Your Rulebook Sucks. Let's Fix It!
"You think writing rules is easy… until you try it." - Ancient boardgamian proverb
Designing a game is one thing, but writing a rulebook for it is something else entirely! It’s easy to leave the written rules for last and brush them off as an afterthought… until you reach your deadline and realize you’re in tons of trouble. Luckily, this article will shed some light on common pitfalls and help you avoid costly mistakes when it comes to your precious rules!
I can’t stress enough how important your rulebook is. Sure, it’s not the most flashy, interesting, or engaging part of your game. We get hyped for the miniatures, marvel at the amazing art, and feel the satisfying thump of the token punchcard, but your rulebook is your game. Without it, players won’t be able to live the great experience you’ve carefully crafted for them, or get immersed in your world.
And here's the kicker: if your rulebook is great, nobody will even think about it. However, if it’s bad… they’ll immediately know, and they’ll let you know. And your publisher. And all of BGG. Yikes!
Rulebooks can be real monsters sometimes. (Credit: Sideshow Collectibles)
I’ve been professionally editing board game rulebooks for a while now, and I keep seeing the same mistakes repeated over and over again. Just skimming through a draft, I can immediately see how much attention to detail and effort the author has put in, and you’ll be surprised how lacking it often is.
People spend a lot of time perfecting their designs, implementing playtesters' feedback, and balancing out mechanisms, but they often find it super difficult to put it all in writing. Don’t believe me? Let’s go through my checklist! It’s more or less the same exercise I do with my clients. Play along! Check your rulebook draft and answer each question honestly.
Oh, and one last thing before we go: when I say rulebook editing, I don’t just mean fixing grammar and typos - this goes without saying. It involves much, much more than that.
The rulebook questionnaire:
Is your rulebook complete? Does it have ALL game mechanics explained, exceptions and all?
Does your rulebook contain useful and well-timed examples?
Does your rulebook use consistent terminology?
Are your writing style, graphic layout, and tone of voice consistent?
Do you introduce and explain all steps of gameplay in the same sequence they appear during play?
Does your book have enough diagrams, set up information, and a full component list?
Does your rulebook contain legal information and proper credits?
For the sake of all that’s holy, is your win condition prominently featured at the start of the book?
Does your writing have just a touch of artistic flair - a moody introduction or a cleverly placed joke?
Chances are, you’re lacking no less than three of these. In addition, you almost certainly frowned at one or two of the questions, maybe thinking to yourself, “why would I need a joke in my rulebook!?”
I’m so glad you asked, you handsome straw man, you! Let me explain.
Even the bloody lottery tells you how to win! (Credit: LotteryGo.com)
You Have to Start with the Win Condition
This is the standard. Unless you have a super mega important reason not to, you should always start with it. I know how tempting it is to explain all the rules in great length and put the cherry on top by finishing up with the win condition and exclaiming “ta-daa!”, but you really shouldn’t. Players expect to see this first and if they don’t, they take note that something’s not right. Also, knowing what’s the end goal nicely contextualizes all the rules as they unfold before our eyes, and that’s kinda cool.
You Have to Include All the Rules. Seriously.
I realize this sounds like a no-brainer. And yet, I’ve never been given a draft that isn’t missing at least one major rule. It’s easy to take things for granted, just answer all questions while playtesting, or assume people will know or intuit how something is done, but guess what - nothing is universally obvious.
Here are a few examples I keep seeing, without any particular order. None of them are taken from real games, I just invented them to prove a point:
Not explaining a sequence fully
“Players roll the fishing dice and the loser discards a card.”
First off, you didn’t tell me what fishing dice are. Second, these cubes here don’t feature numbers, only icons of different sea animals, so who’s the loser? Oh, the player with the smallest fish rolled? How was I supposed to know that?
Improper phrasing, or missing exceptions
“The Captain rolls the Storm dice. If Lightning is rolled, the ship takes 1 damage.”
My Captain has an item granting them a bonus die. Does the ship take a point of damage if at least one of the dice is a Lightning, or does it take 1 damage for every Lightning rolled? It’s easy to get things like this confused.
Missing info about component shortage
What happens if we run out of cards in the deck? Out of tokens in the bag? What if a player is left with no legal moves for a turn?
Referencing a name, keyword, or concept in the game that’s only found on the board or the cards, without giving it a proper introduction and explanation in the rulebook
You get the point. The same thing goes for your examples. You need them, but like all things in game design, it’s a balancing act. Put too little, and you’ll miss something important. Go too wild, and players will zone out, or worse - close the rulebook and go to a game they already know. It’s best to blind-test the examples and just monitor playtesters' reactions.
This is critical. Neglecting a rule means your players will be missing on some of the clever interactions at best and having a night-ruining, broken, and out-of-control experience at worst.
Also, only you know all the rules of your game, so even the most skilled editor won’t be able to fill in the blanks, especially if we’ve never played it!
Listen to the angry man!
You Have to Include the Rules in Order
Trust me, it’s the best way. A common mistake less experienced game designers make is sprinkling the rules in order of (what they view as) importance, or even coolness. This is a big no-no.
Ideally, you should have your win condition on top, followed by setup and who goes first, followed by a breakdown of the turn structure. List all steps in a nice visual way so players can come back and reference this part during play, and then methodically explain every step in the same order, making sure you include diagrams, examples, and exceptions.
Here's a golden trick I've discovered. Monitor yourself while you're explaining the game to playtesters. If you've done it enough - especially at conventions, back when those mythical congregations were still a thing! - you're very likely to have found a certain rhythm in the explanation. Congrats, this is the optimal way to present your rules. Keep it for the written version as well!
Don’t forget to mention how long the game continues if there’s a time limit, and who goes next if play doesn’t always flow clockwise. It’s super useful to repeat the turn structure along with some keyword explanations on the back cover of the book. This way, players can just plop it face down inside the box and take a peek every time they need a reminder of what happens after you refill your hand back to six, or what does “Quick attack” do.
Speaking of “Quick attack”...
"Look at all the words I made up!" (Credit: Wix.com)
Are Your Keywords, Funky Lingo, and Game Terms Consistent?
Another no-brainer? I am sad to report this is the number one problem I encounter in rulebook drafts. Yup.
Is this a brick, a red cube, or a woodblock? It’s all three? Well pick one and use it on every single mention! Are those power dice, lightning surges, or crisis cubes? It’s fine to rename things between iterations, but it’s not fine to leave your entire designer log in the rulebook!
Hero card vs. Stat card, Trap Square vs. Trap Tile, Space vs. Area vs. Zone, the list goes on. They are all fitting names, just stick with one.
Please pay attention to these things. I know all the names across all versions are constantly bouncing in your head, but put in the effort to nail a final name (preferably early in the development cycle) and refer to it consistently.
As a side note, don’t go crazy with the made-up words. I know these could be cool and super thematic, but in reality, people play hundreds of games and tend to use somewhat uniform terminology across them all. If you have colored dice, call them just that. Sure “Crisis Cubes” sounds cool, but the confusion your players will experience the first time they read this phrase is simply not worth the one extra coolness point you thought you scored.
While at it, please also apply this philosophy to the text itself. CAPITALIZE, bold, and italicize the same concepts, sections, and terms consistently across the book. It’s easy to get those mixed up.
I Am The Law! LAAAAAW!
Please include all legal information at the back of your book. Thank you.
You own the copyright to your own work, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce it. Over here in the EU, game rules are actually not protected by copyright law, but your original writing (that is to say, the wording of the rulebook) sure is. If your game is based on a licensed property you better make sure you include all necessary trademarks and disclaimers. It may or may not be applicable to your case, but some games include the standard fiction disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination.” Yadda-yadda. You don't want a lawsuit on your hands just because you accidentally used the name of some celebrity's dog.
If your graphic designer is experienced they’ll remind you, but it never hurts to repeat it: include proper licensing and/or credit for the fonts you’re using. This is important and will save you tons of trouble!
Lastly, including credits in the back is entirely up to you and your policy, but please do it. This information is completely irrelevant to 99% of your players but might mean the world to people who helped you achieve this beautiful piece of work, especially non-core team members, like playtesters, translators, legal advisors, and the game’s manufacturer. Also, this is how people interested in working with you and your team can hunt you down and talk to you!
Kinda like this.
Make It Look Professional and HAVE FUN
Again, your rulebook isn’t the highest point of your product, but it’s a critical one, and you should absolutely polish it as much as you would any other component. Don’t give me a flimsy sheet of paper with a default font and a couple of bullet lists. Feature your best illustrations, have your style on point (both in terms of writing and graphic identity), and translate as much of your passion for the game onto the reader as you can!
I always advise inserting just a touch of creative writing in - how can’t I, that’s my bread and butter! It’s easy to talk yourself out of something like this. If you are creating a serious management/economics simulator, or a mass-market family game that’s so fun and quick that it doesn’t need a lengthy intro, I’d say give it another thought before discarding it.
I get it, it’s a rulebook, not a novel or a comic. But having one sentence of pure flavor, setting up the stage with a very short piece of fiction, or having two of your in-game characters have a short banter or making a funny remark will instantly put a smile on the reader’s face and absolutely will be worth the extra effort you put in!
See, I said I’ll answer your supposed question, and I did! All jokes aside, I hope this article was of some help to you and potentially saved you some stress in the night before finalizing the files for print.
If you need advice with your rulebook draft or would like me to help you out, please reach out through the contact form below. Our beautiful hobby deserves better rulebooks, damn it!