The Rewrite

signing-constitution Painting by Howard Chandler Christy

Update: Here are the updated rules

I love writing rules. Writing the rules is often the first thing I do when I begin a new design. Developing the rules is arguably where I spend the most time as the rules are what I'm looking at when implementing changes or developing the prototype. I also update them as I go following every test, or as needed.

I recently tried something new in rules writing, which I thought was interesting enough to share. In addition, I wanted to begin a discussion on providing and incorporating rules feedback. The new thing? I completely re-wrote our rules for Hocus Poker from scratch. Other than one single section, the entire document was torched (figuratively, hooray the cloud!) and set aside.

If you'll allow a brief tangent, I also re-wrote them by hand. On a short flight, I took out my legal pad and a pen and just took to the task. I hate writing by hand beyond sketches and scribbles, so you can be sure my text was concise and well-thought out. That, as an exercise, was very useful. I recommend it.

But, why would I re-write the rules instead of just tweaking the current ones? We've been seriously blind testing the game for about a month now with approximately 10 groups of dedicated testers, a few PNP testers, and local testers. We've had a lot of eyes and different perspectives providing input. Everyone, literally everyone, learns and obtains information in a slightly different way.

The other day while discussing a recent batch of feedback, Josh and I took a step back and noticed our rules were just bulging at the seams. They'd become this overweight monstrosity with dozens of clarifications and strange diagrams. We'd been blown off course!

They reminded me of the United States federal tax Code, a notoriously cumbersome, confusing, and rickety series of laws that fuel taxation software. Our rules had reached a point where players were missing key concepts because their mental space was being consumed by unnecessary additions. It was time for a clean slate.

I had a few questions in my mind while redesigning our rule set:

  • Where are the low-hanging fruit? We had a few large sections that needed to be removed, shortened, or integrated differently.
  • Where could we showing a visual for what was currently text?
  • Where should be be writing what was currently visual? Images take up space and aren't always useful.
  • Where was the correct flow of information interrupted? We had a few places where we'd have A, B, F, then C.
  • How can this be said simpler?
  • Are we already saying this? Are we already saying this? (Remove repetition)
  • Does this really need to be a rule? Or a note? Or a clarification? Does everyone need to see this?
sword-in-the-stone-5 Merlin from Disney's 'The Sword in the Stone'

As so much time was spent on adjusting the rules, it forced me to consider the root cause. How did we get here in the first place? The short answer is that we took into account almost everyone's feedback.

In the same way that not everyone's feedback should be fully considered and accepted for the design of your game, not all feedback should be introduced into your rules. Josh and I will need to discuss what we do moving forward, but I think we'll need to change how we go about introducing feedback from our many rules commentators.

I think this will be less a problem for Josh, who is the more patient one of the two of us. Ultimately, I want to be receptive to feedback. I know how it can be very frustrating to put work into something for someone, often with no compensation, and see zero changes as a result of your work. I think my hummingbird brain thinks "Oh, I'll make their change! We'll be best of friends." Hummingbird is too harsh. I'm actually more like Dug from Up.

My first proposal is to create a spreadsheet to catalog comments and critiques that don't quite fit. At least not at first glance.  We'll list them and take a look every week or so. We'll note how many people shared the comment. If you see a trend, you might want to address the feedback. The lack of a trend doesn't mean you shouldn't address it, but it should be considered more carefully.

Remember: Everyone learns differently. Everyone processes rules differently. Some people fill in the blanks and just run with it. Then again, some people fill in the blanks disastrously. Try to identify personality types and see where they run into issues with your rules. Over time, you should be able to  think about these types and fortify your rules for them as you write them.

When you encounter someone whose feedback seems bizarre, talk to them about where they are coming from. It's clear they do things differently than you. As you don't share a brain, that's just fine. You'll be surprised to find how simple some of the solutions are.

A common mistake of many rules editors, which is something I've assuredly done myself, is to identify a section in the rules where someone MIGHT be confused. Basically, you create trouble where none exists. Many people launch into a rules document with their red pen at the ready. We all mean well, like Quixotian rules nerds.

  • Someone could think you mean Z when you really mean Y. Consider: What would a reasonable person think in most cases?
  • Someone might want to know this information here instead of there. Consider: What do you need here and why?
  • You should really list out all of these. Consider: What does that solve? Who does it help?
  • Just in case, you might want to confirm what isn't affected by this rule. Consider: How best to clarify, and position such clarification, to reduce repetition and undue complication.

Add these items to the list. Or, use them as the beginning to your discussion. Challenge (politely!) your readers' critiques. In the same way that your rules document isn't yet final, neither is their input. Have a conversation and seek the root cause to solve their concerns as best as possible.

To summarize, never forget who owns the rules: YOU (the designer)! Thank, love, and appreciate your readers, but remember to keep your rules clean, clear, and not Franken-like. Before incorporating a suggestion that seems odd, note it. See if other people mention it. At the very least, use it to start a discussion. Keep in mind that others can and will process information differently. Seek to understand their point of view and improve your rules within reason to accommodate this. Remember that people have a natural desire to help, but that they might "find confusion" where none actually exists. Don't be afraid to ask questions and get to the bottom of things.

In the end, improve your rules with the same thoughtfulness and patience you do the game itself. Otherwise, you may have a document that caters to everyone, but serves nobody.

Comments

My standard outline is:
Introduction
Components List
Setup
How to Win
How to play
-Explain Rounds
-Explain Turns
-Explain player actions
How Game Ends
Credits

Obviously every game is different, but that's the structure from which I start.

Great write-up! I always have the most trouble working out the ordering for my rules. When you have a lot of interconnected systems, knowing the right order in which to introduce them can be very difficult. I frequently end up with a lot of footnotes with lines like "After taking an action, draw a Party card (see page 5 for more on Party cards)."

Do you have a preferred method for managing rules ordering?

Thanks for the post, Mr. Rodiek! Once you announced that you were rewriting the rules, I knew exactly why :-) After 5 iterations, you were bound to have some extraneous fluff, redundancy, and incomplete thoughts. I didn't expect a wrote up, though! Really appreciate you sharing. Although this is one of those areas where most designers will have their own specific opinions, hearing similar thoughts from someone else is actually quite comforting :-)
By the way, I loved this part, "Remember that people have a natural desire to help, but that they might “find confusion” where none actually exists. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get to the bottom of things." One of my primary preliminary play testers is this way. Sometimes, the things which confuse him are be bizarrely frustrating. However, he is indispensable for testing casual / family friendly games: he's always excited to offer helpful suggestions, and I know that if I can't walk him through a game then I've overshot my audience.

Now, do you prefer to outline or free-write, first?

I tend to just free-write, but I often write section headlines quickly and then flesh them out. I suppose I do both?

Seems good ;-)
I know that I should outline, first, to keep my writing on track. I usually can't force myself to do it unless I'm super tired and, therefore, have trouble focusing, period.

I think that even WITHOUT the continual input from testers, your rules might benefit from a rewrite.

I wrote the rules to my game once design turned to development and - whilst the focus on testing was still on game development at that stage, rather than the rulebook or graphic design choices, I continued to edit the rulebook for the sake of P&P.

When I came to focus on testing the rulebook itself, I rewrote everything without looking at the original document. Whilst this didn't necessarily remove 'bloat', it did definitely allow me to have a 2nd stab at the task, having observed more time how people learn it. Your brain may come to different solutions and in the end I basically just used my 2nd attempt and edited that, using virtually nothing from the 1st.

For me, rewriting it all has definitely made my rulebook into a better document and testing just revealed a few minor tweaks to make.

Great point, and I completely agree! I didn't figure this out until very recently, though. You obviously have to get something written down before you can hand your game to other people, but you can only guess at how people will absorb that information. Rewriting after I had the chance to teach a few dozen people, "having observed. . . how people learn it", made my rule book so much better.

Well said, yet again.

I'm fascinated how many people shout the rules must be as concise as possible, while others shout that they should be as unambiguous as possible, and others as graphical as possible. If it were any one of those things, rules would be easy.

As with game design itself, you've got to find and strike the right balance for your rules, between concise and explicit, between text and illustrations. You've got to do it based on the context of the game itself, its theme and audience, the number of systems and exceptions in it. And you've got to do it within the context of each single paragraph as well, relative to the text and pictures around it, as well as its place on the page, and its primacy in the booklet.

Rules writing is hard because it's art.