Poorly Written Rules = Everybody Loses


Thanks to all of you who read my last article: Ugly Boxes Kill Good Games; Why Great Packaging Matters.  So let’s pretend that a game’s packaging intrigued you enough to pick it up and purchase it.  When you get home, you excitedly open up the box and pull out the directions.  And that’s where the enchantment with the game ends.  As you read the directions you realize that you have no idea what is supposed to happen in this game and you toss it aside, not to be revisited anytime soon.     

Sure, the manufacturer is thrilled you bought the game, but since a large portion of game sales is driven by word-of-mouth recommendations or playing games with friends this is not a good situation.  If the consumer can’t play the game, they can’t rave about it to their other game-loving friends!  Simple enough!  

Directions need to be clear and concise.  Clear because the designer isn’t packaged in the box so the rules will need to do all of the explaining.  And concise because people don’t like to read the instructions; they want to play the game.  While clear and concise sounds simple enough, it’s actually a pretty tall order.  Larger manufacturers have people on staff that write directions all the time, but smaller companies have far less experience.  Still, there are several things you can do to improve your rules.

Use common terminology and stick with it.  The fewer words you need to define for your reader, the better off you are.  But if you insist on using a special term, like you want to call your movers something specific like “geekles,” first define it and then stick with that term throughout the entire set of instructions.

Get to the point.  Get the important stuff out first so antsy consumers can get their game going and then refer back to the instructions when they come across a question.  This also means that your directions need to be sensibly organized and have appropriate corresponding visual cues like text blocks, bold typeface and lines to make it quick and easy to navigate.

People like pictures.  If a photo is worth a thousand words, just imagine how many words a diagram can replace in game instructions!  

Have people read your instructions.  In the last month I’ve had multiple games submitted to The Game Aisle that had instructions I couldn’t understand.  My testers read them and didn’t understand them, I read them and re-read them and still couldn’t tell you how to play the game.  This is a catastrophic failure.  Make sure you have people who are completely unfamiliar with your game read your instructions and play the game or have them explain to you how to play the game.  It will be easy to see the big problems, but it may take numerous people reading your instructions to pick up on the smaller issues.  Also consider who you are asking to read them.  Pick some game savvy folks as well as people who aren’t big gamers, you’ll be amazed at the differences in their base game knowledge.  

So go forth and craft clear and concise directions; your consumers will thank you and so will your bottom line.


3 thoughts

  1. I have a couple of suggestions to add too…
    Don’t assume your reader is an idiot who has never played a game before. People know how to shuffle and deal. Don’t spend two paragraphs on your clever method of deciding who goes first. Optional rules or rules dealing with unusual situations can be added at the end of the main body of rules. And finally, one of my many pet peeves. It is one die and two or more dice.
    (love your columns Kim)

  2. I’d like to add a couple comments, as someone who has explained a lot of games and read a lot of rules. 🙂
    #1 – Don’t add terms needlessly. If a term isn’t used multiple times in your game, or isn’t central to the theme of the game, then adding it may only serve to confuse the reader.
    #2 – Pictures and Diagrams are great, but they should complement your rules. Place them directly next to the instructions they are meant to enhance, and simple to the point that they only describe that instruction.
    #3 – You’re asking people to follow steps to produce a result, not read a book. Good instructions should be listed out as numbered steps so people know what they should do next and can quickly find the right section if they have questions later.
    #4 – Theme should never, EVER overshadow rules. The most important thing is for the player to know what they’re doing. Theme is something for them to appreciate after they are comfortable with the game.

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