At this point, I've written the rules for over twenty-five published games that I've designed. I've also rewritten, with Mary's help, the rules for about a half-dozen other games by other designers. So, at this point, writing rules is second nature to me; it's easy-peasy.

It didn't always used to be that way, of course, but like I said, I've done this something like thirty-plus times, and after the first dozen games or so, I simply had to get better at it. The other thing is that over time I became much more confident in writing the rules my own way, utilizing my own voice. When I first started out, that wasn't the case. I very much wanted rules that read and felt like everybody else's. You can see this in the rules for my first published game, 2012's Blood on the Alma, which was written in a fairly dry, colorless style. This extended to the organization of the rules as well, with cases and sub-cases and sub-sub-cases: after all, this is a very serious, very historical conflict simulation, so one mustn't forget rule six point two point three point one.

Though Alma was my first published game, it wasn't my first game to be accepted by a publisher; that was a Euro-style horse-breeding game which unfortunately never did see the light of day. Those rules weren't written in a case format, but they still were designed very deliberately to look and read like everybody else's for Euro-style games, both in structure and in content. Despite that, I simply couldn't resist slipping in a joke:

When you replace your breeding mare, it is sent to a glue factory. Just kidding, but it is removed from the game.

That was one of the first things that was struck from the rules. Partially, this was because the joke was a little dark for an ostensibly family-friendly game (though, let's be honest, in any game about animal husbandry, the table talk can get pretty blue with the right group), and partially, this was because the reference was seen as ambiguous: we didn't reference a glue factory anywhere else in the rules, and some players might be confused.

This only reinforced for me the idea that humor and personal style, or anything idiosyncratic or eccentric, had zero place in the rulebook. Keeping myself entertained and engaged, let alone the reader, wasn't an option. Which made the whole exercise a kind of pleasant drudgery, like sorting cubes or punching out counters - something I needed to be in the right mood for.

But then I bought my first Richard Berg game. It was Glory III, and I had picked it up, unpunched, for two bucks at a yard sale. Technically, the two bucks were exchanged for both Glory III and The Blue and the Gray, the boxes of which had been rubber-banded together, but upon opening the latter I discovered that all the cards and the mapboard were missing, leaving me with a rulebook and an empty box. But Glory III made a big impression on me for a couple of reasons. One of these is that I didn't really like the game all that much: playing its Antietam scenario took roughly the same amount of time as the battle took in real life, and I have a strong dislike of ten-sided dice, facing rules, and command-spans - except, oddly, in Great Battles of Alexander (which of course Mr. Berg co-designed with Mark Herman), where all three are not only not a problem, but a source of delight.

But the other reason the game made an impression on me, and the one actually kosher to our discussion today, has to do with the way Mr. Berg wrote his rules. There was a sense of humor about the proceedings that I hadn't really encountered before, from snarky little asides to goofy scenario titles (IIRC, the "what if Grant was in charge?" scenario was called, Great Googly Moogly, Get Me Out of Here!). The whole package just had a lot more personality than I was used to seeing, and more-or-less let me know that it was okay to do that.

And so slowly, as more and more of my wargames were published, I became more comfortable slipping little bits of irreverent humor into the mix. This started with the historical background material rather than the rules proper. You can see this, for example, in the run-down of eleventh-century English dynastic politics that accompanies House of Normandy, in which the number of important women named Matilda becomes something of a running gag.


Eventually this kind of poured over into the rules proper, usually in some small way. For example, in Agricola, Master of Britain, failure to remove Calgacus from the map results in an automatic defeat. After stating this, I admonish the player: "So, get that guy." In Supply Lines of the American Revolution, I deal with an edge case by saying that rule such-and-such "is an exception, rules lawyers". In our forthcoming Shot & Shell series, I introduce Zones of Control, one of the standardest of standard wargaming mechanisms, with "Stop me if you've heard this one before."

This tendency probably reached its apex - and very well may have gone too far - in High Speed Hover Tank, a science-fiction game I did for another publisher that sold maybe four copies. (We might republish some day after the rights revert back to us, but we'd probably sell only five copies.) That was a very irreverent game, and so the rules were infused with an irreverent and flippant tone: weapon ranges were explained with "because lasers or something", and there was a rule against being boring and dumb: "Don't be boring and dumb. It's against the rules".

I haven't gone quite that far with my historical designs, but I do try to use humor where appropriate to liven up the proceedings and to make specific rules more memorable. I also generally try to write my rules in a less technical and more conversational style. I tend to approach it as, if I was teaching the game to somebody in-person, how would I phrase this or explain that? The other way I look at it is, how can I make reading the rules less of a chore?


I write to give pleasure, and I read for the same reason. Even when there's no humor involved, there's something distinctly wonderful about a well-crafted sentence, about the way certain words sound together, about the way one sentence builds upon another upon another, about the slight natural pauses of a comma and the professorial precision of a semi-colon. Whether I'm writing a blog article like this one, or a trashy novel about lesbian aliens fighting dinosaurs (which is a real thing that I've done*), I strive to provide a smooth, stylish reading experience. I put a tremendous amount of effort into appearing effortless.

And it's only natural for me that I try to do the same thing with my rulesets. That my "voice" be personable and recognizable, and that, in some small way, reading my rules gives the player some degree of pleasure. Some days I'm more successful than others: there's only so many different ways to express the idea of moving across contiguous hexes, spending Movement Points for each hex entered, and it's difficult to spice up rules for retreats and advances.

But in the end, these are games, and however serious they may be, they ought to be fun, so it makes sense to try to extend that to reading (and writing) the rules.

[* - Mary is my biggest fan.]



  • Hi Harland – well, you’re just a little ray of sunshine, aren’t you? :-) It’s not that I’m doing “comedy writing” per se— a couple of jokey lines in a twelve- or sixteen- or twenty-page rulebook does not a comedy make. I always write with an audience in mind, and with the intention of conveying information, in an entertaining way, to that audience. I don’t think anyone who doesn’t dig it is a “small-minded dolt”— that was someone else’s comment, and not something that I said or would say.

    I’m sorry you found the piece to be a “self-centered monologue”. I’m also sorry that you think Scott Adams is funny. Different strokes for different folks, of course.

    Certainly though novelty is a factor in comedy (though not, I think, the only one; otherwise I wouldn’t be able to watch something like IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT or GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 over and over again).

    I don’t know if you’ve played any of my games, but I think you’d find that you’d have to do very little re-reading of the rulebook, and thus you wouldn’t be bumping into my little irrelevant asides all that much the second time around. If I’ve done my job right, as a designer and as a rules-writer, you won’t need a second read of the rules. I mentioned Berg in the blogpost, and while I’ve had to re-read his rules on occasion, I find the little bits of humor – again, just a few lines in a book that goes on for several pages – refreshing and charming. Everyone’s different, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that— life would be boring if we all agreed on everything.



    Tom Russell

  • The problem with cracking jokes in the rules is that it gets old reading the same joke multiple times, because it’s a set of rules, not a novel. You’re going to be reading through them again and again, and the joke loses its freshness. The essence of humor is novelty and cracking jokes throughout the rules is going to lose its charm quickly.

    If you like comedy writing, maybe wargame rulebooks aren’t the subset of literature that’s suitable for your talents. I notice that it isn’t about the reader – it’s about the author having fun with himself. To heck with the reader who has to deal with lame jokes throughout what is basically a reference material. Lost throughout this self-centered monologue is what the reader might want to read. It’s not even mentioned.

    If you’re going to write jokes, at least learn the elements of comedy so your jokes can be funny to other people. Scott Adams has a wonderful set of posts on how to write effective humor on his blog. Otherwise your jokes are going to be funny to yourself and nobody else, which defeats the entire purpose of humor. But then again, from what I read here it’s not about entertaining other people, it’s about the author entertaining himself, and anyone who doesn’t like it is a small-minded dolt.


  • Enjoyable article and comments. But my question is: When will the “Orphans of Mars” game be available? And how much for the expansions? :-)

    Stephen Oliver

  • I generally agree with you but one point as regards a conversational tone, I think a central trade-off CAN be precision vs. accessibility. Good writing can certainly deliver both simultaneously but not everybody writes well so…for time worn topics like standard ZOC rules, light, breezy coverage is fine…but where a design is pioneering a new concept or mechanic, maybe favor precision over cleverness. Though I much favor humor everywhere, I would point out that with new rules communication media — like uTube videos — it is possible to relegate the off beat approach to performing the rules and simply document them in the rule book.

    Brandon Musler

  • There are people who feel humour does not belong in game rules. There are people who feel humour does not belong anywhere, unless it is in a small package clearly labelled “Humour” with appropriate indicators and warnings for language, family-friendliness, shady references and cartoon violence.
    They are small, literal-minded dolts and I have no time for them.

    I design games to share my ideas, research and clever-clever with other people, and because it amuses me.
    If it didn’t, the ratio of time spent working on these things to the resulting pecuniary benefit would be a tragic tale of doomed obsession, not the knockabout comedy it is.
    So let me have my little jokes, guys.

    Brian Train

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