Rules of Engagement

I'm back this week to talk a little bit about one of the most important aspect of game design - writing your rules.

Writing rules for your game is one of the most important aspects of game design, and it is also one of the trickiest. If you write rules that are too simple, the player is left questioning many things, while overly complicated rules drown the player with information overload.

One way to achieve the balance between simplicity and complication is to write both versions of your rules. While you can create a long, in-depth document with all the interactions and how everything is required to play out, you can also create a "quick start" guide with only the most common interactions. This is how Wizards of the Coast handles the rules for Magic. They created the Quick Start Guide which covers all the basic interactions in the game, and intended for new players. It gives a player enough information on how to play their first games of Magic, and is sufficient for casual players. For the more advanced players, there are the Comprehensive Rules. This 211-page monstrosity deals with all the various interactions that can arise with a game that includes over 13,000 cards that has spanned over 20 years of design.

If you look at the two documents I linked, you'll notice the language is different in them. The Quick Start Guide is very straightforward and easy to understand. The Comprehensive Rules are written in language that is more akin to "legalese." Again, striking a balance between the two is one of the difficulties you'll face while writing your rules.

The main thing I found while writing the rules for Shipload o'Gold was to be consistent and clear in terminology. Rather than refer to cards generically, Action Cards and Weather Cards are always specified, as are specific individual cards when required. We also had to make it clear that there were certain phases to a turn (similar to Magic) and that events can only happen in specific phases. 

The best bit of advice is to ensure that you are writing your rules so that someone that has absolutely no exposure to your game can understand how to play after a quick read-through. Since you'll probably be sick of your game because you spent so much time designing it, asking friends or family that haven't played or seen your game to read through your rules and play on their own is invaluable.

Another aspect to consider is that your rules are one of the few aspects of your game that could be protected by copyright rules. This means it's doubly important to spend a decent amount of time on them, making sure that they are clear and specific to your game.