The rulebook is the single most important component of any tabletop game. A game’s rules give everything else in the box — and the players — a purpose, a context.
Without rules, your game is just a bunch of lifeless cardboard, wood, and plastic.
Your game’s rulebook is a kind of letter from you, the maker of the game. You can’t be there in person to teach the game, so you pop a little note in the box to explain it to your players.
It’s also your game’s best chance at a good impression. If your rulebook is confusing, too long, or hard to read, prospective players might not want to play your game, or worse, they may tell others not to bother!
A good rulebook is more than just a book of rules. It’s a friendly guide through a player’s first game, and a handy resource when they play again. Good rulebooks get people into the game, or back to playing the game, as fast as possible.
Here are some things you can do to get your rulebook up to speed.
ONE: Stick to the structure!
Board game rulebooks have adopted a standard structure. With some exceptions, they usually follow this outline. in this order:
- Introduction: a general overview of what your game is, how it works, and how to win
- Components: a list and / or description of every component included with the game
- Setup: a step-by-step guide to getting the game ready to play
- Gameplay: the meat of your rulebook, where structure and gameplay mechanics are laid out in full
- Game End: the explanation of how the game ends, and how to determine a winner
If players see this structure in your rulebook, they’ll feel more comfortable as they start to learn the game.
Also, do a quick read through your rulebook’s first draft to make sure all the rules are under the right headings. New players might miss something important if it’s in the wrong spot, while returning players might become frustrated if the specific rule they’re looking for isn’t where it should be.
TWO: Don’t overdo it with flavour!
A game’s theme can transform what might otherwise be a mechanical exercise into an immersive, enjoyable experience. As such, rulebooks often feature flavour text — extra text that establishes theme, describes characters, provides narrative background, etc. — along with the rules.
However, be careful your flavour text doesn’t get in the way of your game’s rules. Interrupting your rulebook’s flow with constant references to theme or story will distract players, making your game more difficult to learn. Too much flavour text also makes it harder to quickly skim to find a specific rule.
Try to make it clear what is rules text, and what is flavour. You could use italics, or different fonts or colours to keep them distinct, but this can sometimes look messy. Take advantage of layout possibilities: use different sections on the page for rules and flavour to keep them separate.
If your game’s theme and narrative are particularly important to the game, give them their own section of the rulebook, or give players an extra “story book” for added value!
THREE: Break up all the text!
People generally dislike reading overly long paragraphs, and your players are no exception! Even experienced rules lawyers feel a little overwhelmed when faced with pages of unbroken walls of text.
One way to prevent text overload is by using sidebars — separate sections set off from the rest of the text on the page — to provide more detailed explanations of gameplay concepts, helpful examples of common gameplay situations, or maybe even some flavour text.
A good technique to try: put a summarized version of a game’s rules in the margins of the rulebook’s pages, parallel with the more detailed rules text. Players that are familiar with the game can then ignore all the unnecessary explanations and just reference the margin summaries for quick clarifications.
Images are another easy way to make reading your game’s rulebook less like studying for an exam, and there are a lot of good excuses to include them: to identify components, to illustrate setup and gameplay examples, or to bring out your game’s visual style or theme.
FOUR: Give examples!
Even if the rulebook isn’t as dry as a textbook, your game might still be hard to learn. Whether it’s due to complexity or innovative mechanics, some of the best games are ‘top-heavy’: involving a bit more time and effort before that first game in order to fully understand them.
To make this process less of a chore for your players, follow up the explanations of your game’s trickier concepts with some practical examples so players can see them in action. Use diagrams or pictures to show players exactly what is happening in the example. When explaining a rule that has an exception, use an example that shows both a straightforward application of the rule, as well as the exception.
Consider giving an example of a complete round of play, or even further, including a guided tutorial round that lets players physically play along. A lot of folks learn by doing, so playable tutorials can go a long way.
Give tutorials their own section of the rulebook or even a separate document in the box. Many games now include a “Learn to Play” booklet intended for new players to follow when playing the game for the first time, as a complement to a more detailed main rulebook.
FIVE: Include a rules summary!
Summarizing the main rules of the game — the setup, structure of play, and endgame conditions — in a brief, easy-to-read format is valuable for new and returning players alike.
First-time players can refer to it throughout their first game as a guide, while veterans can adopt it as a teaching aide, or (if they’re anything like me) as a quick refresher if they haven’t played in a while.
Keep it simple! Use numbered lists and bullet points. If you make references to the relevant rulebook pages, your summary can even double as an index.
Rules summaries are typically found on the rulebook’s back cover, for quick and easy access. Alternatively, you could include summaries for each player on separate sheets or player aid cards, but try to have enough copies for the maximum player count. It’ll make life easier for the game’s teacher if everyone can follow along with them.
Think of the players!
These five tips have one thing in common: they focus on the needs, wants, and expectations of the players. Yes, a game is just a box of random stuff without a rulebook, but it’s literally useless if no one’s playing it.
When drafting your rulebook, and applying these tips, think about what a human being sitting down with your game would expect from your rulebook. Ask yourself: What do my players need to know about my game, and what’s the best way to convey that information to them? How can I reduce the amount of time that players have my game on the table, but aren’t playing it?
If you make a thoughtful effort to connect with your players this way, your rulebook will be better able to teach them your game.
If you have any questions, or need some help with your rulebook, don’t hesitate to get in touch!