How to Write a Board Game Rule Book
How to Write a Board Game Rule Book
(In case you’re looking for a constructive guide to Kickstarter Click here)
Below is a thorough, constructive, guideline to rule book writing.
I will list a few key points which I’ll consider as a check-off list for a ‘how to write a rulebook’. If you’d like a deeper elaboration on the topic, please click the word incorporated with the topic and it will jump you to that portion of the page.
Did you format your rule book consicely and thoroughly?
(I’ll call this portion of the format the dictionary definition)
Lore and Game Brief
(I’ll call this portion of the format the encyclopedic definition)
Make sure to state the objective in the former half of the rulebook.
Did you use active voice?
Is your rule book confident?
Were you able to knock out any unnecessary information?
Find blind feedback?
Did you highlight concerning rules?
Did you make sure your rule book is consistent and translates your game to the masses?
I have been playing board games before I could crawl with family game night revolving around my crib and a few puzzles with my parents. I’ve seen heart-filled bankruptcy of Monopoly, and ran around LIFE too many lifetimes from now. I’ve been reviewing modern board games for a well over a year now and I have been very keen on my interpretation of good rule book writing. I found that rule books depict more than how to setup a game, how to play a game, and how to win a game. It’s the language spoken by the developer to provide players, you, with the lore, the hard-work, and the immersion that the game brings to us as we engage with it. I drafted a constructive and helpful guide to rule books to make sure if players are playing the game, we can hope they are playing it right.
Now, like most rule books today, I have found “how-to” instructions ramble. So I will try my hardest to incorporate the top noteworthy guides with consolidated and fluent language to translate it over for you all. I will focus on a more novice player reading a rule book because I find that novice players are what keeps the community growing. Let’s not scare them away.
To begin, I will format a foundation on how my rule book would be written with a made-up example:
Title (Game and developer) –
Castle WARS game design by ITTGAMES
Game Details (Players, Time to play, Ages)
2-4 players, 15 minutes, 13+
Lore (backstory, introduce the theme)-
Castles and robots put to the test… duke-em-out… last castle standing!
brief of the game, (without clarifying rules. Ties in with Lore)-
Castle WARS is a game that impress’s neo-medieval… each player will assume the role…
Game components (note everything the game comes with, pictures are a huge bonus)-
- This rulebook
- 15 castle cards
- 15 robot cards
- 100 gold cubes
- 100 wood cubes
- 100 food cubes
- 10 victory cubes
- 4 character stats boards
Game Overview (More rulebook-y)
Place down The 15 castle/robot cards across the table in a 5×3 formation facing against each other… The resource cubes (gold, wood, food) drive the necessary resources to collect cards… The cards will aid in battling and providing you with particular victory cubes based on card description…When the game ends, you all will conduct a final score to appeal victory cubes into the winners hand.
Setup (Keep it visual, with or without photos)
A- set up the cards face down in a 5×3 formation facing each other Robot cards will be directly in front of castle cards. Have each player choose a starting character…
B- Set up a pile of tokens available for all players. This is your “forest”.
C- Have each player begin by collecting 10 food tokens… You gather tokens by… this… that.. and this…
D- When flipping over cards to collect cubes, score additional victories based off characters sidequests.
For a 2 to 3 player game remove the “Apocalyptic energizer” card.
Begin play (Focus on turn order and how the turns play out.)
First player will always be sir. Knight, followed by… Start with the planning phase. This phase consists of…
When pulling a card… look at the symbol in the bottom left corner..
Symbol A does this…
Symbol B does this…
Symbol C does this…
This phase consist of this…
Turn description (Elaborate the turn description)
Component description (For example, my cubes)
This many of this make that and do that.
Specifics (For an added bonus, you may want to brief each card or token)
Apocalyptic energizer= when in play the apoca…
End Game (victory conditions)
Credit (Everyone who has helped, Indietabletop if this guide has helped :])
I will now breakdown specifics to help explain and what we think should be included when rule book writing. Your first objective is to explain what the objective is. Far too often I run into rulebooks that set up the game in its entirety before delivering to us an objective. Let me explain how this hinders your rulebook. We can’t grasp or handle any information detailing what components do, what our turn involves, or why we are doing something without knowing the purpose. Now, If you notice in the above example, I put the objective in the Game Overview. It’s not seemingly out of place nor is it too deep in the rulebook that you can’t understand the premise. That way, before we hit you with all of the details, we’re telling you why these details are important. You are essentially giving the readers and potential players a bigger picture–what your game is about.
(Skip to TL:DR; I ramble… But it’s a good analogy)
I also would like to note two different experiences before I go on any further. I want to elaborate the difference between a dictionary definition and an encyclopedia definition. When you ask me what the definition of what a Horse is, I can tell you it is a quadruped (Four-footed animal), mammal, that people can ride. This example doesn’t tell me the difference between a horse and a dog–I just know at its core what a horse is. I know for sure what a horse is NOT (a human, a house, a bear, etc.). This can translate into themes and mechanics. If I know that the game is going to be a board game about City Building, I know it will not be a micro card game about bluffing. This sets up my expectations and I am currently ready to soak in details about a city building board game. Now, back to the horse analogy–if you gave me an encyclopedic definition of a horse, I’d be directed through pictures, locations, and facts. I will be better acquainted with the horse and have it almost memorized versus the definition. This is where the game setup, and game play come in. I know my game is a board game about City Building, now I will know how to build the city and why I’m building it. Thing is, you can’t see a rulebook without one or the other–you need to know the basic foundation of the game and its objective before you get into the thick of the rules. The foundation and objective go hand in hand with the rules; however you must build a solid foundation before piling on the rest of the rules. Analogously, you must know the dictionary definition before pursuing the encyclopedic definition so you can get a nice grasp of what is to come.
TL:DR The dictionary definition of a board game could be defined as the game overview, while the encyclopedic definition of a board game could elaborate the setup, game play, and specifics. Without the dictionary definition I’ll have all this context with no direction, without the encyclopedic definition I have all this direction with no context.
Let’s talk about the do not’s in your rulebook.
Your rules will always be read aloud, if not to a group, to themselves. Although it may seem trivial to have to read out loud, this practice is common for the mere purpose of its ability to help the reader comprehend, and in a group setting, reading directions out loud is almost a guarantee. Utilizing an active voice while writing your rule book will allow readers to not only have an easier read, but an easier time actually retaining the information they have read. My advice? Tell the player what to do, don’t loosely conjure the language. You’ll lose players and now your game demand shrinks or worse, the community shrinks. Active, good. Passive, bad.
The difference between active and passive:
The first sentence will be my active sentence. “ Place down The 15 castle/robot cards across the table in a 5×3…” The order of this sentence sounds a lot better than this following passive sentence, “The 15 castle/robot cards should be placed down across…”
Never use words or phrases that seem to lack confidence. Firmly believe in your statements and deliver promising guidelines because if you don’t trust yourself, why would we trust your rules?
“15 castle/robot cards should be placed down across…”
Yeah? And what if we don’t? Words like these leave room for interpretation, and I know for a fact a board game should never be open to interpretation. This is an analog medium for fun, there are no programs keeping players in check. Interpretive rules endanger the intended purpose which can really hurt the game.
Less is More
You could potentially get everything you need and more out of a bit of information with illustrated examples or pictures. We understand that heavy gamers will have no problem running through these thick rulebooks. But, we are a market, and as a market we want to branch out to new customers. You must be able to understand and hook-line-and-sink these games towards new players. Use photos to expand on your thought instead of kneading through detail after detail on what a card does or where cards should be placed. Simply, artwork a card, and diagram the definition. An example would be: instead of trying to articulate “Once you play your castle card on top of the cards displayed next to your discarded cards,” you should illustrate and locate these through examples between a few mock up players.
Seek blind feedback.
When writing a rulebook remember that what you are writing is second nature to you. You know the game and you know how to play it. Find players who are interested in helping you out, have people list questions that they have, these are questions that you could not answer in the rulebook. “What if it’s in the rulebook and they didn’t read it, or they missed it?” The players always right–so make sure it’s apparent because apparently, it was not. The worst thing to do when writing a rule book is assuming that the readers know what you were implying. You want to be specific and explicit when you write your rule book.
Highlight easy-to-forget rules.
I would personally find the questions most asked and apply a FAQ or a log towards the end highlighting the importance of certain rules. For example, if during my card initiation I describe how discarding works and I know that they order cards every other instead of laying them on top of one another, I would highlight in red the importance of stacking every other card that way my point is not missed.
If you can’t avoid using game jargon, then be consistent throughout.
What I can’t stand in rule book writing is what I like to call “pretentious word vomiting.” This is quite simple: do not throw words in my face like “when the castle implodes after the Call-Shot action” because I will have absolutely no clue what that means, if the “call shot action” is a card in the deck, elaborate. Do not use Card Tokens in the component section and then change the term to Card Cubes during explanation–this is not consistent and will leave your readers frazzled. I will lose my marbles on top of my patience (this is also where you might lose your novice gamers). Do not take shortcuts when describing cards. If the entire deck has 3 sectioned types: card type A, card type B, and card type C and I have never played your game before, I need to know well before I begin setting up the game whether or not I should be separating these cards, combining these cards, or pairing them with specific card types? Don’t assume that I inherently know to separate these because you know you were supposed to. These are major pitfalls in any rule book, so do your best to be as thorough but concise as possible.
I hope you enjoyed our Constructive guideline to rule book writing!