Rulebooks From the Mind of an Educator

*Disclaimer: I have never designed a game and therefore have never written a rulebook from scratch. I have helped with some rulebooks, but am not an expert at writing them. What I am an expert in is instructional design.

I’m an Instructional Designer, and as such, have developed curricula that have been used to educate people of all ages on a variety of topics. Some of the curricula I personally taught in informal and formal education environments and others were taught by people who I have never met. This is my career and this is what I know.

Instructional Design is exactly what it sounds like; it is the design of any kind of instruction. Since rulebooks are one such type of instruction I thought I would take some time today to share some thoughts that may help the first time rulebook writer and the veteran rulebook writer as well. Below you will find a series of questions that should be asked when designing any sort of instruction and then I will expound some on how that question applies to rulebooks.

What are the objectives?

When looking at the rulebooks as a whole it is easy to say that the overall objective is to help the reader learn to play the game. While that may be true, you should also keep in mind the objectives that make up the larger overall objective. How do the players win? Do the players need to understand card layout? Are there a limited number of actions they can take and if so, what are they and what do those actions mean? As the rulebook writer you should first and foremost, understand what it is that the reader should  be getting out of reading the rulebook. This is the most critical part of the rulebook. Once you know what they need to know you can move onto the next question.

Who will be reading this?

This question is actually more difficult than it appears and as a result it does not seem to be taken into account. This isn’t a question literally about who the people are, but more about what types of people will be reading your rulebook and needing to understand what you have included. This is where you take into account that people have different learning styles and different learning styles means presenting the rules in multiple formats. For those not familiar with learning styles it is a theory that states people have different strengths as to how they comprehend material. Even if you had never heard the term before you probably know some people who learned well purely by reading; others needed to hear the material and yet others that need to see the material in order to truly comprehend. Taking this into account for rulebooks means you might have to include more pictures, examples or even a link to a video playthrough in order to help the most possible people truly understand the rules. Not all of this is feasible, but deciding this before you even begin writing the rules will help you focus on creating good examples, creating appropriate diagrams, etc.

What are the basics?

Any good education tool should start from the ground up. When starting your rulebook you should begin there as well. This can be done in multiple ways, but beginning the rulebook with a picture of the components and their names will establish a common language for the rest of the rulebook. This is an often underutilized aspect of the rulebooks and sadly a much need one, in my opinion. After establishing the common language for the components in the game, it is good to begin with the overall structure of the game including, win/loss condition, list breaking down the turns/rounds, and possibly the pages of where certain main topics can be found. That last one is not necessarily needed in a smaller rulebook, but can be very helpful for quick reference during the game.

What are the Details?

Here is where you get into the meat of the rulebook. This is where you breakdown each of the steps in the game and explain, in detail, what the player(s) do throughout the game. This part of the rulebook can be very dry and it is easy for the reader to miss key aspects. To avoid this, use examples and pictures to help break up the wall of text. When thinking about what pictures and examples to use, I recommend highlighting issues/questions that routinely came up during your playtests. Placing the examples is just as important as the example itself. Beyond the examples highlighting a potentially difficult rule to understand, they can also be a quick reference during play. Setting them clearly apart from the rest of the rules while keeping them near the rules they are explaining will help people get back to the game faster.

Am I Finished?

Your rulebook will be a living document throughout the creation of your game. Listen to those that are playtesting your game to make changes and then get the rules out to other people (whether they have seen your game or not) and ask them what they do not understand. After a while you will think your rules are fine just as they are, but it is at that point that I recommend blind rules readers. Give them the rules and let them tell you what is and isn’t clear. Not everything they say must be changed, but some of it will.

What Can I do to Make it Easier?

In the end you want the people who are playing your game to actually play your game, so creating the best rulebook possible is key. A few other things that can be included within the game can help do just that. Player and gameplay sequence aids can also add a nice tool for the players to reference quickly and not take them away from the game for very long.

I would love to hear your thoughts about what you agree and disagree with either in the comments below or in our BGG guild.