Board game rule books are written wrong, but I’ve only recently understood why.
Talk with board gamers long enough, and one of them will tell you that the rule books are awful. We all agree on that. People will offer ideas about why they’re awful — they’re organized poorly, you can never find the one rule you have a question about when you need to, they’re translated from Dutch…
But those complaints miss something more fundamental: board game rule books are written backwards from how they should be written.
Take, for example, the rules to Puerto Rico. The front page includes some flavor text, a box of text about the game’s goal and a box of text about the game’s contents. The flavor text and contents are fine, but let’s look at the goal box.
Puerto Rico: An example of poorly-written board game rule books
You can read all of that text if you like, but let me summarize.
The first paragraph has nothing to do with the goal of the game. Instead, it explains the process of the game. We want would-be players to learn the process of the game, but the heading claimed this was going to tell them about their goal.
This block of texts continues through another entire paragraph about plantations, craftsmen and producing goods. It’s not until the last sentence that we get the actual goal: “The winner is the player who earns the most victory points.”
This is a small thing, but this goal box serves as a microcosm of the larger problem.
Let’s zoom out.
Page two gives us an explanation of how to set up the board. That’s fine.
The next page brings the reader a wall of text under a heading that reads: Playing the Game.
The opening paragraph here explains the basic flow of a turn. Then, it gets into a detailed explanation of each role. There’s a place for both of these things, but there’s a problem with opening this way. The reader so far has only the faintest idea what they’re trying to do.
You might counter that’s the point of reading the rules — and it is! — but the progression of this and many other board game rules books makes them harder to understand.
Imagine that someone with no knowledge of the subject asked you how to play baseball. If you start by telling them that the batter gets a free pass to first base if the pitcher misses the strike zone four times, they’re going to be completely confused. They don’t have any context to understand what a strike zone is, what a batter is or what a pitcher is. By the time you explain how the team with the most runs at the end of nine innings wins, your conversation partner will completely forget the base-on-balls rule.
Read your board game rule books backward
This is basically how most board game rule books are written. They vomit details at the reader and hope those details to build into a picture. But, by the time you can see the picture, you forget the details and have to read the rule book again to fully grasp the game.
Think back to the last time you read a fresh set of board game rules and you’ll realize that I’m right.
So, what’s the alternative? Write the rules backward. Start with the goal. Then notch back to the last thing you need to do to achieve that goal. Then notch back to what you need to do to be able to do the previous thing.
If you want to see this in action, we have an example in another post.