Game Design Rules #1: Starting with the Rulebook

It doesn’t make sense to write the Rulebook of a game too early. Any game will change a lot from the first idea to the final version, while tests are done and rules are changed. Also, nobody will be reading it yet, because I, as a designer, will be explaining and probably playing those first games in the early testing process, so it seems better to wait till the game is closer to a final state.

It might be a shocking revelation, considering the name of the post, but I always write the Rulebook even before doing the first test of the game. And I’m talking about a proper Rulebook, something I could give to somebody else so they could play the game, not just taking some quick notes for me to remember the rules.

I do it because I get some positive things from that process, that in my opinion, compensate the extra work of doing it too soon. And besides, sometimes it’s hard to gather people for the first test (as if they had more important things to do), so I can be productive while waiting.

Writting the Rulebook is the fun part of Designing a Game.

Discovering Missing or Incorrect Rules

Whenever I have an idea for a new game, I try to design it in my head and see if the game could work. I try to think all the possible problems and create rules to solve them, until it seems perfect in my head (it never is). Once I think I have everything covered, I will start working on the Rulebook.

When working on it, I try to think about the best way and best order to explain all the rules, and consider all the possible questions a reader might have, to solve them in the Rulebook.

Doing this thorough process on all the rules of the game, gives me a much better understanding of them and how they work together. I might find some problems that I haven’t thought, rules that seem too complex to explain or to apply, so they need to be simplified, or situations I wasn’t considering and need a new rule or the game “crashes”.

Testing early versions of games isn’t probably the best experience for my friends and family (but they knew what they were getting into). So when I ask them to do it, I want to make sure I have the best possible first version. I also want to make sure the game session won’t have to be cancelled 5 minutes into the game when somebody finds something that breaks it. And be sure that if something can be broken, they will find it.
Each testing session is very important, so I try to make sure to go prepared and make the most of it.

Learning the Best Way to Explain the Game

I usually try to write the Rulebook in the same order I would explain the game to somebody else playing with me. I think that’s the easiest way to understand it.

Once I can gather my first group of minions friends, I will explain them how to play in the same way it’s explained on the Rulebook, so I can see how it works. If they don’t understand it well, or if they interrupt me to ask about things I was planning to explain later, this means I have to change the way I explain it (and hence, the Rulebook). This brings me to my last point.

Iterating on the Rulebook

Iteration is the key in any Game Design process. No matter how simple or well-designed something seems in my head, once I test it I will find many things I couldn’t predict, and will have to change the game accordingly. The more I do it, the better the game will be (hopefully).

I use the same process with the Rulebook. Having it done since the beginning, means I will not only tweak the game after each test, but also add those changes to the Rulebook.

This process will be done many times, improving it on each iteration. This way, once I’m ready to start doing blind-tests, I’m pretty sure the Rulebook will be good, so players won’t be confused or do huge mistakes.

Do any of you also work on the Rulebooks early on, or do you prefer to wait till the end to do it?

On the next blog post, I will explain the problems I had trying to make players count to 8.

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