Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Rules

I still want to do some kind of 2008 in Review article at some point, but one thing that struck me was that it was bookended by two very promising wargames with quite possibly the worst sets of rules I have ever seen - and believe me, as one who has ranted about game rules before, that's saying something. So I thought I'd take an opportunity to rant some more and maybe to offer some solutions.

The games in question are The Devil's Cauldron (MMP) and Pursuit of Glory (GMT). I had every reason to like both.

In fact, maybe I do. I almost can't tell. Because the #1 reason I threw up my hands in despair at The Devil's Cauldron was not gameplay, but utter, blinding frustration with the rule book. I could never remember the Assault Sequence, for example, and every time we needed to confirm some small detail we needed to wade through the rules' endless nattering before finding (hopefully – there is no index) what we were looking for. The insanely verbose and conversational style makes actually using it during a game to look stuff up an infuriating exercise.

Conversely, the Pursuit of Glory rules read more like a rough draft than actual rules. Spread over almost 50 sprawling pages, the rules are constantly re-stating themselves, presenting things out-of-order, clarifying the blindingly obvious, and getting bogged down in minor details. This game is almost certainly not be as complex as it looks, but with 50 pages of meandering and incomprehensible rules, I can virtually guarantee it will never be played around here. Nobody I game with regularly will look at that kind of page count and even bother to try, no matter how much one insists it's very like the modest-complexity Paths of Glory and the rules volume is due mostly to clarifications and keeping the most obtuse players on ConsimWorld happy. Page count may be a crude metric, but 50 pages = no go unless you're OCS or ASL. I take that back, even OCS has "only" 38.

Although these were by far the worst, there were plenty of bad rulebooks this year, particularly from repeat offenders GMT and Fantasy Flight. The Unhappy King Charles! rule book makes a moderately complicated game look daunting, Warriors of God uses opaque and non-standard terminology to make a simple game needlessly confusing, and Tide of Iron's rules turn a light wargame into a major undertaking, with the Desert Fox expansion rules being even worse.

Enough ranting. On this particular occasion I'm here not just to complain, but to offer some suggestions. I'll admit I've never written a rulebook. But I have spent a great deal of time explaining rules to people, and certainly have read more than my share. Some of this stuff seems very basic to me, but apparently it needs to be said.

First and foremost, I think it's important to keep in mind what we're trying to accomplish here. What we are trying to do is to build a model of the game in the player's mind. The player has to have a working model of the game in his or her head in order to weigh the options and make the decisions required to play it. So the goal is to build up these mental systems in a way not unlike you would assemble anything else.

The 100% Rule: When writing rules, one must bear in mind that there is actually a big difference between explaining rules and creating a working rule book. If I explain the game rules to you, I only need to get far enough for you to have a solid enough mental model to begin playing. Things that are initially either not relevant or negligibly relevant can be explained later. As an explainer, I can also rely on the players to ask clarifying questions when their mental models seem to have gaps. But to formally describe a game in a set of rules, 90% is not good enough, you have to have 100%. The same conversational techniques you would use to teach rules in person can fail to fully and concisely convey the complete details of a complex system when read. Sometimes catastrophically, as The Devil's Cauldron demonstrates. It has an acceptable 90% rulebook if you have access to someone who knows the game 100%. Unfortunately, such a person does not appear to be included in the box.

Short Rules Are Better: It's a fact of life that our brains' short-term storage buffers are small, and a rule has to pass through that buffer before it has a chance of being retained long term. Simple, straightforward rules can frequently be made vastly more difficult to retain through over-explanation. Rule 12.5 in Pursuit of Glory is a good example. This is a simple rule: All full strength regular units have to roll a die when activated for attack in certain situations, and if they roll >= the round number, they are reduced. But then when you spend 4 (short) paragraphs clarifying that means that reduced units don't roll, irregulars don't roll, that yes, “when activated” really is before combat, so you have to use your reduced combat strength, that rolling > 2 is more likely than rolling > 5, and that there might possibly be cards out there that alter all this, all of a sudden you've actually made the transition from page to memory far more difficult than if you had just bolded the word regular and been done with it. Plus you've completely broken the reader's rhythm. The simple version is perfectly clear and concise. If you feel you absolutely must preempt possible misunderstanding of an otherwise perfectly clear rule, put it in a footnote, side-note, or appendix. As a corollary, write your rules for the average reader, not some nut-job on ConsimWorld who is out to willfully misinterpret your rules or question your design decisions.

The Test of Context: I've talked about this a little on a recent thread about explaining Race for the Galaxy on BoardGame Geek. This gets back to the whole mental model thing. When you're trying to help someone build a mental model of the game systems, you want to build the systems in a logical order, such that a player doesn't have to do a lot of work to hook them up once the explanation is done. In many games, the sequence-of-play order is the way to go. But there are some dramatic examples where explaining things in that order actually makes it significantly more difficult, like Race for the Galaxy or Through the Ages, because understanding things that happen in the first phases requires understanding what's going on later - but the opposite may not be true.

For wargames, what this translates into is that you have to start with the victory conditions, because that is the overall context. Paths and Pursuit of Glory get this right; the victory conditions are up front. Unhappy King Charles! gets it wrong and puts the victory conditions right at the end, so you struggle through the rulebook with little understanding of what you're trying to accomplish and then have to retrofit your mental model when you find out the answer. From there, you might argue for explaining rules that are critical to victory before breaking into the sequence of play; for Unhappy King Charles! and Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, for example, one might make an argument to explain political and provincial control second rather than in sequence of play order.

The other thing this argues strongly against is up-front terminology explanations, which have become distressingly common in GMT rulebooks. Pursuit of Glory has two dense pages of terminology up front which are almost totally incomprehensible since you have no context for understanding what they're going on about. Pursuit of Glory is actually a multiple, severe offender here. We get terrain effects on combat on page 4 before we've even gotten to the sequence of play. Detailed unit descriptions are on page 6 and 7 before we have any way of understanding what these unit distinctions actually mean in game terms, so the rules of course have to repeat everything again later, which itself becomes incredibly problematic. There is absolutely no reason to introduce a rule like this before the reader can possibly understand it.

You get or lose players in the first five pages or so, and almost definitely by page 10. If players can get get a running start on what the game is all about – if you get them a solid context to work with - they'll have hope, even if your game is complicated. If they're on page 8 and still haven't got past the component overview, as is the case in Pursuit of Glory, you're screwed. Put the glossary at the end.

Tell 'em Once: There is an old rule of business presentations: "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you've told 'em". Unless you intend your rules to be read by disinterested and bored people who don't really want to be there, this is terrible advice for rules-writers. If you're repeating rules (like the Blockade rules, repeated several times in Pursuit of Glory), you're re-building a part of the mental model you've already built. Unless it's absolutely unavoidable, do it once and cross-reference.

The Once per Game Test: Rules need momentum and continuity. You need to build up an understanding of the core game systems before you deal with flavor rules. Any rules that applies only once per game should not be in the main body. Unhappy King Charles! is an offender here, with a couple pages of one-off rules right smack in the middle of the rulebook, breaking up the coherency the game system explanation. One-offs should be at the end, in their own categorized sections, unless there is a compelling reason otherwise.

In the same vein, one of the absolutely critical strengths of these card-driven wargames is that they can put a lot of these sorts of one-off rules - which are great for flavor but hugely problematic in terms of increasing real complexity - in the cards without burdening the player with learning them up front or having to remember them (in fact, for many folks not knowing exactly what is in the decks is a desirable feature of the first few games). One should leverage this. If a card explains its effect(s) perfectly clearly, it doesn't need a rule. Pursuit of Glory is again a repeat offender here, including (for example) rules 7.4.1, 7.4.2, 17.2.2 & 18.2.2 which, while admittedly short, are still unnecessary.

The Less than Once per Game Test: Any rules that take effect less than once per game (on average), whether they are rules that cover oddball situations that rarely come up or are chrome, should also be removed from the main rules. If they are patching up the rules to cover rare but awkward situations they should be in footnotes or something similar. If it's a real rule that has an application of less than once per game, you should first consider if you really need it, then put it somewhere where it isn't going to bother anyone.

Bad Game Systems Make Bad Rules: If you're having a hard time explaining something, it may be the fault of the game system, not the rules. If, as in Pursuit of Glory's section 11.2.2, you find yourself apologizing that seriously, this rule is actually really simple and just hard to explain clearly, you have officially entered the swamp. Which Turkish and Bulgarian LCUs can't do, apparently.

Designer's and Historical Notes: I love designer's and historical notes. I don't love them when they break up the flow of the rules. Too often they just serve to provide historical rationalization for bad rules, and they rarely, if ever, serve to help learn, clarify, or remember things. Put them at the end as a serious piece, like Avalon Hill used to do. Alternatively, do what Columbia does and have a three-column format, two with rules, and one with historical notes, designer's notes, optional rules, and other interesting tidbits where you can both see them (if you're interested) without having to delve into the rules, and also delve into the rules without being distracted by them.

An Index: If you have more than 12 pages of rules, have an index. Seriously. It's not that hard these days, and it has the added bonus that if your index is a mess, your rules are probably a mess too. It's insane how many complicated games don't have indices. Like Pursuit of Glory and The Devil's Cauldron.

Write Rules: While a game may have a goal - to teach some history, to espouse a theory of mobile warfare, to explain why things happened the way they did - once you cross the threshold from light to medium-weight, the game’s rules’ only goal must be to build the player’s mental model. That’s it. The rules are not the place to defend your design decisions, put across your point of view, or explain the history. The rules must be designed to cleanly and clearly explain the game system(s), nothing more. The systems themselves are, after all, supposed to be the vehicle through which you do all that other stuff and should stand on their own. Anything else belongs in footnotes, Designer’s Notes, Developer’s Notes, Historical Notes, More Notes, Appendices, Further Reading, Historical Booklet, Further Notes, or whatever.

As I finish writing this piece, I realize my goal - of setting down some hard and fast rules for writing rules to more complicated games - is obviously bigger than I could hope to tackle. So I ask you to help me out here. What are the worst mistakes you’ve seen rules-writers make, and what would you do to correct them? What are some of the best rules styles you’ve seen? For my part, I think Ted Raicer does good job - his original rules for Paths of Glory and WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin stand as good models for card-driven wargames of this sort. Even though they’ve become a bit needlessly bloated in recent updates of the living rules, they’re still pretty good. Mark Simonitch and Vance Von Borries also do a good job. While I might sometimes quibble with the follow-through, I think Richard Berg knows how to do this stuff properly. I like Columbia’s format a lot for their higher-end games like EastFront and Rommel in the Desert. On the other hand, GMT’s line of card-driven wargames has a lot of entries with painfully bad rules.


  1. Lovely article Chris.

    This reminds me of one of the greatest fubars in gaming history; Collateral Attacks on page A1 of the 1st Ed ASL Rulebook. You read about Collateral Attacks in the car park the day you bought the rules; Four chapters and 20 years later you still don't know what a Collateral Attack is!


  2. Ah, Collateral Attacks. Getting back into ASL a bit myself these days, I almost tried to work those into the piece. That really was a terrific rules section. You're literally going along on the very first page of this huge rulebook, getting basic intro stuff, and then all of a sudden they whack you with this hugely convoluted and incomprehensible rule section covering all these obscure cases that you'll never need until much later. If ever.

    There used to be a theory that the Collateral Attacks were actually consciously introduced at that point in order to make you take a personal morale check. If you're not going to be able to hack it, you might as well figure it out right away.

    Alas, in the 2nd Edition ASL rulebook, Collateral Attacks have been moved to a more appropriate rules section (D something). They kept a cross-reference at the top of page 2, though.

  3. The rulebook to Confucius had me laughing a few weeks ago. I was trying to find something, saw that there was an index, thought "hey, cool," and then read something like "Emperor Reward: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16." Huh...well at least we can skip pages 3 and 14....

  4. Thanks for bringing this topic up. My gaming hobby consists far more of reading rules than actually playing any of these games, and it's not all for lack of available opponents, or even time; most of the rule books are terribly edited, full of errors, and depressingly missing a crucial idea -- introducing a goal and a conflict, and introducing the kinds of decisions one will have to make along the way.

    It's far easier to point to the good examples than figure out how to spot the bad ones. A few good ones come to mind: Silent War, Combat Commander, and OCS (though its length is challenging). A recent terrible, otherwise-sure-purchase-defeating example: Fields of Fire. One that just leaves me cold and disinterested: Panzer Grenadier.

    Even with poor organization, poor writing skills, trying to cover a lackluster game, these developers should at least have pride enough in their work to hire a proofreader. Failing that, use a spell checker, and be aware of what it will miss. Mind the typography. Even though it's "just" a rule book for a game, it's still a book. Live up to the craft.

    I sent about three pages worth of corrections to Mark Herman for Empire of the Sun, and, while he was grateful, he conceded that he doubted the rule book would ever be reprinted in a way that could benefit from the corrections.

  5. I generally agree with you on saying something once, but recently I found an instance where I'd contradict that. It was in Columbia's new Texas Glory game, and it involves playing and drawing cards. The ONLY place in the rules that drawing a new card each turn is mentioned is way at the end, right after reinforcements are discussed. From all the questions on CSW, the CG forums, and BGG, it is clear that that whole concept (play one card per turn, draw one card at end of turn) was unclear. It would've been fine to mention, first thing in the rules, a brief turn order that indicated this more clearly.

    So I think there is room for judicious repetition, but obviously it can easily get out of hand.

  6. Having read your criticism of the Pursuit rulebook, it's hard to disagree. Certainly, the rulebook is very long, is quite repetitive, and contains a lot of details which seem unnecessary, or could have been on the cards (although, not having played yet, I couldn't say for sure).

    However, I do think they did a few things right. First of all, it does come with several play aids, including one which is intended to present all the major differences in the rules between Paths and Pursuit. I think that experienced Paths players could read this and probably play the game without major errors.

    Secondly, the rules have a bold-text header for each rule. I think these headers will make it much easier to find a particular rule section when you are looking for it (which will probably happen fairly often, especially early on). Hopefully the extensive repetition in the rulebook will mean that, when you do look for a particular rule, you can find it, read it, and have all the information you need. Admittedly cross-references would probably have been better.

    In other words, I really think they structured the rulebook as a comprehensive reference, and NOT as a teaching tool. Obviously this makes the game a huge hurdle for new players, which is bad. But if the rulebook actually succeeds as a reference, then maybe it's worth it. Time will tell if it does succeed.

  7. re: Texas Glory, that play-a-card/draw-a-card thing totally eluded me as well until I sat down to play, and then I struggled for a little bit to sort it out. In general, Columbia gets this right with brief overviews that generally capture the flow of the game in a column or less, followed by the full rules, which are generally pretty tight. But, that said, a lot of their recent games have had rules glitches, both in terms of errata and unclear situations (TG had some setup errata as well as the card drawing confusion, Athens & Sparta was not entirely clear on some of the army/navy interactions, and there was some confusion surrounding harassing a knight's charges in assaults in Crusader Rex). I've in been a huge fan of Columbia in the past, but some of their recent releases have been disappointing. I do really like how they do their rules though, the process just doesn't seem to have been as tight of late.

  8. re: Pursuit of Glory, I really don't think the rules are defensible on learning vs. referencing grounds. For Breakout: Normandy, I think that defense works; they are hard to read the first time through, but clear once you've made your way through them, in retrospect. Pursuit of Glory's rules are just plain murk. I would buy the reference thing if they had an index, or cross-references, or were written in a basically clear way. But they aren't. They're bloated, over-explained, and out-of-order.

    Now, they're better than Empire of the Sun's rules, which are frequently incomprehensible, with critical rules in odd places, not cross-referenced, plus there is no index. But that's not saying much.

    One thing they did get generally right for Pursuit though is the reference cards. The intro for people who have played Paths of Glory is a great way to give people a solid foundation to work with. I actually started with the rules rather than with that sheet, trusting the indicators in the margins which say "this is different from PoG" to help, but they're basically worthless since they flag entire sections where there is maybe only one small change. After going through the intro sheet I was motivated to actually give the game a chance.

    The Pursuit of Glory rules are the second set of rules I've been really tempted to re-do, not just because they are so bad, but because making a major improvement in usability seems like it would be quite easy, and the game does look fairly interesting (the other game was Triumph of Chaos).

  9. Back into ASL, eh? Was it the Starter Kits that did it?

  10. I am in the process of finishing up the first draft of the rules for a game I am working on. I have printed out this column and will be rewriting the rules tonight trying to abide my its' rules. Being an engineer writing does not come easily to me - Thanks for the pointers.

  11. Chris, seen Fields of Fire yet? :)

  12. Gah wrote a long post which I managed to delete. Bottom line--I would happily play PuG sometime (it's very fun, somewhat more baroque than PoG and ultimately may not be as robust, but that's compensated for in my mind by the opportunity to discover the game on my own). I also have a game I've written which I'd love to show you sometime and hand you the (currently 18-page) rulebook to rewrite in a more streamlined style. I'm a completist by nature in rules writing (think Bowen Simmons) and I think in this internet age it makes more sense to make something shorter with an online FAQ for the nitpickers.

  13. Oh and I meant to say...Great to discover this blog is still alive! I hadn't checked it in several months, so a nice discovery on a slow Friday.

  14. I may sound like a luddite, but the mainstream games are a good example to follow, here. Non-hasbro games have surpassed the once once "Hollywood" production quality of the mainstream game makers, but the quality of the rule books of non-mainstream games still have a lot of catching up to do. Perhaps a good example of a mainstream mistake is House on Haunted Hill-however, for a complicated game, the rule book was fairly easy to use. The only problem was it was filled with mistakes. You want a game that at somepoint can run without the rule book-so the rules don't take you out of the gameplay experience. I say too many one-time rules that can't be explained on a card (part of the game) should be taken out of the game.