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.