The next two episodes of Rulebook Cookbook take us beyond the introductory material we have covered (Thematic Introductions and Game Overview) and into the bits and pieces of the game, namely Components and Setup.
At first glance, the component list seems like a simple and straightforward section of the rules; just list the parts and their quantities, preferably with pictures. But the component list actually serves two main purposes. First, it provides an inventory and checklist so that the reader can ensure they have all the pieces of the game. For this aspect, it is important that the list be complete, detailed, and specific, including quantities and descriptions or pictures of all components.
Next, it serves as an introduction to the physical aspects of the game, giving names and meaning to the bits. The reader will need to know enough about the components to make sense of the later rules. When games have cards or tiles with a lot of information, the layout of that data is important. In many cases it works well to briefly explain the layout of various components when they are introduced, though this may also be its own section later in the rules. And once again the writer runs into the problem of balancing the right amount of detail–explain enough to provide good context for the rest of the text but avoid going into specific, detailed rules.
The following examples should illustrate best practices in these regards.
The worst component lists are purely textual. Castles of Burgundy is a classic example.
On the positive side, the list is detailed and specific. Counts and descriptions are given. A picture might not always be worth a thousand words, but in this case, it would be worth at least ten. “Buildings (beige, 16x with black backs)” or “bonus tiles (square, 1 small and 1 large in each of 6 colours)” are not very easy to imagine, and they would be a thousand times better as pictures. This omission is especially disappointing given the amount of space on the right wasted with a generic picture of part of the game setup. Surely it would have been more productive to use that area for component images.
Zombicide is a good example of a component list with pictures and counts. It takes up a lot of space, but the detailed images fulfill the important roles of providing a checklist and naming the various components for future reference.
Android: Netrunner is a game full of theme. There are no hands, draw piles, or discard piles. Instead, there are Grip and HQ, Stack and R&D, and Heap and Archives. All of this obfuscating terminology makes the game very difficult to learn from the rules, so the component list is vital in introducing the reader to some of the vocabulary.
The One-Credit / Advancement Token serves as a positive and negative example. The first statement gives a good general description of what the component is for. It’s a credit, and credits are the unit of currency. The description of the other side of the tokens fails, however. “The Corporation uses advancement tokens to track the advancement of his installed cards.” This non-explanation might as well not even be there. The reader has no idea what advancing cards means (or installing cards for that matter.) It’s important that the rules not stray too far into minutia at this point, so it’s a fine line to walk, but a more useful description that wouldn’t give too much detail would be, “When the Corporation uses the ‘advance’ action, they add these tokens to cards that have been played to the table (installed.) Advancing agenda cards is how the Corporation scores points.”
A later section in Netrunner’s rules picks up where the component list leaves off. It shows each type of card and gives a basic description and list of parts. This does a difficult job pretty well. The “card anatomy key” names the sections of the card and works across the many varieties. Then the description text gives the general function of the cards and their basic usage.
Mice & Mystics takes a similar approach in describing its components.
The card diagram with numbered sections is a good standard. The writing style of the list, however, leaves a lot to be desired. It is exceedingly redundant and takes up more space than it needs to. “This is” and “this represents” are not necessary to be repeated on every line. Similarly, “Mouse name” is self-explanatory. Saying “this is the mouse’s name” is just a waste of text. For the value items, battle, defense, lore, and move, it would be useful to list the range of values, so the reader could judge the stats of their mice.
The action dice description is actually quite good. The search cards, on the other hand, are not. Again, the repetition of the first word is unnecessary. Even worse, specific rules are given in this component description. Rules for how many items fit in a pack and how scrolls are used do not belong here. Players needing to refer back to the rules are unlikely to look in this section to find out how many items fit in a pack. The rule belongs with the information about items.
A great example of component list with card diagrams all on one page is Friday by Friedemann Friese. If there were a little more room, it would be nice to have pictures of all the components.
Setup will be dealt with in more detail in the next article, but Mage Wars is interesting in that it combines the component list and setup picture into one section. There is a bulleted list of items and quantities alongside the image of the set-up game with all the components labeled. It actually works quite well. The drawback to this format is that there is no room to write descriptions of what the components are for. This may necessitate having another section to give that information.
As you can see, there is a fair amount of variety in the presentation of component lists. Those that are most successful enable the reader to identify all of the pieces included in the game. Ideally, they also introduce the vocabulary of the game and anatomy of complex components. However, it is important to only provide a high level introduction and not delve into too much detail about gameplay.
Now that the stage has been set, the hard work of describing how to actually play begins. As mentioned, the next installment of Rulebook Cookbook explains the first step in playing the game, namely setting it up.
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.
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