Having covered poorly-written rules, I decided to take a crack at rewriting and improving a set of rules. To make the best example possible I knew I had to pick a game that was very popular but whose rules were not considered well written. Immediately I knew it had to be Power Grid.
I had played Power Grid at least a dozen times, but every time I needed to look up a key point, the rules proved unnavigable. Great rules must be highly scannable. Not only am I expecting to read through the rules once before my first game, I like being able to use them during a game to quickly and easily locate a pertinent fact.
I started nearly from scratch not necessarily wanting to model anything already in the published rules. Though I had made no conscious decision to do so, I noted that I immediately began writing out the rules in a rather unconventional bullet style. It was a natural decision that I thought very usable, especially as read back over what I had written.
In each section, I broke each key fact into the start of a sentence that itself had supporting bullets which continued that sentence. Within the lead sentence and its subordinate bullets--some bullets themselves having subordinate bullets--I embolden or italicized to create magnetic words and phrases that would grab scanning eyes.
As I developed the rules I had to read over them several times. I learned that my brain could remember the location of facts laid out in this new format quite well; I'd be thinking something like, "yes, I remember it was the third bullet down under that heading." My brain was able to register a photographic snapshot regarding the key facts that it couldn't have done quite so well had the rules been written using typical paragraphs. While paragraphs are good for most writing they do not offer the structural clues that make instructional material more useful.
Perhaps my brain could locate key facts only for having poured over my draft so many times and the usability improvement is not as great as I think. It may be this bullet structuring is purely preferential. That's where you come in, my reader friend. In my prior column on rules I emphasized the importance of testing copy especially copy that makes use of a creative, untested format. My format is certainly unorthodox and in need of testing.
I had first thought to explain why I made certain decisions in the rewrite and to explain the basics of how to follow the structuring, but I thought better of it. Though I may expand on this in a later column, I wanted the views and criticisms of the unguided, untainted reader. The real hurdle will be having someone who has never played the game use them. I had no one like this readily available, but I'm keeping my eyes open. I suspect that I have knowledge in the head that makes rules clear to me that would not be to the reader having no advance knowledge. Again, just one more reason why rules copy must be tested.
I am eager to hear what others think of my bullet-structured approach. The first thing you'll see is that I open with an overview of the game which covers the goal (how to win), the means (an overview of game play) and the end (what causes it). I always cover these three points in my oral explanations inside the first minute. Knowing the goal and the general means by which it is attained significantly improves a person's ability to absorb and remember rules. In my experience, there is no better way to begin; it gives more meaning to everything which follows.
Several weeks ago I complained about poorly-written rules and offered an alternative approach to cleaning them up. I demonstrated this approach on Power Grid’s rules. I received mostly commendation for the rewrite, but there was still room for improvement.
Here are the changes I made:
To add even more clarity I added a few extra divisions under some of the phase descriptions. This was the change that most dramatically improved the rules usability. I consider the intelligent dividing and subdividing of sections one of the most useful tools, if not the most useful tool, for usability. Making the change was simple and required only a few extra words and a little rephrasing. I’m almost embarrassed for having missed this in my initial draft.
My goal was to improve the usability by creating magnetic words that would easily catch the scanning eye. I emboldened certain words–too many–to accomplish this. One commenter accurately described my use as "willy nilly." I had emboldened so many words that I had reduced its effectiveness.
I had phase names (as in the auction power plants phase) and numeric figures. I had emboldened words that I thought succinctly expressed the idea of the sentence/section. In the revision, I substituted quotes for emboldening of phase names (as in the "auction power plants" phase). I dropped much of the emboldening and kept some that I thought helpful.
In the original draft I had hints for each of the various sections. In the revision, I thought it better to displace all hints to a later section. These were details I didn’t think the reader needed to worry about while he was digesting the rules.
To better substantiate having a "hints" section, I added a few more.
Inline player number adjustments
The initial draft highlighted in gray figures that varied depending on the number of players. The actual figures were those that corresponded to a 5-player game. The adjustments were charted in the appendix and a short “notations” section instructed the reader to look up the required number there. Some people didn’t like having to page to the appendix for the lookup.
One reader suggested adding tables inline. I tried this but it just felt to clunky having so many extra tables dispersed throughout the rules. Still, I liked the idea of having the adjustments inline. I had avoided doing this in the first place because I didn’t like the clunkiness of having to say,
The game ends in the round in which any player grows his network to include the target number of cities (2 players = 21, 3 players = 17, 4 players = 17, 5 players = 15, 6 players = 14).
I found this just too intrusive but agreed that having the information readily available was useful. So, I adopted a shorthand notation that I believe is obvious enough without an explanation.
The game ends in the round in which any player grows his network to include the target number cities (2p = 21, 3p = 17, 4p = 17, 5p = 15, 6p = 14).
It’s a little repetitive but its usefulness justifies it. It’s far cleaner that having extra lookup tables everywhere. Additionally, I left the "player number adjustments" chart in the appendix for single-page reference.
I added just barely enough text on certain pages to increase the document page count. In trying to keep my draft to 8 pages, I notice an easy opportunity to take advantage of white space in the right margin. I framed the short sections on the scoring track and the playing order track and laid them side by side. I shrunk the size of the resource icons and did the same. I do not recommend overdoing this. I chose only to do it in order to keep related instructions together on one page, and to avoid just barely spilling onto an extra page.
I took the opportunity to clarify some of the phrasing. Also, I added or pruned words and phrases as needed.
Polished rules deserve several drafts
All of this revisioning resulted in the not yet final draft. It seems reasonable to me that rules ought go through a draft and a re-draft before reaching the third and final draft. Three is reasonable, though I can’t argue against still further revision.
The final draft of the Power Grid rules I started weeks ago had only minor revisions: a few corrections and further elimination of bold facing as suggested during the first draft. I was stubborn, but eventually decided it was for the best. I hope the rules prove useful.
My goal has been to make the rules
* understandable in one reading,
* useful during setup,
* highly scannable for quick reference during a game, and
* worthy of modeling by rules authors.
I have submitted this last draft to BGG.
On a related note: I read the rules for the Z-Man edition of Primordial Soup and they are superb. I quite liked their use of terms and a glossary–another excellent model for rules authors.
This article was first posted on my long-defunct blog: Boardgamers' Pastime. It originally appeared as 3 separate posts.
- Last edited Fri Dec 17, 2010 8:50 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Fri Dec 17, 2010 8:49 pm
I see the PowerGrid rewrite was done in Feb 2006. Any reason this article is posted here now (end 2010)?
Whenver we play Power Grid, there is ALWAYS a rule we miss. This has proved very useful as it means I'm not the only one who can read the rules.
As a way of saying thanks, I would like to make a few suggestions if you don't mind. This is from my experiences as a teacher and also working with visually impaired children.
The font, in which you have kept close to the original, is narrow. I would suggest a wider font to make scanning a bit easier. I appreciate that this would have an impact on the formatting though and could possibly mean the rules extend to another page.
The scanned pictures would be better at a higher resolution, it looks like your pdf convertor has made the images as small a file size as possible. In what is such a well designed document these stand out as rather ugly. On the resouce table, could you could add coloured shapes on top of the black and white image to show where the resources go. (I know it is obvious if you read the text but when introducing players to the game I find it helps if they help set it up.)
I see the PowerGrid rewrite was done in Feb 2006. Any reason this article is posted here now (end 2010)?
Yup. I am simply preserving posts from my long-defunct blog. I just wanted to keep the content alive so it could be reached.
Actually, I've been thinking it would be great if others did the same. Lots of great boardgame articles are lost when bloggers burn out and go offline. For instance, Jeremy Avery wrote an article entitled "The Jedi of Puerto Rico" which was one of my favorite reads. I can't find it anymore. I just thing of BGG as something that will be around for the long haul and so it seems like it could also serve as an archive for great games-related content.
For instance, Jeremy Avery wrote an article entitled "The Jedi of Puerto Rico" which was one of my favorite reads. I can't find it anymore.
I found an archived copy via the Wayback Machine here.
- Last edited Tue Sep 20, 2011 10:48 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Sep 20, 2011 10:48 pm
Now that is good 'cause that's a great article.