Writing Game Manuals
Hi, I'm Craig Stewart, one of the hosts, and the creator, of The Gamers' Table, an online board game review show. We have over 140,000 views of the show to date. A new show airs every Monday and Friday. I've been reviewing games for three years now and designing games for a lot longer.
I'd like to address one of the biggest failures of many games, both independently published and those by 'the big guys' - Terrible game manuals! From poor organization to spelling and grammar errors, obscure explanations and rule omissions, game manuals can be almost unusable at times.
I've played games where important rules are buried in the middle of a paragraph, unhighlighted, and easy to miss, where rules are only stated in the game overview, where rules actually contradict other rules in the document.
In an effort to get to play more great games, I'm setting forth some guidelines I use when creating rules documents; maybe they'll help you get a better set of rules for your game. The examples are from a tank battle game I've been working on.
It's a difficult thing to remember, but most people reading your rules have never played the game. They are not as intimately acquainted with the whole game as you are. This is the most important thing to remember - you need to write the rules for someone who has never played before. Every item you put into the rules needs to be in the right place. You need to ask two questions: Do they need to know this? Do they need to know it now? An explanation of how your combat mechanic works is important, but does it need to be before the set up? Don't give the reader information until they need it. They don't need to know how combat works until it's time for them to attack.
Does the game have a theme? A story behind it? Tell your reader that story here. This is almost completely flavor text, giving the reader an idea of the setting of the game.
"The year is 1845. The great burger war is entering its second year. Tanks from rival factions have arrived on the gingham field of battle to wage war on each other. Which faction will emerge victorious? You decide!"
This is not the same as an introduction. In an introduction, you emphasize the theme and story (if any) of your game. In an overview, you give a brief summary of how the game is played.
"A game for two to four players, taking turns moving their tanks around the battlefield and playing cards to shoot at other players or repair their tanks. The last tank in action wins!"
It's clear, concise and to the point. Better yet, it gives the reader a clear idea of what the game is going to be about.
It's always nice to verify that you've got all the parts for the game. Better yet, here you can give the reader an idea of what each piece represents.
8 tanks, two in each color (large cubes)
16 rubble markers (small grey cubes)
64 cards, 16 in each of four colors
I've played games where the setup is located near the back of the manual, games where it is not in the manual at all, but included on a supplement, games where "put the pieces on a flat surface" is all they tell you. Take a minute and note down each step you take in getting the game ready to play. Remember, you're writing for someone who has never played before and does not know where anything should start.
"Place the game board on your play area where all players can reach it. Each player takes the tanks and cards of his color. Place the rubble markers to one side of the game board. Roll the dice. Highest roll is the first player. Reroll ties. Starting with the first player, each player places one tank anywhere on the outer edge row of squares matching their color. Repeat this until all tanks are placed. Place the two tank status cards in front of each player (their color, located in the deck) with the number 4 toward the game board. Place the remaining cards for each color face down in front of the player. This is the player's draw deck, containing the command cards."
This is the first area where mistakes and omissions creep in. You've been testing the game a lot. You may have changed the setup sinced you first wrote the rules. You may have a way of setting things up that seems very obvious to you and should not need to be explained. WRONG! You need to tell the new player exactly how to set up every piece.
Here's the best way to see if your setup rules are done correctly: Give the game to someone who has never played and let them set it up. Do NOT help or offer suggestions, but DO take notes of anything that does not get set up properly. Then check the rules. Did they read it incorrectly or was it not clearly written? Did you forget a step? Had you just assumed everyone knew to separate the money into denominations to form a bank? If someone who has never played the game can set it up correctly, your rules are doing their job. If not, time for a rewrite. The people buying the game will never cut you any slack; if the rules don't properly explain the game, then they won't like the game, no matter how good it is. You have to make sure the players can understand and correctly play the game.
Here is where the details go. Every step needs to be documented. Explain it all. Do not explain it a bit and then say "see page five for more details" Why would you need to do that? I need the entire explanation right now; I don't want to flip back and forth.
"The first player passes to the left at the beginning of each round, including the first, so the player who got to put their tanks on the board first will go last.
Each round of play consists of two turns for each player, starting with the first player. They must use both tanks until only one is left, then they may use both turns for the same tank. You may use your tanks in any order, but must use both (unless only one remains). Each turn consists of three phases.
Phase 1 - Draw. Draw a card from your draw deck to your hand. You are limited to four cards. If you already have four, you may not draw. If there are no cards to draw, shuffle your discard pile to form a new draw pile.
Phase 2 - Move. Your tank may move as many spaces as indicated on the status card for that tank. It may move in any direction orthagonally but not diagonally. Any rubble tokens in the square the tank starts in reduce the total movement by one, to a minimum of one. Ignore rubble in any squares along the path. If your tank is immobilized, you may not move it.
Phase 3 - Command. Play one card to your discard pile from your hand and perform the action stated on the card.
Fire X. Fire a shot in any of the four orthagonal directions, not diagonally, up to the number of spaces indicated. e.g. a Fire 3 card allows you to fire up to three spaces. You may only hit one target with a Fire card. If you hit a tank, place a rubble token in the square you hit, unless there are already two tokens there, in which case you do not place an additional token. The tank you hit rotates the status card so that the next lower number faces the game board. If the tank was at 1 strength, turn the status card for that tank over and remove the destroyed tank token from the game board.
Repair. Rotate the status card so that the next higher number faces the game board. Tanks may not be repaired to higher than full strength.
Reload. Shuffle the draw and discard piles together to form a new draw deck.
New Orders. Discard cards from your hand and draw a new card for each one you discard."
Note that every option is covered clearly in the above example. The hand limit is explained in the 'draw' information. How to repair, deal damage, fire and move is all clearly explained. You will note that players may be eliminated. The rules need to cover how to deal with that, even if you only say "If your last tank is destroyed, you are out of the game." But maybe there is a bit more to it.
"If your tanks have both been eliminated, you become an artillery commander. On your turn, write down a square location, using the grid coordinates printed on the map. e.g. H7. If you have previously written down a square, do one damage to any tank in that square. Cross off the square on your pad. Note that on your first turn as an artillery commander you will not fire. Artillery is always delayed by one turn. You may fire at the same square in future turns by selecting it again. Keep your targets secret from the tank commanders."
"As soon as there is only one player's tanks remaining, that player is the winner."
The rules seem good to you. Now what? Time to find those playtesters. Give them the game, grab your notepad and sit back. Watch them play the game but do not offer any suggestions. Let your rules explain the game. Don't play yourself. You are there to observe. Did they play it correctly? If not, rewrite the rules. Did they set it up correctly? If not, rewrite the rules. Did someone get an unfair advantage? Rewrite the rules.
As you may have guessed, there is a lot of rewriting going on. But in the end you'll have a rules document that can be used by anyone to play your game as it was designed.
Thank you, Craig - for an intellegent and thorough explanation of 'Cannot see the forest for the trees' when it comes to the game creator explaining his game to someone with no previous kinowledge of it, and expecting them to know all the nuances without ever having opened the box!
Oddly, this same dilemma is what launched me on a writing and designing career - the information I was finding in books was incomplete, and sometimes the deck was designed by one person, but the booklet was written by another! And they didn't necessarily match!
My biggest peeve in the self-publishing industry is poor grammar and bad spelling - everyone needs an editor, no matter who they are! I have seen some pretty embarassing mistakes when I go to the Art Test - catch those errors BEFORE the game gets printed!
Again - thank you!