We’ve all experienced situations where we resist playing a new game, because learning the rules can be a chore. You need to cross the threshold of learning the rules to enjoy a game. On the other hand, knowing the game too well can deter you from playing again. So how can we as designers find that sweet-spot of intuitive rules and a challenging mastery of the game?
In learning a new language or skill, once you understand the core principles, it’s easier to learn the rest through practice. Similarly, in games the rulebook must provide you with the information you need so you can build your strategies. It can be very tricky to portray the rules in an understandable manner in a short booklet. Thankfully, we can learn from the best.
- Be consistent with the language and iconography you use.
If you use different words or icons to refer to the same thing, people will get confused. The West Kingdom and The North Sea trilogies did a very good job of being consistent in all of their games with iconography. That way, people who have played one of the games will have a much easier time learning the rest.
- Use illustrations
Illustrations will get your point across much easier than words. Imagine assembling furniture from IKEA, without any pictures to guide you. Your memory works through associations and the more senses you use, the better you understand. So be more visual. Smartphone inc. did a great job with their rulebook, they managed to explain some novel mechanics through lots of illustrations.
- Have player aid cards
Player aid cards can really speed up the learning process. Having all of your options written out in front of you will allow for a quicker start of the game. You’ll notice that after the first few turns people won’t even be using them, but having them will make your game more accessible. Scythe is where you should look for player aid cards, what a great introduction to that beast of a game.
- FAQ from blind playtests
Write down the questions you were asked most when playtesting and add them to your rulebook. That way players can avoid having to ruffle through the whole book to find what they’re looking for, when it comes to a specific situation. I find myself looking for the rule for trading in Pandemic almost every time I play. It is made really easy, because it’s in their “overlooked rules” section. Another rulebook which is worth looking through.
- Stay on topic
I’ve seen rulebooks which go in depth about things which aren’t vital to the game. People will be pushed away if they have to read through unnecessary explanations(for example variants introduced while explaining the core rules). Value people’s time and find the quickest and easiest way you can introduce the rules. It is fine to have lore and some background about your game, just keep it separate from the rules.
As I’m in the process of writing and editing a rulebook now, I thought this would be a good time to elaborate on my thoughts. What do you think are some good examples of rulebooks done well?