This desperately needs to be the topic of a GDC session. It doesn’t apply to most digital games, but it’s indispensable in analog game design, and a valuable communication skill in general.
The rules of a game are the most important aspect to convey to a player. In non-digital games, if the rules are not understood, the game can not be played.
It’s important to write rules that leave no stone unturned; a player shouldn’t be questioning what something means, or unsure of how to interpret something (unless, of course, the ambiguity is intended). At the same time, brevity is key, and no player wants to read a tome every time they play a new game. The writing — the designing — of the rules is as crucial to the play experience as the design of the game itself.
I’ve been writing a lot of rules lately, interspersed with some digital design docs that will probably go nowhere. Regardless, the intersection of the two has given me some new insight into the creative process. Here are a few tips for writing clear, cohesive rules.
- Flavor first: If the game has a narrative tying the mechanics together, make that narrative clear immediately. The metaphors will be helpful in explaining and justifying the game’s logic and mechanics.
- Get the boring stuff out of the way: List the materials needed for the game next, followed by any pre-game instructions for setting up. If it gets wordy or over-complicated, slim it down and add an illustration or two to help explain.
- Begin with the end: The first rule you should give the players is the winning condition of the game. Tell them what their objective is. From a logical standpoint, all the other rules serve the winning condition, and will make more sense when described with regards to it. It also makes it easier for players to find when they forget how to win.
- Go from general to specific: Think of it like newspaper journalism, or an inverted pyramid. After the objective, describe the broad, overarching rules before describing the instances and exceptions. If it’s Mille Bornes, explain placing mile cards before you explain the hazards and remedies, explain the hazards and remedies before you explain the safety cards, and explain the safety cards before you explain the coup fourrÃ©‘s. Another way of saying this would be to explain the things that happen most often in a game first, and the things least likely to happen in a game last.
- Tell players what they can do, before telling them what they can’t: Somewhat related to the previous point, you should always explain the least constricting rules before explaining the most constricting. Rules explained earlier therefore become the primary rules, and the rules following are the instances and exceptions where the primary rules change or don’t apply.
In addition to these rules, remember to use short sentences with low-level vocabulary. When necessary, use illustrations (sometimes nothing beats a good drawing).
White space is also crucial. A page full of text looks intimidating. Use bullet points and short paragraphs to keep the reader/player from getting overwhelmed.
Finally, don’t be afraid to be friendly! Unless it’s entirely antithetical to the style of your game, use a light-hearted tone with your rules. I’m slowly learning that seriousness isn’t exactly a staple of this industry. When the purpose of a product is to be fun, then describing it should be fun as well.