The 54 Card Guild: #11


If this is the first time you're seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. It's a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you're interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

At long last, we shall cover my favorite topic: writing rules. As an accessory to this post, we'll also be discussing diagram creation. Rules are a pillar of game design, whether you like them or not, and being able to write them well is a key tool in every designer's tool box.

In this post, you'll find an Outline for you to use on how to create rules. I'll also provide some key steps and insights. Then, I'll do a breakdown on how to create functional diagrams, discuss when to diagram, and I'll share the Tools for you to use. Before that, however, let's discuss a high level philosophy of rules.

Quick Note: In Guide #3, we discussed a Rules Outline to help you enter a testing phase. 

The fact that customers have to read rules and learn a tabletop game is the single greatest thing inhibiting the growth of the hobby. Thankfully, quality rules are on the rise, and though rules are still oft maligned for lack of clarity, I've found that to less and less be the case. But, every designer must remember that they do not ship with every copy of the game. Every player must read the rules first before playing, or have the game explained by a friend (which is actually very common).

Another thing to consider is that everyone learns differently. Some people prefer text. Others need the visuals of diagrams. Others need examples to break down a rule. Some simply need an outline that walks them through how the game works. Finally, some need a video full of examples, like those in Watch it Played. What does this all mean? You need to account for everyone. You need to open your mind, think beyond how YOU process information and learn, and think on behalf of the wide audience.

Many designers put off writing rules until the very end, but in my opinion, this is a mistake. A neat mechanism or idea is only potent if you can explain it concisely, in writing, without you being there. By putting this off, you're procrastinating from one of the most difficult challenges in your entire process. Answer these tough questions sooner, not later. Furthermore, remembering all of your ideas and nuances will be increasingly difficult. But, updating an existing set of rules takes minutes after a test. Basically, don't tax your mind!

Finally, if leveraged correctly, your rules can act as a design document. They'll provide a framework that helps you answer basic questions like how players start their turn, when scoring takes place, or how the game ends. Often, a game will begin with a single kernel that needs to be surrounded by supporting ideas. Your rules will bring those to the fore sooner so that they can be better considered.

Enough philosophy. Let's start writing some rules.

Writing the Rules

I have a few things for you to look at during this section.

  • Find the Rules Writing Template Here.
  • Find the rules for Martian Empire* Here.
  • Companies like Fantasy Flight Games have applicants write the rules for Rock/Paper/Scissors. Try doing it! You'll be shocked what you learn.

*I've been using Project Gaia as my example template, but it is no longer a 54 card design. Furthermore, it's a fairly complex design with a very long rule set. Therefore, I'm using another design, which is only 44 cards, and has a smaller rule book.

There are some key things to remember at each step of writing the rules.

Try to explain things in order. That sounds obvious, but take a step back and think about the steps. Use your Rules Outline from the previous Guide so you know what's important. Think about how Legos tells you to assemble something.

For example, don't tell them early on that they'll be discarding a card at the end of the round and placing it in their opponent's deck. You'll want to tell them about what they'll do in the round first, provide clues on what card they might wish to discard and why, and then explain that next phase. Walk them through your ride.

Do not introduce a thing you are not ready to explain, at least somewhat. Be prepared to at least provide a summary explanation. Not every detail and exception needs to be explained immediately. For example, in a war game, you might have a leader unit. You might note that every player has at least one leader, and leaders are units that do not fight, but can be killed. You can then note that leaders generally exist to offset certain die rolls and aid their units in a support role. But, you don't need to describe, yet, how leaders react to a melee charge versus an artillery blast. You don't need to explain what happens when leaders are stuck in forests. Save those for when you explain combat, or terrain, respectively. Yes, if you're curious, I more or less paraphrased leaders from Napoleonics, but in a way that serves my example better than explaining the game.

Be sure to bold or call out key rules that can be easily missed or overlooked. These include exceptions, important reminders, or just fundamental rules that people might gloss over. Telling people they have to take one specific action every turn might seem obvious...and then they forget because it's just one of eight actions, so what makes it special?

If something isn't dead simple, consider an example. Go ahead and lower your bar for what you consider dead simple. Lower it crazy far. People aren't stupid, they're just busy, eager to play, distracted, and their minds are full of all sorts of things.

If you cannot explain a thing, consider changing that thing. We had an impossible time explaining what the kicker was for Hocus. So, we got rid of it. Seriously. It was that simple.

After you write the rules explaining an element, consider the length of the explanation versus what the idea provides. I have changed or cut rules because there was a far simpler way to accomplish the same thing.

Be careful to use a word consistently. For example, at one point in Hocus, the word "hand" had 3 definitions. Be very careful here! Be careful with words like "play" and "place." Do not treat them as synonyms. Pick one, and use it consistently.

Furthermore,  you find yourself using a term consistently, good! Stick to it. Create a Key Terms section to tell your players what it means.

One of the best ways to learn rules is to write rules. This sounds insane, but I think I'm decent to good at writing rules and this is due to me writing dozens of rules, reading hundreds of rules, and editing rules for others. It's a skill you have to work at, just like design itself.

Look to the great rule books to really learn how the masters do it.

  • Pandemic is phenomenal. It has wonderful, clear examples.
  • Fantasy Flight Games has been doing a dual manual system. The first teaches you how to play, the second acts as a reference. Play X-Wing, Armada, Rebellion, or really, any of their new games to learn.
  • The Gallerist is a very big, heavy game with a very wonderfully laid out and explained manual.
  • The rule books of Czech Games Edition are consistently funny and good. Check out Space Alert or Dungeon Lords.
  • Combat Commander: Europe has an excellent reference based rule book for a game that has very few systems, but is basically exception driven.
  • I'm very proud of the rule book for Hocus. Yes, I'm going to reference it! It's short and we've had very few questions about it.

Most if not all of these rule books are linked on Go look them up, download the PDF, and learn from them if you don't have them in your collection. Read other rule books, even ones that aren't good, and find out where you're confused, why you have to re-read certain sections, or what just makes sense. Find out how you learn, then study the alternate ways the book supports people who learn through different methods.

You may be scratching your head at the brevity of this post. Basically, 1000 words to teach one of the toughest concepts in game design? Yeah. The thing is, there are 1000s of examples of what good looks like. The template I shared is the one I more or less have been using for years, with tweaks here and there, depending on the game.

You learn to write rules by writing them. Then, stopping to read them aloud to yourself to find things that simply don't make sense. Then, you have a friend read them and have them explain your game to you.


I recommend you use Google Drive. Chances are you have a Gmail account which hooks directly into this. Then, you can write word documents that you can then access and share from your computer, laptop, or smartphone. Anonymous people can even comment if you let them. It's really a great way to go.

Diagram Creation

A key part of good rules are good diagrams. Diagrams can be as simple as teaching you the anatomy of a card, to something more complex that demonstrates the flow of the game.

At the very least, your rules should have diagrams to explain card anatomy. This is a very simple diagram to execute that is shockingly simple to execute. Here's an example from Martian Empire.


I used Photoshop to create this, but you can use Google Drawings (provided free in Google Drive) as well. Upload an image of your card. Create a red circle, then overlay a number on top of it. Assign a number + Circle to every element of your card. Then, simply explain them for your players. Here is my explanation from my rules.

  1. Initiative Number: The order cards will be resolved on Planets (lowest to highest number)
  2. The Type of card: This is a reminder of what type of card this is.
  3. The Great House Emblem: This indicates the Great House, and is summed to determine Domination (see below)
  4. Text: This determines what the card does when it is resolved, or the condition that must be met to score.
  5. Name and Color: A reminder of the Great House’s name and color

You want to include this diagram around the time you begin explaining how to use the card. Remember above when I said you shouldn't introduce a thing until you're ready to talk about it? This is why. Players will need diagrams and examples and you want to be sure they're ready for the deluge of information.

That's an obvious diagram. Below is an example of one used to demonstrate to players how cards are used. Often in a game, you'll be describing things using common terms, like draft. However, other terms that describe a specific way of doing things can be overwhelming. Players might gloss over the details, or miss a key point. Therefore, you might want to dedicate some space to demonstrate how you do a basic interaction.


Hopefully it's obvious that these are placeholder. But, you can see here where I've taken a card and reduced its opacity to indicate a change in state. More transparent equals temporary in this example. The player follows the arrow to flip the card face down onto the planet. Ah ha! You play cards face down.

You might roll your eyes, but Pandemic has a diagram that shows the player holding 4 cards in their hand. Why? Because sometimes people miss things. Some people are visual learners. And, frankly, it's good to reinforce details.

A final example I wish to share is of a diagram explaining the core moment of the game. Card resolution. This is a key moment to demonstrate because it shows how multiple cards are revealed, sorted, then resolved in a specific order. This is the HEART of the game, so it makes sense to dedicate more real estate to that, right? If we're reminding players how to hold and play cards, then doubling down on what they will be doing is essential!


Above is part one. It demonstrates how you take the face down cards, explained in a previous example, and flip them over. You then arrange them in Initiative order, the number in the top left corner, from lowest (2) to highest (7).


Now, this final diagram above demonstrates how they are resolved. The cards are placed left to right and are resolved from lowest to highest. The 2 card, the Assassin, resolves. This causes green to score 3 Points and the Ruler, the 3 card, is removed. That is indicated by the red X. It is therefore skipped. The 7, the Heir, then resolves and scores 2 Points for the purple player.

All of this is described in text. When you consider the entire package, the rules do the following:

  • Introduce the structure of the round
  • Explain each phase of the round
  • Explain each phase again with practical examples and illustrated diagrams

Key elements of good diagrams are labels to highlight key elements (sorta like with rules!), arrows to demonstrate motion and how things are played, or even just a birds eye view of the table with the game shown setup fully. Just orient people, like the north start. You don't need to be a graphics master!

Think about traffic signs and billboards, which use very common iconography, gestures, and symbols that everyone understands at a quick glance. Remember that diagrams are supplements. They aren't teaching your game alone! Therefore, they don't have to lift all the weight, just prop it up.

Use color to aid your diagrams - red is bad, green is good. But, colorblindness is a thing for a small percentage of the population and you should work to accommodate them. It's a tool, not the only solution. Use transparency and opacity to demonstrate and highlight different game states. The letter "X" goes a long way to demonstrating something should be discarded, cancelled, or killed.

A place to obtain high quality icons to use for diagrams and cards is I love it.

Your Assignments

Firstly, read three rule books for three different games. Be careful to study how they use examples, diagrams, key terms, and the order by which they introduce concepts. Notice how good books layer things gradually instead of overwhelming you.

Secondly write the rules for your game. Feel free to send them to me and I'll happily give them a read and critique them.

Thirdly, have a friend read the rules and teach your game to you. Iterate on your rules and make them better.

Finally, experiment with diagrams based on your friend's confusion. Where do they get lost? Where do they stumble? Experiment with diagrams! Feel free to draw them by hand and share those instead. Just give them a visual aid!

Thanks for reading.