August 27, 2011

Writing Rules (i.e. Design)

I've had several people ask me to review their rules lately. I love this kind of work, to be honest. Good feedback in game development is so hard to find and I try to provide good feedback. I've had the itch to write a larger post about my overall thoughts on rules and design, especially in light of what I've been reading and the type of feedback I've given. I've decided it's time to scratch the itch.

Before I start spouting off epic truths, I want to throw in the disclaimer that I'm still relatively new at board game design. I have 3 games, only one of which was worth self-publishing, and I've just turned my full game playing focus from digital games to board games over the past few months. But, I've been producing and designing digital games for 6 years. Surprise surprise, board game designers can learn a great deal from digital game designers and vice versa.

Rules are so Crucial
Everyone has their own creative process. Honestly, there is no one correct way to do anything in this world. But, I believe that good rules should  be created to act as a foundation for your game as soon as possible.

Rule writing isn't fun (for some), but they are the first experience your customers will have with your game. As awesome as it would be for me to ship with every game I sell, I don't. That means my first dozen customers must read my rules, understand them, and play with friends. They have to understand them to teach my next dozen customers. Not only that, but if my rules aren't understood and the game is played incorrectly, there's a chance people won't have fun and that's my fault, not theirs. Or if they play correctly, but believe they may have read the rules incorrectly, I've failed there too.

Writing rules early forces you to put every mechanic and piece of content in perspective and forces you to answer this question:

How will my players learn this mechanic? 

This is one of the biggest mistakes developers routinely make in the digital space. They create this massive game over the course of years, then shove some horrid "tutorial" in at the last minute. Guess what? It shows. So many great games have failed over the years not because their game wasn't amazing, but because their tutorial was garbage.

Write your rules early. Let them frame your decision making process.

Get to the experience
We game designers often think of the means to an and not necessarily the end. We get bogged down in over-balancing a feature during the brainstorm process or piling a heap of "wouldn't it be cool if" mechanics on top of something. We push so hard to be unique and new and innovative that we muddy an otherwise excellent mechanic behind non-intuitive tweaks. In my opinion, we should phrase the question as:

What is a cool thing to do, and what is the easiest way to do it?

Balance must exist in the final game. And if your game isn't new or fresh, nobody will play it. But, we have to start simpler and add layers, not the other way around.

A great way to do this is to look at games that you love. Look to the games that inspire you, or games that already have a similar mechanic. Recently, when writing the rules for my new game, I broke out my copy of Forbidden Island to see how they phrased the instructions for re-shuffling your discard pile. Thousands of people have played that game -- I want the language they used to do it. No mechanic is too small to create confusion!

When making a cooperative game, you should look very closely at Pandemic and Betrayal at House on the Hill and Shadows Over Camelot. Thousands have played these games and it would serve you well to deeply understand how complex their individual mechanics are, how they explain them to players, and where they think it's important to add one-off design decisions and extra complexity.

The digital space does this as well. World of Warcraft released with the best user interface in any MMO to date. Since then, several MMOs have copied this user interface. Are they lame for doing so? No. Why force players to re-learn something for the sake of re-learning? Halo launched on Xbox with stunningly good first-person shooter controls on a console. If you're not going to use this control scheme, you need a good reason.

Here's a metaphor that I think sums up what I'm getting at -- you don't need to reinvent the wheel. The wheel works just fine. You're reinventing the car that uses the wheel.

Confusion is the Devil

If your rules or design lead to any confusion, no matter how minuscule, you need to take stock and think about it. I designed Farmageddon to be incredibly straightforward and easy to learn, yet almost every time I heard from one of my players, they had a slight question or confusion. At times I still hear this and it acts as a reminder that I can and must do better.

You'll receive, by and large, two kinds of feedback on your game: design and confusion. Design feedback is typically things like "It'd be cool if you added this" or "have you considered balancing the mechanic like so" and so forth. You can take or ignore these as you see fit. You know your game, you know your goals, and you must draw a line in the sand at some point. Anybody can evolve any game infinitely, but at some point, you need to say "no mas."

Confusion feedback, however, is a four alarm fire in my opinion. The key feedback I give when reading rules is "I was confused by ." Sometimes my confusion lasts a few seconds. Sometimes I re-read the paragraph three times. In either case, these things add up. If I finish a 10 page rule document and I'm confused twice per page, that's 20 things that caused me pause. It's like being pecked to death by a duck!

I've had people tell me "Oh, that's not confusing. You'll get it once you play." I probably won't play if I don't get your game. More frustrating than losing, for me, is winning OR losing without a clear understanding of the rules within which the game took place. 

I've also had people fall into the classic designer's trap, which is a battle each and every one of us faces daily, which is when we allow our understanding of the rules to veto someone else's misunderstanding. We know our game inside and out. We've seen it from infancy to adulthood. Of course we understand every inch. In fact, we're overly familiar. Just because we can recite the mechanics by memory doesn't excuse us for letting a new player be confused. 

If I am confused, I am having less fun. 

It's really that simple.

I'll be Brief

Keep it short.

Every line you write in your rules is another chance for me to be confused.

Every line you write is another second I'm reading about your game, not playing your game.

Lengthy rules are intimidating and scary to most people.

Read Don't Make me Think by Steve Krug. The book says it's about web design, but it's about product design. It's about game design. I consider this to be required reading for anyone who creates a product of any sort.

Use Pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words. Yes, we all know this. I've recently bought a LOT of board games (who loves birthdays? This guy!) which means I've been reading a LOT of rules. The best I've read, in my opinion, are the ones for Forbidden Island and Pandemic. I assure you, this has a lot to do with why these games have sold so well, won so many awards, and are played so often. Little surprise that the designer, Matt Leacock, is the Principle User Experience Designer for his company. This man knows how to teach people how to use something!

(By the way, Matt's employer, Sococo, isn't a game development studio. You know that Don't Make me Think link above? Click it.)

Pandemic is actually a pretty meaty game! Four players, classes, a complex disease spreading mechanic, many options for each player during a turn... But it's not overwhelming because every single brief explanation is paired with an image. He even has a diagram for drawing cards! I found the PDF of the rules on Z-Man's site.

There are so many ways to interpret any rule statement in a game. If you make a statement and show them a picture with a big arrow that says "When this happens, DO THIS," well, your confusion rate will plummet.

In Summary...
It doesn't matter how good your design or art are if your rules are obtuse and confusing. If a player does not get past your rules, everything else is irrelevant. I once heard the statistic (that seems correct to me) that 90% of a game's players never read the rules. The 10% who did read them explain the rules to everyone else and it continues outwards from there. 

If your rules are bad, then the 10% will never tell the 90%. 

I realize this was a really long post. Here's your reward.


Ray said...

Amen. Good post Grant.

The easiest way to learn the rules is when you have someone who's played the game and can explain them to everyone else.

And if you don't have that person, you resort to reading.

So here's a thought: why not record a video of you explaining the rules and upload to youtube? Create it in sections in case players have questions about a specific aspect of your game. Link from your home page and from the top of the physical rules. Suggest that players view it on their smartphones if they don't have a computer nearby. Use QR Generator ( to make a QR code so players have no excuse not to follow the link if they have a smart phone.

You still don't have the immediate back-and-forth that allows real-time questions, but it's a great step up from having to parse a rules document.

Players can leave you questions about your rules right on the video page -- end each video section with, "if you have questions, ask below!" You could even have a Q&A section with links to specific questions and you answering them.

Written rules are of utmost importance because they are a last resort... but hey, the more we can do to keep players from having to use them, the better.

With the future right around the corner, players will be more and more comfortable with an approach like this. Well... worth a shot anyway! See how many video rule page hits you get versus copies you sell.


Ray said...

(Another reason your post is important: the better job you do crafting the written rules, the better you will be able to explain them in person!)

Grant said...

I need to make videos for setup, playing a turn, and more for Farmageddon and every game I make going forward.

It's good for marketing AND explaining things. No reason not to. Every iPhone is a video camera.