Poorly Written Rules = Everybody Loses: some comments on a LinkedIn discussion

This was an extensive comment about rules writing that I made.  See here for the original LinkedIn thread.

Good article Kim. In fact it’s not necessarily the size of company that dictates the quality of a set of rules. While many large publishers have staff writers, they don’t always get it right.

A common example is our old favourite, Monopoly. How many people actually play Monopoly by the published rules? This is at least in part because many versions of the published rules were poorly written and open to multiple interpretations.

Writing rules for games is a technical skill; it’s a type of technical writing. As such, it is amenable to a traditional quality process approach. At Surprised Stare Games (we’re a small UK publisher, who’s staff all have non-gaming jobs) we have the following process:

  • Designer writes the first draft, which could be notes rather than a full rule set.
  • In-house team plays the game extensively as part of our normal development, then our in-house rules writer (primarily myself) produces a second more or less comprehensive draft rules set.
  • * As development continues, the rules will commonly be re-written two or three times from scratch.
  • * Once the in-house team is satisfied with the game (note: game not yet finished!), we’ll produce another draft set of rules, reviewed in-house, for inclusion in prototypes that will be used in our play-test groups. Then the game will be play-tested, supervised by members of our team.
  • The rules will be revised following play-testing. Up to this stage, we’re looking at the draft rules to answer the questions: “Does the game work?” and “Does the text say what we mean?”
  • Towards the end of the development process, we re-write the rules again, this time laying them out with pictures and diagrams in a format that is as close to the published one as possible.
  • This draft is then shared with our external ‘rules lawyers’ – a couple of people who have a good track record for writing rules. Result: A comprehensive draft rules set that we will use with our 4 or 5 blind play test groups (these are not blind people, just people who have not previously had contact with the game!).
  • Blind play testing will usually come up with further suggestions for revisions, so we will have a final review prior to producing what we hope will be the final draft.
  • We then play test the final draft.
  • We also (usually alongside final testing) get the rules translated into German (we usually produce multi-language games) – the translation process often picks up English language problems because of the differences between UK English and International English (let alone US English). We’re finding this so useful that we’re revising our process to push the translation back into the development process rather than leaving it till the end.

As you can see, the rules will have gone through at least 10 drafts over this process, including several re-writes. Our latest game (Totemo, see http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/Totemo/index.htm ) has gone through this full process, although the rules would fit comfortably on 4 sides of A4. In fact, looking through our Totemo files, I can see 13 versions of the rules. With larger games than this it’s easy to get to dozens of versions.

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