TERSE (by Tom Russell)

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.


  • Since the rules don’t explicitly prohibit it, may I take several of my opponents pieces and place them in the toaster oven during my combat phase?

    Joe Oppenheimer

  • https://boardgamegeek.com/article/28539986#28539986
    A few months ago someone posted on a thread in BGG paraphrasing Charles Vasey: Charles said that he found the vast majority of queries could be answered from the rules; the problem was that most of the readers who were raising queries did not like the rules as they had been written.
    I found that rather profound.
    Tom, your following post in that thread noted your experience with players consciously or unconsciously porting over rules and concepts from other games.
    I know I’ve encountered this; it can make doing something different even more difficult, but if no one did that we’d still be playing variations on Napoleon at Waterloo.

    I’ve written long and chatty rules, on the supposition that someone would find them easier to grok if they were supplied with rationales and extra explanation of concepts.
    I’ve also written quite terse rules, on the supposition that if people were faced with something short, they would read it once and get what they needed to know quickly.
    The only things I’ve learned from that are:
    - there will always be someone unhappy with how you did something;
    - some people simply don’t read, they just apply what was already in their heads, often from the last game they played.

    Another thing I’ve noted is what happens when you try to play the game “for” someone. Easily 80% of the queries we get on BGG for games in the GMT COIN series have to do with some aspect of implementing the ‘bots that replace absent players. Someone will write in describing a oneinamillion map state and say, “the bot says this, but did it really mean that?” or "the bot’s not doing what I think it should be doing, what’s wrong here?" It’s as if once you supplied people with a flowchart, all the free will and imagination drains out of their heads… if you hadn’t supplied them with the chart, they would have been able to figure it out.

    Brain Train

  • One thousand thumbs up in agreement. I get these type of questions all the time and I constantly struggle over how much extra wording to add to try to anticipate questions versus loading it up so much it becomes less clear.

    Roger Miller

  • 1
  • 2

Leave a Comment