Rulebooks in #Boardgames are just as important as the game itself

It’s a running joke in my gaming groups that when I teach a new game, invariably I’m going to screw up multiple rules in the course teaching the game. Somehow one or more of the missteps will benefit me, even though it was never planned that way. Hence the merciless ridicule from my group. If you’ve played games long enough, you know that not all rulebooks are created equal. A well designed and concise rulebook can help elevate a game. At the very least, it doesn’t detract from the experience of playing a game.

Conversely, a bad rulebook can be the proverbial straw that broke the camels back.

I recently was asked to test a new boardgame that was designed by two guys who I work with. This is their first attempt at making a game, and I was more than happy to take their prototype and provide feedback. They are attending Origins in June and have a Kickstarter campaign that will be kicking off sometime later this year. It’s called Journey Adventure Quest and it combines deckbuilding with a card stacking mechanic.

My wife and I, along with my buddy Shane from Shane Plays had scheduled a night to give JAQ a go.

The game itself was further along in development than I anticipated. When we started setting up the game to do a playthrough, it was obvious that the guys had been through several iterations of their game to get it to the version of which we were getting ready to test.

It was evident early on in our playtesting that while the game itself and the mechanics had been given a lot of attention, the accompanying rulebook was in need of some serious TLC. And honestly that wasn’t a big surprise. It’s extremely difficult to get rulebooks right in boardgames. In my opinion, there are three main pillars on which well designed rulebooks are built.

1. Consistent use of terminology throughout

The first problem I found with the JAQ rulebook was inconsistency when using various terms in different areas of the rulebook. If you start off your rulebook using certain terms, you have to remain consistent in using those terms throughout the entirety of your rulebook. Otherwise, players are apt to get confused and unsure about what you, the designer are trying to relay to the players.

2. Speaking of terms, use of universally accepted terms is key

So this was probably the most interesting thing I found in playtesting JAQ and their rulebook. In it, there is a section about players’ turns and the different actions they take on their turns. Players take ‘Journeys’ by playing cards from their hand and placing it on an area of their tableau to represent this. The rulebook uses the following to instruct players how to take this part of their turn:

Heroes search through their cards, draw one card from their hand and place it on the appropriate time of day.

Now I don’t know about you, but since the beginning of my gaming life, any time I took a card from a grouping of cards in my hand and looked to put that card into play, that is called playing a card not drawing a card. Drawing a card is an action a player takes by taking a card from a designated draw pile of cards and either adding it to your hand, or some other area of the game.

This might be me parsing a little bit, but I honestly think it is a big distinction, and one that had me tripped up when we got to that part of the first player’s turn when playtesting. Based on how the rulebook was written, I thought we were missing a step of the player needing to draw a card into their hand from someone else in the game. Turns out, it simply meant playing a card from your hand.

Use of universally accepted terms in paramount in your rulebook crafting.

3. Layout

This is probably the most common offense seen in the gaming world. Poorly laid out rulebooks are all too common. This is by far the most nebulous and ‘all over the map’ piece when it comes to rulebook creation. And while there is no widely accepted standard when it comes to layouts, I do think there are a few necessary ‘must haves’ when it comes to layout.

  • Does your layout require the players to do a lot of flipping back and forth to find rules? If so, consider arraigning it in a way that keeps page flipping to a minimum. There will always some level of flipping in play, but really think about flow and if your current layout makes more sense with things organized in a way that keeps flipping down.
  • Are you graphics, clear and concise? How easy is it for me to look at a graphic and know almost instantly what it’s referencing? Are your ‘examples’ designed in a way to give a better understanding of potentially questionable scenarios for players?
  • Do you have a glossary of terms included? Some games don’t warrant this, but other most certainly do. Some games are big enough that they included a second, separate book just for terms and their definitions. I think’s a better play to included a glossary and not need it, versus not including one and your players are having to hit up BGG to get clarifications.

I know that layout ultimately is somewhat subjective. It’s kind of like good art. I can’t really describe what constitutes “good art”, but I know it when I see it. And since everyone learns in different methods, there will never be an industry standard when it comes to layout. But there are still better ways than others when it comes to rulebook design and layout.

And learning games in different ways bring me back to my issues when learning a new game.

My wife is a reader. Whenever we get a new game, I instantly hand her the rulebook, because she’ll read it cover to cover. I myself am more of a ‘show me once and I got it’ kind of learner. I can read rulebooks, but it’s not my preferred learning method (not just for games, but for really anything in life). That being the case, I am very gratefully for the large number of YouTube channels that I can lean on to help me make sure that I’m keeping my rule snafus to a minimum.

And while I will probably never completely eradicate my rule mistakes in teaching games, I’ve learned to take the very will mannered ribbing in stride. And I know ultimately the best way to correct those mistakes is simply through multiple playing’s and being open to knowing that it’s very likely I’ll mess something up. And that’s okay!

So game designers, don’t forget your rulebooks. They’re (almost) just as important as the game itself.

As always, leave a comment with your thoughts. Until next time, LLAP!

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