The latest assignment that we have been working on in our course was to create a board game. This task, naturally, included the production of some sort of manual for the players to be able to play without an instructor.
Now, when it comes to writing the rules, I remember this part as being the weakest point of our blitz-workshops during the first year. And after I checked some manuals written by other groups for our current project, I felt happy about the way I decided to approach our own rules.
Note: this is written without any kind of literature as a reference point. It’s just the way I see this process.
- Introduction (to the “magic circle”)
- Physical components
- Board set up
- Gameplay or player’s actions.
- Turn order
- Game end and scoring
Other things to think of:
“Stylisation” – the consistency, the flavour and the imagery.
The way I see an introduction is a line where a player enters the “magic circle”. Now, don’t panic, I never actually read Huizinga so I don’t know in details how his magic circle works. But I still have my own interpretation as to how it might work. And in my head, the magic circle starts with reading the first paragraph of the rulebook. For this reason, it must introduce a bunch of questions, in an optimal way, to the player:
Who am I? Where am I? What is happening right now? What is going to happen?
You might not have answers to all these questions, but you should able be answer some of them. Obviously, it is easier to explain these questions if your game has a clear narrative and is based on familiar realities, but if your game isn’t like that, I would still consider making some story. Any story, to be honest. The way I did the introduction for our game project was to first have a paragraph that is an invitation (to answer the question of Who?, Where? and What?). Then I included a short paragraph of what is essentially the thoughts of a character in the game. But it is also the character that the player will become. In a way, these thoughts become the player thoughts to explain the “What am I going to do?”. I know, it’s not fair to place thoughts in people’s heads, but this was my solution for our project.
Finally, I included a paragraph that explains all the given information in a less flavoured and a more straightforward way to avoid any misunderstandings.
You can imagine it like this: you are in the theatre and you start to watch a play. After some time, you sneak a pick into your program (you know, the thing where they put all the names of the actors, their roles and, just to make sure the unclean masses are aware of what is happening, the synopsis of each act) to make sure you interpret the play in the correct way.
And that is the way I see the introduction, as a nice establishment of the setting, that pulls the player inside of this magic circle.
Next, as a player, I would like to know what is inside the box. For this reason, I explain what are all the pieces and tokens in the game and how they might interact with each other. If one of the pieces has to do with the victory condition, you should mention that without going into much detail.
Why this part? Because we just introduced the player to a new reality where most of the things are happening in our minds. However, these game components are something that a player can touch. These exist, just like the player, in both realities simultaneously. For this reason, it’s a good idea to go “you know all this stuff in the box? All those card/paper/plastic pieces? They are actually not what you think they are!”. And now both the player and the pieces of the game are inside the magic circle.
Setting up the board
Now that the player is introduced to the physical components of the game, it’s time to construct the arena. Build this from bottom up: the bigger pieces are placed first, small pieces are placed last. You should mention if anything on the board has to do with the winning, but without going into much detail.
Btw, I personally consider generating a world as part of the gameplay, rather than board set up. Here is the reason why: because players don’t know yet what they can do in this world, thus making any decisions they take in generating the world mostly random decision. And for that reason, the world can just be generated by a random number generator. If you want players to generate a world with the awareness of the process, that is already part of the gameplay.
Gameplay (In other words – player’s actions)
After the arena is ready, it’s time to tell the players what they can do and can’t do. This section is supposed to explain all the possible interactions between the player and the elements of the game. Anything a player has the freedom to choose to perform should be mentioned here.
Turn of order
Now that we explained what is in the game, and what a player can DO, all that’s left is to tell the player in which order the things should be performed time after time after time (the loop) and when the game ends. This section is an excellent material to hand out to the players on a separate sheet of paper.
End of the game and the score
It is important to establish somewhere in the previous sections as to what exactly triggers the end of the game, but this here section is the place where I would explain in detail the conditions of ending the match and how the score is calculated.
And that is what I would call the technical set of rules and how to serve them to the player.
Once I have the technical parts of the game, I would then work through the whole text again and apply something I would call “stylisation”. This part of writing has to do with the consistency of the text, the narration or the flavour, and improving the understanding of the text via images.
You must ensure that everything in the text is called the same way. What previously was synonymous now must to be called one way only to help avoid any confusion. Ideally, you should establish the names of your game elements long before writing the rules to help communication between the team members. But when you are writing the rules it is easier to identify flaws in the naming conventions. This also means that you can identify things that are called in a similar way.
This part is connected to consistency in a way that allows you to call objects and actions in a way that fortifies your magic circle. The rules are part of the game and must reflect it through embracing the world they explain. Words like “cards”, “tokens”, “players”, etc. can be turned into “items”, “coins”, “lords and ladies” to emphasize the world that they exist in. In the same way, you should relay the rules of the game not as dictated dogmas, but as logical chains of events in this particular magic circle. Your rules may have a reason behind them mechanic-wise, but for a player that is irrelevant. A flavour text that explains why something can or can’t be done is a great way to help the player memorize the rules and create more emergence.
This one is simple. To maximize the readability of the text I would like to have a picture of any physical part of a mechanic of the game that the text is explaining. This is a lot of work, and it requires some structuring to make a nice flow of text, but as the saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
And that is how my perfect rulebook would look like if I ever went into the making of board games, which I’m not sure if I want. But this assignment taught me a lot about how to properly present the information to a user.