Rulebook Cookbook: Setup

Dusty’s back with a new Rulebook Cookbook post about one of the most important parts of any rules: the setup.

After the basics of theme and overview have been covered and the components have been enumerated, it’s time to put the pieces on the table. This is when Setup is needed. Like the component list, the setup section is fairly straightforward–tell what goes where, ideally with pictures. Still, there are best practices, and we can learn from positive and negative examples.

Some games have one-time setup steps, assembling components, applying stickers, or what have you. These instructions should be separate and clearly delineated from the main setup. Players will need to refer to the latter every time they play, and they don’t need one-time directions that they have already completed getting in the way.

Tzolk’in does a good job of this. One page gives the assembly instructions, with the main setup on the next page.

Colt Express goes so far as to give the one-time instructions on a separate sheet from the rulebook.

After the one-time instructions are out of the way, the main setup should follow with all steps in a logical order. It has become fairly standard to show a picture of the set-up game and have instructions surround the image, specifying what to do. This is a great format when done properly.

Stone Age is an excellent example.


The arrow boxes naturally lead the reader from one step to the next. There is basic overview information regarding the player mat, but it doesn’t give rule details. My only nitpick is instruction 9 does not state whether the tiles should be face-up or face-down. Remember, setup directions must be extremely exact if people are to play correctly.

Another good example is Pandemic. This snippet shows how the steps are made clear using color and spacing. The non-essential text about Atlanta being home to the CDC is in italics, so it is easy to distinguish.

The Learn to Play guide for Arkham Horror: The Card Game does an excellent job of separating non-vital text.

The rules these little previews allude to are covered in more detail later in the book, but here they provide some context for why the reader is doing what they’re doing. Since they’re not necessary for setup, they’re distinguished by bullet points and italics. If you’re going to include non-essential summaries or snippets in setup, off-setting them in this way is vital.

Tzolk’in, mentioned early as a positive example, serves as a negative example in this regard.

The text is overly verbose and includes non-essential details within the main text. The instructions would be better if given as simple commands. “Place one Corn Harvest Tile on each field (four per action section.) Then cover the corn tiles in the three sections numbered 3-5 with Wood Harvest Tiles as shown.” The explanatory text could be given afterward in italics, if desired.

The same rules have another problem on the next page. Directions must be given in the order they are to be followed.

A reader following the instructions for wealth tiles has to jump ahead to buildings and monuments and then back again. It would have been a simple matter to move the player setup rules to the bottom of the page, thereby maintaining the proper order.

The rules for Battlestar Galactica have similar problems.

The textual setup instructions are given on page 5. They refer to creating the Loyalty Deck as described in a sidebar on page 6. This wouldn’t be much of a problem except that the reader has to flip the page, then turn it back. Similarly, the setup diagram is on page 7. A person has to go back and forth to complete the setup. Ideally, all setup rules and the diagram or picture should be on the same page or open spread.

That covers the basic format of the setup section, but what about the content? As mentioned earlier, it needs to be very specific and detailed and also be presented in a sensible order.

As a rule of thumb, follow these steps and caveats:

  • If there are one-time setup instructions, place them first and separate them from the recurring setup.
  • Then list all of the steps taken before play in a sensible order, ideally with a picture showing where things are located.
    • It is often good to begin with the main layout, putting out the game board and arranging the bits. Then give instructions on handing out players’ components and setting them up.
    • Place each step on a separate line, with bullet points, or in an otherwise delineated format.
    • If you include any extraneous information, set it apart from the main text.
    • Both the text and the images should demonstrate each step accurately and in detail. Keep in mind that rulebooks are usually read aloud, so the person receiving the instructions orally should be able to follow them.
      • Remember simple things you may take for granted, like shuffling cards and stating where to place everything in relation to everything else.
      • Use words for orientation and direction and be sure to specify if components are face-up or face-down.
  • Finally, and not mentioned before, include a process for selecting the first player, even if it is just “by a method of your choice.”

Keeping these rules in mind, an example of a setup that is just ok is Splendor.

Without the image, the instructions are not entirely clear. “Then reveal 4 cards from each level.” Reveal them where? (In a row to the right.) “Reveal” is fairly specific and succinct, but specifying face-up might also be good.  Similarly, “Shuffle the noble tiles and reveal… them….” We haven’t been told at all where the nobles should be placed. Even the first line, “Shuffle each development card deck separately…” could be more explicit. Though it is not essential, I would prefer an additional step, forming “Separate the development cards based on their backs to form three decks. Then shuffle each deck separately.” Format-wise, bullet points would make the directions easier to follow. Finally, the rules are lacking the instructions for choosing a first player.

With all of the preliminary information out of the way, the rules can now get on to the heart of the matter, the gameplay section. Because of its complexity, it will be dealt with in multiple articles.

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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