There’s Something Fantastic About a Well Written Rulebook, and Why Rulebooks Need Be Celebrated
There’s something akin to childish joy upon opening a new game. With a sigh, the box lid reluctantly lets go of its counterpart and reveals the components of the game. The colorful gameboard, the pieces, the sheets of unpunched counters, and everything else that will make the game go all packed together in perfect order. Each piece is reverently removed, adoringly examined, and gently set aside. When done examining the components, the pieces are carefully returned to the box and the lid replaced, but the rulebook is set aside for a deeper, thorough review.
The most important piece in a game box is the rulebook. The rulebook details how all the pieces work together in order to play the game. Some gamers might make a strong argument that the best way to understand a game is to watch a “how to play” video, but in the middle of a game, when a rules question arises, such videos are of little help and players will reach for the rulebook for illumination and clarification. But sometimes rulebooks are in fact a source of confusion and fail to deliver when clarification is desperately needed.
Case in point, Santa left a copy of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition under the tree last year. Almost exclusively we’ve played it nearly a score of times as a two-player cooperative game, and only recently have we actually come close to winning. Part of our difficulties were due to unluck of the draw and poor grasping of implied strategies, but the majority of our losses are attributable to a subpar rulebook that lacked concise information about and explanation of the Production cycle in the game. For a long time we underpaid ourselves and the building of our respective engines was glacial. Further critical scouring of the rulebook partially elucidated an improvement of our fiduciary predicament. But such floundering could have been wholly avoided had the rulebook clearly offered a concise breakdown and thorough example of the Production cycle. Fortunately, the game was unpredictable and captivating enough to keep us intrigued and willing to try again and again to beat the timer and Terraform Mars.
Rulebook deficiency is sadly an all too common occurrence throughout the gaming world. Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line: Medieval, includes a set of bonus terrain cards with no rules on how to include them in your games, especially when contradictions arise. It seemed like the publisher, GMT Games, who typically produces top notch rulebooks, added the extra terrain features before publication just for some added chrome but without a rulebook revision. This happened to me when I was trying to impress a friend who was well-versed in playing card card games. We laid out Battle Line: Medieval and played a quick game with the regular rules, but when we added the terrain cards to our second game we almost immediately ran into a snag and could find no succor in the rulebook or at the publisher’s website. Sadly, I didn’t make a convert to the wider world of gaming that night.
Batman: Gotham City Chronicles also offers a rulebook snafu. But this time the publisher, Monolith, asked the public on Board Game Geek (BBG) to read over the English rulebook before publication and give them any corrections found. Aside from the fact that the company opted not to hire an editor, and instead chose to crowdsource the editing for them gratis, the company subsequently ignored the errors spotted by sharp eyed reviewers and in fact published it with the errors. I can only guess why Monolith chose this route, it does seem foolish or arrogant or just plain lazy, but it does diminish the patina of professionalism that the craft should be embracing and striving towards.
Scythe represents a slightly different take on a rulebook with clarification issues. Scythe is a complex game with a lot of moving parts to try to stay atop of, and at first read the rulebook at parts seems confusing and contradictory. When I was reading through the rules for the first time I came across what I thought for sure was a glaring editing blunder. I even brought the rulebook to Nick, a sharp eyed gamer whose intelligence I respect, and we had a good chuckle and head scratch over what we assumed was a misprint. But we nevertheless laid out and played the game, and we played it without any hiccups once we got a couple of rounds under our belt. I have since played it a handful of times and again without stalling due to rulebook deficiency. And in writing this article I went back and reread that rulebook, eagerly searching for that perceived error. I even asked Nick if he remembered the error we had laughed about, and he couldn’t readily recall the episode, so he downloaded the rulebook and reread too, but couldn’t find the issue we previously thought so erroneous. So. Sometimes when a rule seems fiddly or incongruous at first read, the reader might need to play through a game first before deciding whether an error is truly apparent or not. And after rereading the rulebook for Scythe both Nick and I are anxious to sit down and play the game again.
Admittingly, I must confess that I’m occasionally guilty of that cardinal gaming sin and sometimes I lose my precious rulebooks. Back in the pre-pandemic days I tended to take rulebooks along to the gym where they’d be read on the treadmill instead of staring dumbly at one of the tv screens, or they’d reside on the kitchen table for long periods of time. And yes, they’d sometimes not make it back to their box in a timely manner and eventually get cycled out and placed in a pile of other semi-important papers where eventually they’d be further buried and lost to all reckoning. And while I have yet to curtail my proclivity of separating rulebooks from game boxes, I have endeavored to keep a close eye on where rulebooks get laid while out of their boxes.
In closing, there’s something truly unique about a well written rulebook. Rulebooks aren’t yet appreciated at the same level of poetry or the catalogue of literature that your local librarian would be delighted to help you take home for an investigation. But just because the organizers of the major yearly games celebrations across the globe haven’t recognized this as a category to be awarded and cheered, it’s high time that the gaming community raises it as being truly worthy to consider for recognition.
I propose an award be given to the best rulebook of the year. The Academy Awards gives an Oscar to the best screenwriter each year, the gaming community should do the same for rulebooks. Putting aside the notion of production (ie. full color print on glossy pages), we would need a rubric to measure rulebooks. Are there spelling errors in the text? Are there malaprops in the text (correctly spelled wrong words)? Are there editing errors in the text (French subject lines in the English rulebook or incorrect icons)? Is the text clear, concise, and unambiguous? Is the rulebook arranged so that an issue (say movement through occupied areas) can be quickly located? Are the examples included illustrative of issues that might arise during game play, and do they clarify often confusing issues in game play? And lastly, I would personally add clever and witty to the rulebook rubric as well, but I realize that subject is highly subjective.
Now let’s assume that the goal of every game designer is to write and publish a rulebook that is welcoming, easily accessible, clear, and hopefully inspiring. There is one profession that could greatly assist in this endeavor - an editor. An editor is a sharp eyed human who carefully pours over the text and highlights errors and inconsistencies prior to publication, sending them back for correction and address. The game publishing community is sorely lacking in editors and professional editorship. The gaming community would be so much better, so much more professional, with dedicated editors on staff.
Imagine games that needed no searching of BBG or their website for errata, clarifications, and rewrites. Imagine no longer needing to print out pages of errata, clarifications, and rewrites to be included with rulebooks. Imagine rulebooks no longer being thrown against the wall in frustration, or taken to a friend and laughed over. Imagine a writer and editor going home with shiny awards for the finest rulebook of the year at gaming conventions. Imagine gamers cherishing their rulebooks.