Since I posted my rhetorical question, “How many really good (war)games have had really lousy rulebooks?”, there have been some suggestions. Some good ones, but nothing I’m quite prepared to back off my position for.
Note, I wasn’t asking for good (war)games with mediocre rulebooks. I was asking for really good games with really bad rulebooks. Here are some of the candidates that have been presented:
Breakout: Normandy: I’m not sure how this got a reputation for bad rules. I actually think they are pretty good. Dense, sure, but well-organized, complete, and precise. Rules can be optimized for learning or referencing. Breakout: Normandy errs in favor of referencing, i.e., not expecting you to learn everything on your first read-through, but being able to easily find stuff when you need it for the first few plays. For this kind of game, I think that decision is eminently sensible.
The Napoleonic Wars: Yes, I agree the rules here would qualify as wretched (worse than Empire of the Sun, probably). While this game has its fans and I sort of get why people like it – I decided I might even give it another chance sometime – I don’t think it’s in danger of entering the top tier.
Republic of Rome, Up Front: These are great games. Well, Republic of Rome is anyway, Up Front was a great game but may not be anymore. Regardless, while the rules are difficult, I think they largely just reflect the inherent complexity of the game. They are also reflective of the fact that they both have a “chromy” complexity, i.e., lots of little details wrapped around a lot of different systems. Altercations with recent GMT rulesets like The Napoleonic Wars, Grand Illusion, and Empire of the Sun have actually given me nostalgia for these rules. Sure, they were involved, but they did tell you how to play and you could figure out where stuff was. You could argue that the games really ought be simpler, but given that things are as they are, the rules do a pretty good job.
Rommel in the Desert (1st Edition): Yes, the rulebook was weak, and yes, the game is great. But the rulebook certainly wasn’t awful. I was up and playing with a minimum of fuss, using the short rulebook and 1 page of erratta/Q&A. There is only so much damage you can do if you have a clean system and only 12 pages rules and can remain basically coherent throughout. But I do know folks who have had more trouble with these rules than I did.
Anyway, it’s important to take my point in the right way. It’s not a question really of whether you can do a good or poor job of writing rules for a good game. The point is that if not enough effort has been spent on the most critical part of the game – the rules – what are the odds that substantially greater rigor went into the design process? Really bad rules, like we’ve seen from GMT in Thirty Year’s War, The Napoleonic Wars, and now Grand Illusion and Empire of the Sun, are more than likely just the tip of the iceberg. People say (with respect to Empire of the Sun) that they know there is a good game in there somewhere; I think there is clearly a good idea in there, but there is a lot of evidence it needed another year to gestate – almost identical to Mr. Herman’s previous For the People. In cases like this, the P500 system may be a real problem for GMT, in that it makes customers impatient (since they feel like they’ve already paid) and aligns a lot of forces on them to release a product before its time.
I am still looking forward to playing some more Empire of the Sun, playing the 1942-1943 time period, because I think that the game’s biggest problems are in 1941 and 1944-45. I am actually pretty optimistic that this will work and within those constraints, the game might be fun. But I am still not happy overall with the quality of this product and am irritated with GMT and the developer (Stephen Newberg) for not saying “no” and, at the absolute minimum, sending the rules back for a re-write and getting the player aids right. Having paid money for a game that has some obvious problems is a bummer; but even more aggravating is knowing an opportunity for a great game has been missed and can’t be taken back. When GMT has a sure-fire seller like this (big name, very popular “system”) they might do well to do it as a “regular” release.
As a postscript, I apologize for beating up on GMT here, because they do make quite a lot of rather good games and some of their rulebooks are also good (anything by Vance vonBorries or Mark Simonitch, Europe Engulfed, Downtown, Paths of Glory). I’ll still P500 anything vonBorries or Simonitch puts on the list. Decision and Avalanche are much more worthy of scorn, but since they rarely make anything worth playing in the first place, there seems to be little point in chastising them.