Developing Rules for Board Games (LTUE Panels – 2 of 4)

We had a great discussion on the panel about developing rules at LTUE (website). Most people who attended were already playtesting a game with close friends and family. The questions they posed were along the lines of clarification of what to do next. The premise for our panel was set up on one question—once you’ve got your board game idea, how do you put it down into a playable game?

Our discussion broke this apart into several areas. Just like the other panels our discussion expanded to tabletop gaming. Many points apply to all types of games.

Considerations from Your Game

Who is your game’s audience? If you are creating a complex strategy game, you need a different style to your rules than a game made for players looking for something to laugh about. This sounds like a simple statement. But it is something we need to regularly remind ourselves as developing a project. I’ve seen rule sets for games designed for the wrong audience—that simple mistake can ruin the experience before the game is played. I’ve seen this happen in our group when playtesting a game that is “ready” for market.

What is your game’s core or theme? This also goes along with who you see as your audience. A hex and chit battle game should have a different feel than a deck building or a draw and play game. Just like any other form of creative endeavor, when you break away from the theme, you’re going to lose audience. Developing rules needs to maintain the feel. Use the theme in throughout. A zombie attack game should have that feel from the rules and play, not just the art.

Referring back to these items while creating the rule set will help. But don’t get bound during development. You can use language you understand to get started, then adjust as you continue playtesting and revising.

Keep the Rules as Basic as Possible

It is not a bad thing to have basic rules. If you have ever played a game where you keep returning to the booklet to figure out how to take your turn, there is less desire to play it again. I know there are examples of games with complex rules that are fun to play (our group has a couple we enjoy). But the harder the rules are to understand the more difficult you’re making it for people to enter the game. At my last convention I heard players turn away from games because of the look of the rulebook.

Don’t be afraid to go backwards on your rule’s development. I’ve had the opportunity of playing games at different stages of development. First drafts are often just a set of notes the developer has been scribbling. Then the complexity builds as they have new ideas, find holes, or even strategies that completely break the game. Some designers have described that in later revisions they went backwards on some of their ideas to figure out what was going wrong. The main fix was to go back to the basics (audience and theme) and remove rules and concepts they had introduced. This allowed them a step-by step approach to finding what has caused the problem.

Some rules can be applied as variants. There are rulebooks that provide how the base game is played, then have a section of optional rules to create new twists or levels of complexity for more experienced players. Another way of presenting these rules is to look at a basic, intermediate, and advanced rule set. Some heavier strategy games will present the rules through a series of scenarios. The players advance through the levels of complexity as they learn the game. This option also allows players to play at a level they enjoy or to bring new players to the game.

Another way of allowing yourself to return to the base game is to think about expansions. You can keep the basic game with all the fun addons that came out of playtesting, or use it for further development. Many popular games out today have expansions that were started, and even completed, during the initial design and development. After the games gained an audience the expansions were put on the market.

Physically Writing the Rules

The order in which the rules are presented is important. This really shouldn’t be the trick paper some teachers hand out where it is really a test to see who is following instructions (remember question one that had read the entire page first). You want your rules to flow with the game so you can bring players along for the ride. Present the rules so they can be read as play begins. Not many groups have a member that is willing to take a game and work through everything so they can come back and teach it.

Tell the objective of the game early, if not at the very beginning. Many games now start with some story to establish setting and theme. This flavor can add a lot to the enjoyment of the game and provides a boundary of reference. But, tell the players early what the end game is—what they need to do to win. This doesn’t have to be the scoring, but a description of the concept of what needs to be accomplished by an individual or group. If you have worked at a company that uses standard operating procedures, those are a good example of how they provide a scope at the start so every employee knows where they are going to end up when they are done with that procedure.

Write the rules so they provide a flow to the game’s process. Just like the procedures stated above, have your rules flow from beginning (setup) to end (scoring or victory conditions) in a logical sequence. It is frustrating to be reading through a rulebook that half way through you find statements like, “Before starting the game you need to do…” A good editor or technical writer can help with this structuring and wording.

Use more than words. Pictures and diagrams help explain setup, rules, and any other points that may be more complex. It is true a picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to how something should look or where to look for it.

Playtest the Rules

Along with playtesting the game you should playtest the rules. Have different people read them and mark where they have questions and what works. Especially have people who are part of your intended audience. This helps you to be able to explain what you have already worked out in your mind. It isn’t so much of a critique of the game but a step in learning how to properly explain it.

Your game is probably going to be targeting a segment of the gaming community. Even if it is a broader based game, hobbyists like to know where the game fits in. You need to make sure it fits player’s (audience!) expectations. Different terminology is used in specialized groups and if you use the wrong term or a term incorrectly, you lose credibility.

Playtesting the rules will also help locate problem areas in the playing of the game. After your game is published you can’t be there to answer questions. There are developers who have told me they are willing to answer player’s questions—which you should. This should not be your standard go to. As a gamer, I don’t want to keep emailing or messaging someone to find out a clarification. As a developer, I would rather spend time on my next project for people to enjoy.

Final Thoughts

If players can’t figure out how to play your game, they won’t play it. You might have sold it already, but if you are planning another game, it will be harder to sell.

The development and writing of the rules are an important part of the process. I have seen many games that could have been good. But we didn’t get through the rules and walked away from it. The worst issue I’ve seen are rulebooks that are rushed through and show it by bad grammar and writing. It is hard to pick up a game from a developer or company that has hurt their credibility because of flaws that should have, and could have, been fixed before going to market.

Fellow Panelists (information from program guide)

Benjamin Kocher is an editor with Immortal Works Press, as well as a board game reviewer and editor at Everything Board Games. He has worked corporate settings as a full-time copywriter and copyeditor for a number of years but is now a freelancer.

L. Palmer is the author of The Pippington Tales, where motorcars bump down old city lanes and fairy godmothers are disguised as high-society gossips. In between exploring fantasy worlds, she works in public service and lives in South Texas.

Devon Stern has been a hobby board game designer for years and has more recently worked in indie video game development. He loves it when a set of mechanics comes together.

Daniel Yocom runs Guild Master Gaming, which has supported tabletop gaming and other things geek. It includes reviews of games, books, and movies. Articles also appear on other websites. He has short stories published and is working on his first novel.