Mary Russell

Part of my job is to answer rules questions. It's not something that I mind doing; I want folks to understand the games and to play them correctly. I also want to know what parts of the rules are easy to grok and which are harder to parse, because that helps me going forward. Rules-writing is, after all, a human endeavor, and since we humans are fallible, so too are the rules to our games, despite our best efforts.

And rules-reading is itself also a human endeavor. What is clear to some gamers might not be clear to others. As more than one designer has noted, we all process information differently, we all learn differently, and what works for one person might not work for another. Each of us tries to tailor our rulesets for the intended audience, and for the broadest possible segment of that audience. We want to communicate as clearly as possible to as many people as possible, and for everyone else, well, there's always the forums of BGG and CSW.

The thing I find the most striking about the questions that I get however is that sometimes, it's not a matter of folks having trouble understanding what the phrasing of the rule means. Instead, it's a case of someone not believing the rule as written. To give you an example of what I mean, let's write a rule that looks something like this:

On a player's impulse, they must choose one Division to Activate. Up to three Units from that Division may be Activated. All Activated Units must be Activated for the same activity: Movement, Combat, or Recovery. Disrupted Units cannot be Activated for Combat.

Four sentences which I think cover pretty much all the bases. But then the questions start.

It says up to three Units, but what if there are more than three Units in the Division? Well, "up to three Units" means "up to three Units" - there could be twenty Units in the Division, and you'd still be limited to three.

What if there are less than three Units? Then you activate less than three; "up to three Units" means "up to three Units".

Can I activate two of the Units for Combat and one for Recovery? No; "All Activated Units must be Activated for the same activity" means "All Activated Units must be Activated for the same activity". But what if one of the three Units I want to activate is Disrupted and I want to do Combat with the other two? Then you only activate the two.

Can a Disrupted Unit be Activated to Move? Sure; the only thing the rule specifies is that they can't be Activated for Combat.

And once in a while I'll get something like, What if the Unit isn't in Supply? Well, the rules about activation don't reference supply state at all, and (for the sake of argument for this nonexistent ruleset) the rules about supply don't reference activation, so this has no bearing on it.

And I want to be absolutely clear about something: these aren't bad questions. I don't mind answering them. I don't think any less of the people who ask them. And if you go back a few years into some forums, you can find me asking the same kinds of questions about this game or that one. With regards to my own rulesets, it probably stems from the fact that I tend to write very terse rules that perhaps encourage folks to try and fill in blanks that aren't there and that don't need filling in.

Certainly I've had folks highlight the terseness as something that gives them trouble, and particularly when I'm doing something that deviates from tried-and-true hex-and-counter convention, I have added some redundant verbiage. But this can only go so far. If, for example, we tried to work all the answers to all the questions above into the text, it might look something like this:

On a player's impulse, they must choose one Division to Activate. Up to three Units from that Division may be Activated. Even if a Division has more than three Units, the maximum number of Units that can be Activated is three. Less than three Units can be Activated. Units from more than one Division cannot be Activated together. All Activated Units must be Activated for the same activity: Movement, Combat, or Recovery. You cannot activate some Units for one activity and some Units for another; all the Units must be Activated for the same activity. Disrupted Units cannot be Activated for Combat, but can be Activated for Movement and Recovery. You cannot Activate some non-Disrupted Units for Combat and a Disrupted Unit for Movement or Recovery; if a Combat Activation is chosen, then Disrupted Units simply are not Activated. A Unit's Supply State does not impact its ability to be Activated. And so on.

This rule is double the length of the "terse" version, but I don't think it appreciably doubles one's ability to understand the rule. In fact, I think it makes it harder! If you try to spell out everything that isn't meant by a rule, not only will your list be incomplete, but all you'll have for your efforts is an impenetrable mass of text. Not everyone enjoys reading rules (I do, but I'm weird like that), but this style almost guarantees that the result will be a joyless slog, a chore - a barrier to entry, especially for newcomers.


  • I want to propose basic rules for writing instructions on this primordially ancient post:

    (1) Always lead with positive statements. Even if a negative must be stated to clarify the positive, even if the negative is the whole point, state a positive first. Do not lead with a negative.
    (2) If confusion seems possible, repeat the rule using different words. Restate it from a different perspective, perhaps a negative following a positive.
    (3) Give examples to synthesize different rules or different parts of a rule: “All Units that are Activated must be Activated for the same activity: Movement, Combat, or Recovery. Therefore, you cannot activate some Units for one activity and some Units for another, such as Disrupted Units for Movement or Recovery and non-Disrupted Units for Combat.”

    Amabel, your example is stellar.


  • For a moment there, I thought the first paragraph of the ‘expanded rules’ was for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch: “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.”


  • I just played Table Battles with my wife (loved it) and I raved to her about how clearly the rules are written. Great job with them!
    My childhood passion for wargames was reignited a couple of months ago, and I’ve bought and played dozens of games since then, and read a TON of rules.
    To me, the best rules are those that provide context, so the reader understands what the game is about and how it plays. Most rules are written like recipes or computer programs – line by line instructions and explanations. That’s fine, but context helps the reader understand how the specific rule fits into the larger picture, which makes it easier to understand. I really appreciate it when the designer says “This rule seeks to emulate xyz” or “The purpose of this rule is to ensure abc”. That helps the reader understand it the first time, and helps resolve potential ambiguities.
    I’m fine with some repetition, especially when the designer anticipates people will ask questions. You did this with Table Battles very effectively (and humorously). We can only absorb so much information at a time. Several times, I’ve explained a rule to someone I’m teaching a new game, and they will stare at me, nod their heads, even say “I get it, I get it” and then, when I remind them of the rule later, they will look at me in genuine surprise, with no recollection of my having explained the rule earlier. Just how our imperfect brains work.
    Finally, I’ll say that designers can err on the side of too much brevity. I’ve struggled with brief rules that just don’t make sense to me – more words would have been better!
    But again, great job with Table Battles and the rules… Based on that experience, I’m now going to get more of your games!

    Alex J.

  • I appreciate terseness and conciseness over thoroughness. Reading is actually something of a chore for me. I like to be able to take in a sentence, interpret it, add it to my “logical model” of the rules, and move on to the next. When a sentence doesn’t add meaning (and especially when clarification wasn’t necessary), I lose patience and almost start re-writing rules in my head (which distracts from reading the next sentence).

    Having said that, I’m terribly verbose in my own rule-writing, because I feel I have to cover every corner case against lawyer-interpretation. It’s difficult to give the reader room to interpret correctly because misinterpretation is so easy. It’s a conundrum.

    Paul Owen

Leave a Comment