11 Rules for Board Game Rules Writing

I occasionally get hired to edit board and card game rules. I drafted a short list of dos and don’ts for a client, and figured some of you could use it in your board and card game rules efforts. After all, if your players are going to flip tables, it should be because of what the other players are doing and not because of unclear rules!

Language Notes

Assume your rules will be constantly read aloud. They’ll be read aloud before some games as a way of explanation, and they’ll certainly be read aloud during the game. Have your tense reflect what’s read during the game—default to present tense, active voice, and easy & quick to read.

Use the second person. Talk to the active player. Never just “When a player…”, always ‘When you…” or “When any player…” But default to second person except where it causes a distinct lack of clarity or ruins the tone.

Active voice! Worth reiterating. Don’t say “The cards are shuffled.” Say “Shuffle the cards.” Not only does it make the language tighter and easier to read, it will make your rules better to ferret out passive voice. That, and your readers want direction, not ambiguity.

Murder “should” and other weasel words. Don’t say what people “should” do, say what they do. “Should” is an advice word, not a direction word. It’s useless in nearly all instances you’ll find them in rule books. Cut them and the meaning doesn’t change, and your language is stronger for it.

Construction Notes

Don’t stealth-introduce game terms. Too often, I’ll see a game term used casually, but then properly introduced later. When you first mention a game term, introduce it—or at least forward reference it.

Make an internal guide to every game term, including capitalization. Basically, make a mini-style guide for your game. Anything that doesn’t match usage, context, or format should be flagged. In a large document like many RPGs, consistencies will be easier to correct (or at least offer solution) because there’s usually one way more often done than another. In a small document, this isn’t necessarily the case, and you don’t want an editor making incorrect revisions. (And you ideally want your editor making those revisions than forcing you to do it because the document wasn’t clear.)

Don’t give instructions out-of-order/context. As an overcorrection to stealth-introduction, some designers will give instructions relating to a game term the moment it’s introduced, even when the full instructions aren’t relevant at that point. If you’re, say, introducing all of the components, don’t also explain the rules out-of-context in that introduction.

Your rules are for learning and for reference. Don’t have necessary information spread everywhere, like all the ways to score points or the various actions in a game. If you must have them spread out, have one place that references all of those locations. This is one of the problems of older Fantasy Flight games—they had poor topic management. (I’m looking at you, Arkham Horror.)

Physical Artifact Notes

Be aware of the physical format of these rules. This is more of a layout thing, but keep in mind how your rules have to fit on pages and folds as you’re writing them. Be prepared to move around (and possibly revise) the text in order to make an easier-to-understand physical document that fits in a box.

Include art notes. For real, write down what you expect will visually accompany a second of text. In board game rules, that’s a non-trivial context channel, and your rules editor may give you problematic edits because you aren’t showing them those other context channels.

Credits at the bottom of the document. With the exception of a single creator credit line, have all your credits at the end. Card and board game rulebooks deal with the economy of space and the positions of folds. Having important front-fold space taken up by credits is a killer.

– Ryan