065 – How to write a Board Game Rulebook

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What is the Purpose of a Rulebook

The two main purposes of rulebooks are:

  • teaching new players how to play the game 
  • guiding experienced players by referencing specific situations  

It is not easy to achieve both of those purposes. The goal is to present the game in a way that makes it easy to learn to new players, while also making it easy to navigate for experienced players looking for very specific corner case rules. Because those two purposes can be very different the publisher Fantasy Flight Games often prints two different sets of rules. E.g. a quick start guide or overview and some kind of reference book. The rules overview is often chronologic of how the game is played while the rules reference is often ordered alphabetical or contains a lot of subheadings to make it easier to navigate for experienced players.

When should I start to write down the rules for my game?

There are three main reasons you should have a basic rulebook prepared for external playtesting: 

  • It highlights places where the game is not yet fully fleshed out. Putting the rules on paper does a great deal to move the design process along.
  • You have a reference to go back to so you don’t forget your own rules or the version you are currently testing.
  • It helps to keep multiple designers on the same page
  • It is necessary for blind playtesting

What is a simple structure of a Rulebook?

Thematic Overview/Intro:
Your introduction should include the background story and explain what the players represent in the game. It is meant to set the scene from a thematic point of view.

​Components:
Describe all the pieces and give them a unique name/phrase as a reference. This will make it easier for you to describe the rules on the following pages. This is important early on for print and plays (PnP) for players to know whether or not they have everything they need to play.

Game Overview & Objective:
Here you describe what the players are trying to accomplish (the objective) and how the players will interact on a very high level (co-op vs. competitive). For example: “If the opponent’s life total is reduced to zero you win the game”.

Setup:
This chapter describes how to get the game ready for play. There shouldn’t be anything in here that mentions what components are used for or why they are important. Just make sure that in this section everything is laid out clearly. Probably a diagram is the best way of doing so.

Gameplay / Game Structure:
This chapter describes the flow of your game, starting with how the core gameplay loop is broken down. E.g. rounds, turns, phases, etc. Additionally, it summarizes what players do in each of those stages. This will be the major chapter of your rules. Chronologically describe the gameplay from start to finish. From general to specific. This is where you explain exactly what happens during each turn, action, round, etc.

Game End Conditions / Determining the winner:
How does the game end? How do players calculate victory points? Etc.

References:
Use this chapter as a glossary of icons or keywords, as rules reference or for FAQ)

Principles of good Rules Writing

  • State the general rules first 
  • Use consistent language / Terminology
  • Cross-reference (especially constraints)
  • Do proofreading
  • use a lot of images and explain them with labels
  • Be inclusive
  • Add flavor
  • Use simple language
  • Imperatives > Decleratives
  • Trat the rules as a living document

References:

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