gotten a few successes in a row. There is no better way than observing blind playtests for spotting gross ambiguities and assessing the intelligibility of rules.

I ordered American Megafauna with much anticipation. When I got it in the mail I was excited. I was slightly less so when it took me hours to hand cut the unpunched pieces and fold the tents, but I survived the ordeal and I remained eager to try it. Then, I started reading the rules. Considering that it was a 2nd edition you'd think most of the glitches would have been ironed out. Instead, the author cleverly opted to intertwine the basic and advanced rules differentiating them by print color. Ouch. This untested, creative approach proved painful. Next, by weaving flavor text into the rules they were made even less usable. Lastly, separating key rules into the glossary exacerbated the difficulty I was already having in absorbing them. I shouldn't have had to spend 6+ hours reading and re-reading rules that properly organized could have grasped in an hour or two. This was, after all, a game not a novelette. I truly wanted to like American Megafauna, but the time investment it imposed, coupled with a fluke ending in our first game proved disenchanting. Organization is essential to intelligibility.

In making rules more useful, frequently-referenced facts deserve special attention. Making good formatting and grouping choices will make them easier to digest.

Let's consider setup facts.

Poorly Formatted Rules
While it may seem incredible that we gamers are able to memorize rules for hundreds of games, setup facts are trickier because they often differ depending on the number of players. Besides, normally it's easy enough to just look up these facts. Because players regularly rely on the rules for setup, I am amazed when see the setup communicated in ordinary paragraphs.

Some information can be far better conveyed using alternate means–bullets, illustrations, diagrams, or, one of the very best options in terms of usability: charts. (At the very least, embolden key words and figures.) Even after having played Power Grid more than a dozen times, I have trouble quickly locating the pertinent setup facts. Making the setup highly scannable is one of the best ways in which to pack a lot of punch into a little extra effort.

Disconnected Rules
Additionally, player-number rules adjustments–even if already noted in their respective setup, gameplay, and end game sections–ought to be grouped together. Certain things like setup facts, player-number adjustments, handy statistics for calculated decision making, and scoring beg to be grouped together not disseminated throughout the rulebook. Rules should not to be treated as seed cast randomly about a field. Things that belong together ought stay together. Players should be made to leaf through the rules no more than necessary as a game develops.

Mistranslated Rules
Producing one polished version of any rules is difficult enough, let alone having to translate those rules into other languages with equal clarity. All the same considerations remain. The first draft must be checked and rechecked and then tested by fresh players.

Recently I sent my Thai girlfriend's parents Rat Hot. She and I had to translate the rules. While expressing the rules to her I could tell she wasn't paying strict attention to my phraseology. I knew with her limited gaming experience she had no idea just how clearly rules must be spelled out, so I kept asking her to repeat the rules she translated back to me using her own words. Thinking her wording just fine, she was annoyed by my asking her to rewrite them just as I phrased them. After, in good fun, she nicknamed me the "game rule meanie," I gave up and allowed her to use her own wording. I had strong suspicions the rules wouldn't fly, so I opted for a trial run.

She lives with a Thai friend. I asked that she play Rat Hot with her without teaching the rules or offering any clues regarding game play. The friend was to read the translated rules and teach us to play, answering any questions I might ask. Doing this confirmed my suspicion. Not only was the friend confused she was unable to answer several basic questions even with my girlfriend's subtle leading. Eventually, after we verbally clarified the rules, she enjoyed the game and then was able to clearly understand the written ones. We laughed both during and after the experience. It showed both of us first hand just how difficult it can be to clearly phrase rules.

Lacking Rules Support
While I am not happy about underdeveloped rules, my primary gripe is with publishers who provide inadequate follow-up support for their rules. I find this neglect especially vexing because we live in the connected age where information has never been so accessible. The publisher who wants to make a sincere effort can easily discover what rules problems people are having by visiting BGG, rec.games.board, or by hosting their own forum. A publisher should provide errata online that for a reasonable period, say 6 months, is actively maintained. Or better yet, a really conscientious publisher could maintain a PDF rulebook in which clarifications and corrections are clearly marked. Goldsieber truly shined as a publisher when they did just that for Goldland.

The "Real Cost" of Lacking Rules Support
When publishers fail to provide easily accessible, up-to-date errata, it requires a repeat effort by everyone wanting to play by the proper rules. That is, within hours of my first confused attempt at playing Revolution: The Dutch Revolt, I immediately went to its forum on BGG. It was overrun with confusion and contradiction. This left me to unravel the rules as best I could. Though Phalanx did a stellar job on producing the game, having to spend 6 hours confusedly playing it and nearly 8 more hours researching rules and creating a much needed cheat sheet assured that I would be recommending this game to no one.

This what-should-have-been-unnecessary effort cost me one of the things I most highly value: my time. Worse yet is the cumulative cost absorbed by all the others who put forth similar efforts. It seems only right that because a publisher's smaller effort saves their customers a much larger, cumulative effort, they ought do so. We're not asking for a costly product recall. I can't say it strongly enough: inadequate rules support is a complete and total disservice.

The Prohibitive Nature of Poorly Written Rules
Publishers are restricting the hobby to serious gamers when they are not meticulous about their rules. A game with hard-to-understand rules that finds its way into the hands of the casual gamer is destined for the thrift shop. It goes to reason that if the gamer community struggles with a game's rules or creates all sorts of player aids for it, that the publisher could be doing a better job. The converse probably indicates the publisher is doing a swell job. In the connected age it couldn't be easier for publishers and customers to communicate. Publishers should be attentive to their customers questions by way of a prompt response and an apology. After chocking 8 hours into the dumpster with Revolution, an earnest apology would have been all it took to wash away my hard feelings. Minding your customers will leave them feeling appreciated and will minimize the damage done by erroneous or unclear rules. Enough people are dismayed by rules taking more than a single page. Let's not create any more barriers.

There are good models for writing rules. With a little searching on BGG you'll find some games have little or no rules questions. Some companies such as Rio Grande and Cheapass have an outstanding track record for producing unequivocal, well-organized rules. Don't reinvent the wheel, only to put out a shoddy one. Blind test your copy. If you're going to try a creative approach with your rules, test it even more. And by all means keep your rules concise. Succinctly bestow clarity.

To this point I've put the onus of under-developed rules on the publisher. Although the designer originates the rules and plays a hand in their usefulness, it is the publisher who delivers the entire product, rules included. It doesn't matter whether bad rules are the product of mistranslation. The publisher has the final opportunity to test and sign off on the copy prior to production. Book publishers have proofreaders and editors; so should game publishers. No matter the effort, it is the end product that speaks loudest. If the resulting hard copy lacks clarity or correctness it will lead to bad first impressions.

Anyone remember *Lost Valley?

First Impressions
How well the rules are delivered will affect not only your customers' first impressions of a game, but the impressions of the many people having played it. The first line of defense is creating a favorable experience for the person who will actually be reading your rules, the customer. If the reader finds the rules clear and well organized, this will improve his understanding. In turn, it will improve his explanation and his first try. Written rules unlike verbal explanations can be afforded due time for review and revision. Extend deadlines if necessary; don’t chance publishing underdeveloped, rushed, or untested copy that will, by the way of bad experiences, cause your customers to lose faith in your company.

When writing clear and correct rules is a precept and not an afterthought, the results will speak clearly. Make every effort to publish clear, intelligible rules. While it is excusable that errors or ambiguities may arise, this will be the exception for the diligent publisher. And when when they do, the diligent publisher will promptly and routinely attend to them. Don’t cause us to have to gather for ourselves what you must have meant by certain unclear rules, tell us directly in your well-maintained errata. Costing us any more time than necessary in tracking down answers, when we could be playing games, will ultimately cost you revenues.

I've got the time and the money. Do your part and I won't disappoint you. Not only will I buy more of your games, I'll give you something you'll likely appreciate even more–favorable word of mouth.

This post originally appeared on my long-defunct boardgame blog: Boardgamers' Pastime.

This article is pure opinion, however, strongly voiced. I mean no disrespect. I primarily posted it here on the geek, in it's original form, to preserve it.

Power Grid is game whose rules have been described as difficult to navigate. Others including myself have attempted to rewrite the rules in a more useful format.

*I first played Lost Valley at The Gathering Of Friends. An incorrect teaching of the rules (I believe from a pre-production copy) affected gameplay for the worse causing the group's experience to fall flat.

My wife of almost 3 years will like to know that this is indeed an old article and I no longer have that Thai girlfriend.
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Christopher Dearlove
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I haven't read most of the above piece. And poorly written rules are an issue. But also an issue (and in a sense, more common, as for each ruleset there are many readers) is poor rules readers. I've seen quite enough cases which go "the rules don't say X", "you mean other than in bold on page 5". And of course that means that each case which starts with a rules problem could go either way (or of course between the two).
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Brad Miller
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What was wrong with the Lost Valley rules?
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Mario Lanza
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Windopaene wrote:
What was wrong with the Lost Valley rules?


Honestly, it's been so long I can't recall. It was a pre-production copy and what I do remember was by the time we finished playing we had a walker-by elucidate the unclear rule that our group had misinterpreted. I remember that most people complained during the game that we must not being doing something right and that the experience fell flat.

However, since we had botched the rule, and since I so like Goldland, and since Lost Valley appears to be similar at least in respect to theme, I decided to give it another try. I bought a copy. Unfortunately, I'm not unable to keep up with all my games and so I haven't yet played it again. My game night normally has 5 and so 4-player games don't as often see the light of day.
 
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Tony Sanfilippo
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I would have to agree about well written rules. I really hate to admit this,but I am not a good reader. There are many of us out there that like to game.but sometimes the rules get overwhelming an then we don't play the game. Some games have rules that are so clear you almost think that you missed something. So here here to your article
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Freelance Police
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What Tony said +1.

And would it kill you to put in a step-by-step tutorial? Even Magic the Gathering did this, and you weren't guaranteed to have the random cards you needed to follow it!
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oriel maxime
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I generally agree with your essay, but I would add one thing that I would like to see as well: an effective "rules ambassador" in the form of useful player aids.

I often say that you should teach players a new game, get them drunk, and then have them try to play the next day without any assistance. Any questions they ask are then candidates for a player aid. Sure, you can rely on someone on The Geek to do it for you, and we certainly will (perhaps anyway), but since you're finding people to playtest anyway, game designer, why not ask the testers "what did you have to keep going back to the rules to look up, so I can remind you instead?".

Order of turn steps, final scoring components, player-dependent set-up (thanks to main article for reminding me) and any fiddly tables are prime candidates, even without playtester feedback. How do I plan my turn if I keep having to look in the one copy of the instruction booklet that: 1-2 widgets are worth 3 wadgets, 3-6 widgets are worth 5 foo, and 7+ widgets are worth 8 doohickies?

One note on lazy rule READERS: nothing can remove laziness, but well-written and organized rules require far less effort to digest, so it's always a little fuzzy whether the reader was really lazy or the rules produce laziness intrinsically.
 
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