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My relationship with the Rule Book: it's complicated.

Gamers create a wish list of table top games for many different reasons. As I've mentioned before I'm drawn to games by their artwork alone. Obviously once I'm drawn in I do my homework in terms of taste and playability. Then the only thing left to do is to click the purchase button (if it’s actually in stock!) and wait for that well packaged cardboard box to arrive. I carefully open my parcel to reveal my latest addition to the family and check that the game has been safely delivered with all its fingers and toes. Yet I’m only fully emotionally committed once I break the cellophane that seals the board game. The final hurdle is meeting my nemesis... he Rule Book!

When I was statemented with Dyslexia my score for comprehension was pretty low. Now don't get me wrong, I can read perfectly well and I am an avid reader. My problem is my ability to understand, retain and apply information. When it comes to rule books I can get disorientated. Now I don't think it's just Dyslexics that struggle with comprehending rules: proof of this is the number of questions within boardgamegeek forums. Don’t get me wrong, I am not wanting to be critical here; I wouldn't know where to start with creating a rule book, especially for a more complex game. However, I do want to talk about how the formatting of rules can become a barrier to getting a game to the table.

Power Grid rulebook

Context and connection

I understand that publishers don't want to write a novel, rather it should be compact and precise. However, I feel that sometimes the instructions skimp on context and connection and it can be hard to join the dots. For me reading rules can feel like joining a conversation half way through. Perhaps writers assume that a lot of table top gamers are intellectuals and are skilled in reading instructions; or perhaps writers assume that the people reading their instructions are experienced gamers. Maybe they think that writing rules for a consumer playing their very first board game would create an unsophisticated insulting experience to the pro-elite gamer.

I do however understand that sometimes rules are complicated to understand because the game itself is complex. There's no shortcut to getting a sophisticated game to the table: we have to put the work in to get the reward! I have to consider that although I just want to get on with the game and have fun, it is not realistic to try and understand the rules in five minutes when the game itself took years to develop. A well-developed game can be like a skillfully designed movie, where the rules are the script and we are the characters. We have to understand the plot and know everybody's lines. A good movie is not shot in a single day: it is shot scene by scene in a timely fashion with lots of mistakes and takes along the way. Approaching the dreaded rule book with this analogy in mind changes my perspective and reduces my frustration.

Successful formats

Within the types of rule books I have more success with there seems to be a certain trend. I find that the font is visually friendly (not Times New Roman) and the words have a coloured background rather than black on white. Each instruction is broken down rather than hidden within a paragraph and there are visual aids to support the written explanation. I find it really helpful to also have a page with a visual "game set up" as this cuts down on the guess work. Having tutorials, tips and FAQs are all beneficial even with what may appear to be a simple game because it brings it to life.

Managing expectations

I don't think I've actually managed to learn a game purely by reading the rule book. I've been reliant on viewing tutorials or playthroughs on YouTube and checking BGG's forums for some helpful insights. I also admit (sadly) that I frequently rely on my friends to teach me and this can be my biggest frustration with a hobby I absolutely love! Why does it matter how I learn the game as long as you get to play it? Maybe it shouldn’t matter; maybe I should be more flexible with my expectation of the rule book; maybe there's a high percentage of people in the same boat. I just don't know.

A humble suggestion

My suggestion to the rule book writers/publishers is to continue to create printed rule books that come with the game in a compact and precise format- which may appeal to the majority of gamers- but at the same time provide rules expressed in different formats online that people can download. This will cater to people with different learning styles. For example, you could have...

  1. The Extensive Version of the Rule Book – This would be targeted at new gamers or people that need that bit of extra step by step support. This way you wouldn't need to worry about patronising the experienced gamers.

  2. Highly Visual Version of the Rule Book – with minimal wording but explaining more by pictures and diagrams etc.

Until these other rule book versions appear, I guess I will continue to learn games the best way I can. I am thankful for the rule book writers; it can't be an easy job appealing to the masses. I also appreciate the people who create tutorials and playthroughs online as, without you, I'm not sure I could continue to play the games that appeal to me the most. My favourites are Rahdo, Watch it played, BGG Gaming Night and most especially Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules!. You have all contributed to my learning and enjoyment of table top gaming.

Thanks for reading.