Mary Russell

One of the things that drives me the most consistently bonkers about rulebooks - and wargame rulebooks can be particularly bad about this - is when the same gosh darn thing is explained again and again verbatim.

Let's say for example that every time a formation moves into a certain type of terrain, there's a chance it might become disordered or lose cohesion or some-such. That chance might be adjudicated by a die roll made against the unit's Morale Factor or Cohesion Value or what-not. So you might get a rule that goes something like this:

When the unit enters a muskeg hex, roll one die and compare the result to its Morale. If the roll is less than or equal to its Morale, it suffers no adverse effects. If the roll is greater than its Morale, its formation becomes Broken; affix it with a Broken marker.

Okay, that's fine and dandy, but let's move on from movement. We're in the rules for combat now, and let's say that one of the things a unit can do is Charge, but in order to Charge, they need to roll a die against their Morale again. And so we get this rule, which looks a tad bit familiar:

Before the unit can Charge, roll one die and compare the result to its Morale. If the roll is less than or equal to its Morale, it Charges. If the roll is greater than its Morale, it does not Charge and becomes Reluctant; affix it with a Reluctant marker.

Well, I guess that's fine - wait, the non-acting player can Counter-Charge? But first it needs to roll a die against their Morale?

The non-acting player rolls one die for the unit attempting Counter-Charge and compares the result to its Morale. If the roll is less than or equal to its Morale, it Counter-Charges. If the roll is greater than its Morale, I am adding some words to see if anyone is actually reading this rule for the third flipping time.

And, wait, when a unit takes hits, it can try to shake them off by rolling against their Morale? And when a unit tries to throw off the pile of status markers that have been accumulating on its four-cornered head, it does so by rolling against their Morale?

Whenever the reader encounters this roll against Morale rule in this book, roll one die and compare the result to their Morale. If the roll is less than or equal to its Morale, it keeps reading. If the roll is greater than its Morale, the reader plays something else.

There's no reason to repeat this same procedure over and over again at various points in the rules. It's redundant, it's wordy, and it makes the thing seem a lot more complicated than it actually is. Really, this kind of thing should just be explained once.

4.2 Morale Checks

During the course of the game, you will be called upon to make Morale Checks for your Units. To make a Morale Check, roll one die and compare the result to the Unit's Morale. If the total is greater than the Morale, the Morale Check is failed; otherwise, the Morale Check is passed. The consequences of failing a Morale Check will vary depending on the reason why the Check is made.

Boom! That's it, that's the whole procedure, and all we have to do now with the rest of the rules is say "when X happens, make a Morale Check. If failed, Y occurs". (I also prefer this wording because the word "otherwise" nimbly and unambiguously encompasses both "less than" and "equal to".)

This whole thing might seem like a bit of a strawman, but honestly, I've seen rules for morale checks that are written like that - every time it shows up, they explain the whole thing over again, like they assume their players to be goldfish. Or maybe they think it's being more "accessible": this way, the player who looks up the rule for entering a muskeg hex or Charging doesn't have to flip back to rule 4.2 or whatever.

But one of the core reasons why non-wargamers find wargames "inaccessible" is that the rules are dense and needlessly wordy - that they appear more complicated than they actually are.


  • Tom, you have published several of my designs. I am not sure what your opinion is of my rules writing style, but you have rarely edited my rules and even then with a light touch, so it’s probably not dire.
    I try to be comprehensive and comprehensible, and I have written both shorter and longer rules for games. Where I have been verbose, it has been to talk about new or different concepts in the game, not about how to play the game itself. I have found two things:
    1. People Don’t Read.
    2. Someone Doesn’t Like What You Did.

    With respect to 1., it doesn’t matter if your rules are short or long if the player is not reading them. I find that when I answer questions on my game rules, most of the time it consists of pointing out where in the rules I have already answered the question. I am often tempted to put in multiple mentions of the same thing, on the off chance that the player in one of their semi-random dips into the text might catch it; usually I don’t give in.
    With respect to 2., I have not had many complaints about my rules, but I have had more complaints from people who thought they were too short and telegraphic than long and verbose. One of my early designs, Shining Path, had something like 2 1/2 pages of rules, with a lot of the instructions for play mechanics in the charts and tables themselves. Some people didn’t like that. There are other people who criticize the shortness and denseness of the rules in the COIN system games I’ve done (something like 8 pages for the basics, including illustrations), while others complain that the player aid card (which is 1 page) doesn’t do all that those 8 pages do. Anyway, just no pleasing some folks….

    Brian Train

  • LOL.. Well you are the master of succinct and clear. I’ve noticed tho that rulebooks in most cases have become much clearer. I was chatting to Mark Herman about this. He said for example that The Pacific War had much redundancy in it as he wanted to cover all the edge cases, and what if’s in a pre internet time. So as to save replying by snail mail!! That rulebook is exhausting. And due to minor alternate wording becomes a quagmire quickly.
    Dean Essig rights pretty tight if complex rule books. I think he was among the first to say it once and only once effectively across 20-40 pages of rules! Love that. It would be nice if some of the old school designers that are still clinging to the 70’s would update thier thinking and read this blog!! :)


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