In this week’s rulebook cookbook, Dusty walks us through our first steps beyond the theme and into the game overview. He looks at games like Mice & Mystics and Lords of the Waterdeep to help you write better overviews.
Our last article discussed the elements of good thematic introductions. Ideally, they should include only story, not mechanics. So how and when do you introduce the nuts and bolts of the game? The game overview fills that role.
While the thematic introduction immerses the reader in the world of the game, the overview provides a frame of reference within which the rest of the rules will be read. Players need to know the basic structure of the game and their mechanical goal to better digest the details of gameplay.
Some rulebooks treat the gameplay overview and objectives as two different things, and a wide variety of names is used: Overview, Objective, Object of the Game, Aim of the Game, Game Idea, How to Win, or Goal. However, they are often combined into one section, so I will deal with both here, using the same format as the last article–giving general guidelines and then looking at positive and negative examples.
The game overview describes the basic flow of the game at a high level. Is the game divided into rounds or years or phases or ages? If so, how many are there? What steps are taken on each player’s turn? Are there action points or a specific sequence? What triggers the end of the game? And finally, what are the objectives or goals? How do you win the game? If there are victory points, state briefly how they are earned. But this does not take the place of an End Game section later in the rules, so it should not include every obscure source of points.
In general, there is a fine line to walk between giving too little detail and too much. As a rule of thumb, try to cover all the standard cases in a general sense. Don’t go into exceptions or fine details. The distinction will become clearer by looking at some examples.
Mice & Mystics is often cited on BoardgameGeek as one of the worst rulebooks available. In the case of its game overview, it errs on the side of too little detail. Interestingly, though the section is titled Object of the Game, the win condition is never mentioned. As an overview, it also tells us nothing about how the game is played or what happens on a turn.
Another very brief overview is Lords of Waterdeep. There is nothing about gameplay other than the length of the game, but even if its only goal is to explain how to win, it fails terribly, giving no indication of how players actually earn victory points.
To give an idea of a preferable overview, here is one way Lords of Waterdeep’s overview could be rewritten.
The Lords of Waterdeep game is played in eight rounds, during which players take turns placing their workers on various action spaces. These typically provide quest or intrigue cards, gold, or adventurers (warriors, wizards, rogues, and clerics.) Victory Points are primarily earned by collecting the necessary adventurers to complete quests and by using gold to buy buildings. The player with the most Victory Points at the end of the final round is the winner.
Just adding a couple of sentences makes a world of difference.
Other games go into too much detail. Five Tribes gives the full breakdown of end game scoring in the introduction. At this point, the reader has no idea how djinns, camels, palm trees, and palaces work in the game. Saying how many points they are worth is overkill. Perhaps even worse, a person wanting to reference the scoring rules will naturally look in the back of the book. That section, on page eight, directs the reader to see page three, making them flip through the book rather than giving the rules in a sensible order.
Spartacus goes in the opposite direction of Five Tribes. It gives a decent overview of the phases of play but tells very little about the end game. What triggers the end of the game and what, mechanically, defines your influence?
Pandemic goes into detail about the loss condition, but there is very little said about how the game is played. It is odd that they enumerate the colors of the diseases but say nothing about the actions players take on their turn or the way diseases are cured. Again, a couple of additional sentences would greatly help. For example, “Players take turns spending their four action points to move their character, remove disease cubes, trade cards, or build research stations. When a player collects five cards of a disease’s color and gets to a research station, they can cure a disease.”
Castle Panic is one of the best overviews. It contains all the pieces needed for the section. The overview tells at a high level how the game is played–trade cards and play them to slay monsters as they advance toward the castle. The win and loss conditions are clear–defeat all 49 monsters or have all the castle towers destroyed. My only quibble is that the Master Slayer definition only implicitly gives the criterion; victory points are mentioned but not defined.
Finally, Roll For It!. It has the advantage of being a very simple game, but its game overview is also one of the best I found. It spells out what happens on a turn with highlighting making it especially clear. It states the winning condition. The writing is even fairly exciting. The one place where it lacks is that how to “score” a card is not actually stated. A sentence could be added like “When a player has matched all the dice shown on a card, it is scored.”
In summary, a good overview gives the reader a framework for understanding the further details of the rules. It outlines the structure of the game and defines how the game is won. The overview should provide enough information without delving into excessive details or using terminology that has yet to be explained.
Now that we’ve covered the introductory text of the rulebook, it’s time to look at the physical aspects of the game; the next two articles discuss the component list and setup instructions.
Rulebook Cookbook is an ongoing column dedicated to helping you write better rules. Each article will take an in-depth look at one aspect of rule-writing, elucidating best practices and providing positive and negative examples.
Excerpts from the rulebooks are copyright of their respective publishers. We believe the above use is fair use commentary. If you are a copyright owner concerned about such use, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.