So... rulebooks

Absolutely, true. I played today and it remembered how difficult it was to learn this game and how easy it is to screw up the rules of the bot and … I resorted to taking a sharpie to write into the rulebook to fix the worst of the mess so I wouldn’t have to go look that up again.

So some questions

  • What makes a good rulebook? A bad rulebook?
  • What are the best and worst examples–if applicable–with pictures?
  • Obviously shorter rulesets have an easier time but… are there any short rulebooks that still get it wrong?
  • What games do you love despite the terrible rulebook?
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Death angel, the Space Hulk card game, or whatever it was called, and Ghost Stories are two short and simple games with terrible rulebooks that come to mind.


I could never figure out if the Arkham Horror LCG had a terrible rulebook or if LCGs are designed specifically to ensure casual players never play them correctly. I’ve played two campaigns and I’m still finding rules that we were getting wrong.

Anyway, the things that make a bad rulebook for me:

  1. Big blocks of tiny text squeezed onto the page so that you can say your game’s rulebook is “only X pages”. No-one’s fooled by that.
  2. No flavour text, explanation of what the mechanics represent, or examples of play. At best, the player won’t get a sense of the theme. At worst, the player will either forget or not understand the rule altogether.
  3. Lots of “this is explained later on page X”. If it’s really that important to mention it now, then explain it to me now. I don’t want to have to bounce back and forward through the rulebook, and I’d like the rulebook to do the heavy lifting of finding a linear, logical way to teach the thing. If the designer can’t figure out a way to teach it to me easily, what makes them think I’ll be able to teach it to my mum?
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So I get that Cole Wehrle—who made some of my favorite games—thinks that the most important thing in a rulebook is precision. And with the types of games he designs that is an important factor. But I found every single one of them hard to learn and Oath especially—despite the good introductory game for the teach—is all over the place. I usually have to scan most of the rulebook until I find what I am looking for. I think he needs to be a bit more verbose. The super dense layout doesn’t help either.

As an example of a rulebook that does a lot of things right check out Five Tribes: Five Tribes | Days of Wonder

So what makes this one good:

  • Starts with component overview
  • Separate sheet for setup
  • Objective/how to win section
  • Turn structure and I prefer it this way: everything is packed in here in sequence. Make a player aid for the stuff people keep coming back to but have one sequential explanation without references to other parts of the rulebook.
  • Lots of images and play examples and explanation WHY something is the way it is
  • Finally: when does the game end and scoring.

The important part is really the sequential explanation of a turn and that some important things get repeated. The most important things are easy to find visually mostly because they are in bold.

This rulebook has the same structure that a good teach has. So you could probably learn and teach the game in one go. Sure Five Tribes is not that complicated a game…

Also: references and rules need to be separated—optimally one is on player aids and the other in a booklet.


I just want to note that that is a Leder Games thing, not a Wehrle thing. Oath and Root rules are very different from Pax Pamir 2e rules.

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I have Strong Feelings about this. I’m not trained as a technical writer, but I was taught to write English well, and then I got involved in technical things about which I had to write, so I end up going in some of the same directions. I’ve ended up rewriting quite a few rulebooks, either as quick reference cards or increasingly as a full rulebook job.

The point of the rulebook is to convey information as clearly as possible. It should lay things out in detail and as far as possible in the order in which they happen, so that a tired harassed game-owner can locate the relevant rule and work out what it means. There should be no ambiguity. This will make for very strained forms of words sometimes, but that’s OK.

(Well, rules text in general. FFG have embraced this: they say things like “Do X. Do Y. If Z, then do A.” It feels a bit unnatural but it often works.)

What I should really like to do is produce something like Simplified Technical English for boardgames. This is a language definition used for aircraft maintenance instructions, to which you can add “maybe doesn’t speak English very well” to the list above - it has a very restricted vocabulary, and words and sentence structures are constrained to be as unambiguous as possible (not to mention easily translated using a small dictionary).

(For example, you can’t say “check that the valve is operable” – you say either “make sure that the valve can operate” or “make sure you can operate the valve”.)

Some specific examples:

  • Flash Point - is mostly fine, but it separates the “Family Game” from the “Advanced Game”, and gives the latter in terms of changes to the rules of the former. If you’re playing the advanced game – and anyone reading this probably is – then you have two separate bits of the rules to look in. My proposed solution: separate family-game and full-game rulebooks.

  • Red7 - makes a real meal of a lightweight game. It shouldn’t be hard: on your turn, you can play a card so that you have the best tableau according to the current rule; or you can play a card to change the rule to one under which your tableau is the best; or you can do both, changing the rule and playing a card so that your tableau is the best under the new rule. If you can’t do any of these things, or if you run out of cards, you’re out of the round. But this is very laboured in the rules, with an emphasis on the order in which you do those two things which is completely irrelevant to gameplay…

  • Anything by the Sweigart/Dill/Kovaleski collective who made several of my favourite games (Firefly, Homeland, Star Trek Ascendancy). They just didn’t think like technical writers, and all their games are filled with sloppinesses and inconsistencies. But I like them anyway. I’ve written a Firefly rulebook, someone else has done ST:A, and I have notes towards a Homeland book too.

I tend to like a rulebook to match the framework I use to teach a game: in this game you’re X, and you’re trying to achieve Y. You’ll do this by A, B and C. Now on your turn you’ll…


This is my biggest pet peeve in rule books. Too many modern rule books have some kind of two (or more) part divide and you constantly have to go back and forth. It might be a first game versus later games, or a highly detailed setup that somehow includes some rules versus the regular rules, or a basic rules versus a glossary or similar, etc. My two problems with all this are the one already noted, if you just want to jump into the complex game it’s much harder and requires double or triple reading, and if you are playing your third or fourth game and have a rules question it is often impossible to know where to look to find the answer as it could logically be in often 3 or 4 different places.


A rule book is not just how to learn the game, it should be a quick reference when you need to check the rules.

A bad rulebook will separate an aspect into two parts on different parts of the rulebook.

SVWAG have already mentioned how awful FFG rulebooks are where a rule is in the learn-to-play, yet not in the reference guide.

  • What are the best and worst examples–if applicable–with pictures?

GMT games are the best. I have come to appreciate and value these “technical” rulebooks. If I want theme flavouring, I’ll just read the back of the box. Or use my imagination. 18xx also got pretty good rulebooks. If you need to look up something, you’ll be damn sure it’s at THAT section and you’ll be correct.

Worst that is in my collection is Keyflower. It’s one of my faves yet the rulebook is terrible. I would rather recommend the Watch It Played video

  • Obviously shorter rulesets have an easier time but… are there any short rulebooks that still get it wrong?

From what I remember: Oink games. The rules for Maskmen is so awful that it made the game unplayable - until BGG users translated it properly. But not all people go to BGG.

  • What games do you love despite the terrible rulebook?


EDIT: Also, I don’t mind if a rulebook repeats things. I would rather be told 3 times of that same rule than to search the entire rulebook for that rule when someone asked a question.

iirc, it is not irrelevant?

I think it’s irrelevant unless you’re playing one of the advanced rules – which no one is doing when they first learn the game. So the entire palaver about the sequence of actions could have been omitted from the basic rules, and described (more simply!) in that advanced rule.

It’s not awful – there’s so little to explain that they can’t muck it up too badly – but I definitely remember reading and re-reading that very specific “x THEN y” part several times, thinking I must have misunderstood what I’d read so far and trying to fathom how it could possible make a difference compared to “y THEN x” – and concluding that it definitely made no difference and wondering why the heck they’d written it like that…

Ah, I see. In my head, the “advanced” game is Red7, so there was no way to figure out how the order could be irrelevant. I assume the simplified game (the rules for which I don’t remember) was developed secondarily to the original game, which impacted the rules format.

In the basic game there’s no drawing cards at all (hence no reason to insist that you play to your palette before doing the thing that potentially draws a new card). For me the other “advanced rule” (playing and scoring over multiple rounds) is the only thing I add to the basic game – I like just having to manage the cards you start with each round as best you can (and the notion of using the actions/icons on the odd-numbered cards makes my head hurt : )

Gotcha. From the perspective of a designer who thinks Red7 is the “advanced” game, I can totally understand why they would want to teach the correct way to play even in the “training” game.

I well remember hating on that rulebook. It looks very pretty, and arbitrarily scatters the information about any given aspect of the game across the four corners of its little paper world. The BGG files section contains some good alternatives, thankfully.

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I need three things for a rulebook to be good:

  • A summary of the game: how play flows from turn-to-turn, round-to-round
  • Concisely worded descriptions of all possible actions, laid out in discrete sections based on when those actions are available
  • Examples of play

This. I’m often reminding the tech writers for my products this same thing.

2F-Spiel is particularly bad at this. Yes, technically, the rules are all there, but skimming the rule book to find the rule you want to check is nigh impossible. Plus, the rule itself is written in such a way that often begs to be misinterpreted.

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What I didn’t like about the Imperium: L or C rulebook was I was immediately confronted with a card anatomy, right down to how the cards are labelled. I have no context on how the cards fit into the flow of the game.

It the fails to define what something means when it uses it, instead referring to a glossary.

I prefer rules books that adopt a more conversational tone, followed by a technical ruleset afterwards. Kind of like the GMT playbook/rules approach.

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Which is funny. I thought the Space Hulk: Death Angel manual was quite good! The information was laid out essentially in the order you needed it to play, and it was easy to refer back to when I needed to look something up. Only thing was one misinterpretation of when you advance, as I thought both blip piles needed to be empty for my first game. Checking it over later, I realized it said “either blip pile,” so only one needs to be empty to advance.

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I’ll admit that I really like the Oath/Root style of rulebook. I find it quite easy to find things that I need to check during a game and I appreciate the emphasis on precision, which is something sorely lacking in many rulebooks (I’m still mad about the time when a reference to “any location” in War of Whispers turned out to mean “any location that faction rules”). Having said that, those types of rulebooks definitely require an additional sheet for learning to play, otherwise I’m not sure anyone would ever actually start a game :laughing:

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Been giving this some thought, and I came to the conclusion that I’m not too fussy about rulebooks, as long as they are comprehensive and comprehensible.

Glossaries? Nice to have, but far from essential. I don’t like it when rules get hidden in a glossary though.

Learn to play walkthroughs? I’ll probably read them, but really don’t need them. Again, don’t like it when a rule is only in one though.

Highly technical, drilling down to 4.16.ii subheadings, or natural flow? Don’t mind either way.

Lots of examples or none at all? Don’t mind either way, as long as, again, there aren’t rules you can only understand through examples.

Of course, “comprehensive” actually seems like a pretty tall order these days, with the complexity of card games in particular, and I’m not even too bothered if a game falls somewhat short of the mark there either. As long as it comes close enough for a full first play without questions, that’ll do.