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Cracked LCD- Rules Writing Matters

I’ve finally had to a chance to play Dirk Knemeyer’s Road to Enlightenment, and the good news is that all told it’s a pretty darn good game. It wouldn’t be proper for me to formally review it since Conquistador Games’ Director of Operations is none other than Bill Abner. You might could say that I’m in cahoots with him. He used to technically be my boss. There are all kinds of impropriety that would be bound up in my reviewing the game, which just shipped to Kickstarter bankrollers or whatever they’re called. I thought this game looked good enough to support, and the good news is that it’s not a disappointment.

But I am going to make an example out of the game to illustrate a larger point. Road to Enlightenment has one of the worst rulebooks I’ve read in recent memory. After reading through them one time, I had no idea what the core mechanic of the game was and it wasn’t even apparent that it was fundamentally a deckbuilding game. Basic game functions and processes were poorly explained to the point where it’s not clear how to play Vermeer, Newton, and Cromwell into one of the game-driving action stacks. Objectives were not clear. How to pay costs for cards wasn’t immediately evident and issues of timing were vague at best. Really important rules were crammed in an appendix of terms, stuck into call-out boxes, or hidden deep in paragraphs. Oh…so I can’t use the politics points on a Catholic card if I’m anti-Catholic? You mean there’s really not a turn marker, even though there’s a turn track or did I just miss something? Examples of play were sparse, and I came out of the rules scratching my head over them. Looking online for answers, I found rules questions and FAQs picking up the slack.

The trouble extended to actually playing the game with a table of five other seasoned game players. I had enough of an idea of how it would operate to get us going, but after literally going page by page through the rules and hitting the most significant points they all looked at me with that “what the hell are we supposed to do” thousand yard stare. That’s before they got dealt ten cards with a bunch of esoteric icons, numbers and text rules on them that they had never seen before. It was definitely a learning game to say the least, with questions and rules consultations at every turn foreclosing on anyone getting into the more interesting parts of the game. There are only about five pages of rules, which suggests both that there are about five too few. The game simply was not explained adequately by its rulebook.

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Having read hundreds and hundreds of rulebooks in my time, I’ve seen more than a fair share of terribly written, formatted, organized, and explained rules. Road to Enlightenment isn’t nearly as bad as some of the rules I recall reading in the early 1990s, where designers and publishers seemed to be ephemerally suggesting how you should use the components in the box. It’s also a far cry from the confusing and complicated rulebooks that Nexus tucked into the first edition of War of the Ring and Marvel Heroes. It’s nowhere near the atrocity that was Return of the Heroes’ rulebook, presented as a conversation between characters. And we’re obviously not talking about an issue like with Magic Realm or Up Front, where it’s a very complex and detailed game that virtually requires you to learn how to play in stages.

But it is an example of why concise, clear, and well-organized writing is essential and why badly written rules are frustrating- especially when the design is good. When you’re writing a set of rules, you’re writing something that is going to be sent out into the wild and used to re-enact your game as it is intended to be played. More significantly, it is a document that game players are going to use to effectively complete the alchemical cycle of game creation by completing the design through play. With this in mind, there is no excuse for the rules to be the chief stumbling block or barrier to entry for players to experience the design. Card FAQs in a game like this should be expected, but FAQs practically required to comprehend the game at a basic level should not be.

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You can’t assume anything about the reader. You have to understand that you’re giving the ingredients and the recipe for the cake but if it’s not clear if it calls for milk and pickles, then milk and pickles can and will find their way into what comes out of the oven. You’ve got respect the consumer and provide them with the best, most authoritative rules out of the box that they have purchased, not in an Internet fix-it-up file. By the time a table of six players plays the game and it bombs because of bad rules writing, it may be too late for the online FAQ. The rules are where players are introduced to a design and learn how to execute it, so don’t screw it up. That’s the TL;DR version and the moral of the story.

Like a lot of rules sets from first-time designers or smaller publishers, Road to Enlightenment feels like instructions that would make perfect, complete to sense to someone who has had the game explained to them or that has played it enough to fully comprehend its process and mechanics. But consumers purchasing this game are not those people, barring those who have had Mr. Knemeyer or our very own Bill Abner teach them how to play at the World Boardgaming Championship or elsewhere. This is why the rules FAQ is already available and growing, and it is something that could unfortunately jeopardize the success of the game in the marketplace as word gets around that the “rules are really bad”.

Getting the rules right- and I mean the writing part more than the design part- is obviously essential. But it’s also something that is a very tricky proposition that demands accessibility, proper formatting, examples, clarity, and completeness. Looking across the shelf at the rules writing at other companies provides some good examples. GMT’s often very complicated games have a uniformly impeccable, clean presentation using the traditional case-based numbering system that doesn’t necessarily make for good cover-to-cover reading, but the practicality of reference can’t be beat. And they usually include a more prose-oriented playbook with extended examples of play or a completely explained sample turn. All of the above can make their rules seem more difficult than they really are, so it’s sort of a trade-off.

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Fantasy Flight Games used to have some of the worst rulebooks in the business. In recent years they’ve scaled back the text and improved their organization to the point where even their most complex games have concise rules, well-organized and thoroughly illustrated with an eye toward making it playable by someone who’s never picked up a hobby game before or a veteran. The problem with their rules is that they can’t seem to get QA issues and basic copyediting nailed down.

Mage Knight’s rules, although split between a play-through tutorial and a reference rulebook, serve the game well by making it actually quite easy to understand if you learn it as intended. I remember looking at the rules when I first got that game and thinking “oh no, this is going to be a burden”. But it wasn’t. Reading through the rules I was surprised at how well-written and executed they were, and how there was almost no confusion or vagary. The game needed this kind of entry point, and it contributed to my enjoyment of last year’s best release. If that game had a bad rulebook or if it weren’t so well-explained, I doubt it would have found the fanbase and acclaim that it has.

Road to Enlightenment presented me with a set of rules that gave me a feeling similar to what I get from reading a Phil Eklund game for the first time- complete confusion. But instead of feeling like the rules were over my head and rigorously academic, explaining a game with lots of very specific (and rationalized) detail, I felt like what should be a very easy game at a rules level was made much too difficult in the telling so to speak. Bad rules often portend bad things for a design, but there are also occasions when a little clean-up and some good old fashioned red pen editing are all that’s needed to tease out a great game buried beneath bad writing. A second edition rulebook- better written, better formatted, and better explained- is likely all Road to Enlightenment needs. Other games aren’t so lucky.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

23 thoughts to “Cracked LCD- Rules Writing Matters”

  1. I fully agree. I spent a little over an hour setting up the game when it arrived last Saturday to try and get the mechanics down before introducing it to my friends. After reading through the rules a few times with my wife, we were a little confused and overwhelmed.

    I eventually put it away and decided to try and figure it out when my two year old wasn’t trying to move all of the game pieces around, but I haven’t had a chance to pull it back out yet.

    I’ll definitely check out the online sources because I am eager to get a game under my belt and introduce it to people.

    1. Yeah, I had read through the rules twice before trying to explain it to three of my friends. Two of them were experienced gamers and one was very new. Things started of fine with setting up the board and covering different ways to score points, but once we started playing, man did things go south. So many questions that the rules had no answer for…We spent an hour just to get through 3 turns. Seeing how bad it was going I suggested we stop at end of that turn to call it a night and just enjoy some beer. Still plan on trying again though(with the FAQ) because I see this becoming a favorite of ours.

      1. Oh yes, definitely…my gang definitely liked it and it is EXACTLY the kind of game that we get the most out of. Like I told Bill, this is a group where I can say “who the hell is this guy” while looking at one of the obscure luminary cards and my friend Pierre will go to his massive bookshelf and produce a biography of said person. Plus the light, abstract DoaM angle is appreciated, as are the alliances.

        We finished, but it was definitely a creaky boat pulling into port.

        We’re definitely playing again with the FAQ as well.

    1. Nah, no reason for it to be. It’s a good game, and it’s one that I think has a ton of potential. It’s very much in the vein of something like Here I Stand or Revolution: The Dutch Revolt but it’s MUCH more accessible and MUCH more likely to get played. I think that if the rules are ironed out then fans of A Few Acres of Snow and hybrid wargames will be interested in it as well as folks like me that like historical subject matter but without Empires of the Middle Ages levels of complexity or length.

      Now, what would have been awkward would have been if I came on here and gave it a glowing review and everybody went out and bought it expecting a perfect set of rules in the box…

      1. I think the Conquistador Games guys would be the first to admit that the rulebook needs some reworking. Bill has been pretty active putting together a FAQ and answering people’s questions about the rule set. I even heard rumors of him taking the game through a turn or two in a video tutorial, which would be awesome.

        1. Oh yes, absolutely…these guys are already being proactive about the problem so that early adopters aren’t left in the lurch. They want you to be able to play the game and get the most out of it, so it’s great that the support is there.

          But I stand by what I mean here- a game should not ship with shoddy rules. But this is something even the biggest companies (like FFG) do and have done in the past.

  2. I don’t expect a glowing review but even touching this game criticaly is a slippery slope for nhs due to bill being an employee. Pos or negative its a lose lose. Butsince that ship sailed..why not offer a more well rounded review of the game? I think nhs readers would like to know what you think. I read toms review which was glowing outside of the rules.

    So if yer gonna review the manual…may as well fire both barrels imo

    1. It’s not a manual review, or any review. It’s more of an impressions piece, and specifically I’m talking about manuals in all games with this as an example of how bad rules writing can affect the final, completed game product as it is played.

      The well-rounded review is that this a good game with compelling subject matter, some great formal alliance mechanics, a huge scope, and an intricate incorporation of a deckbuilding concept in a game with geographic, economic, and political concerns. It’s well-produced for the most part, the graphic design is uniformly excellent (go Heiko), and there’s definitely plenty to explore in terms of card combinations and strategies. There are a couple of missed opportunities for detail, but detail would bring extra complexity. The #1 problem is that the rulebook is terrible, which is what I think Chick’s general diagnosis was too.

      I’m not affiliated with Conquistador (nor is NHS, beyond Bill’s employment there) in any way and I don’t feel that writing a formal review is appropriate…but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to have loudmouth opinions about it. It’s expected by now, I would think. 😉

  3. I appreciate the honesty from Mr Barnes on this, and NHS as a site for not ignoring the elephant in the room. Having just ordered the game about an hour ago I am very much looking forward to playing it with my “hard core” board gameing friends. Although I’m guessing that the first session with our neighbors who have only played a few games of Ticket To Ride, and my wife who up until a few weeks ago thought we fought against Napoleon in the American Revolution, might me a little rough

    1. You’re going to have a good time with it if you make sure that everyone understands that it’s going to be a learning game and that the rules are going to be touch-and-go. No one should expect to play a masterful game of it right out of the gate, and make sure everyone is casual about take-backs, screw-ups, and rules interpretations. Have the FAQ handy (which does answer some of the major questions). Hardcore gamers are usually more understanding of these stipulations. Sometimes.

  4. Good read Barnes. Nobody gets it completely right with their first release, but thankfully for Billand Dirk, this one is fixable.

    And considering your lack of ties to bill other than on here, I don’t think a review would have been inappropriate. I trust you and Tom Chick more than that.

    1. But what if I told you that Bill Abner offered me a dumptruck full of money to post a good review?

      What if I told you that Tom Chick accepted it?

      (I’m just kidding, don’t make it a thing.)

      1. I’d expect an honest review and then laughing all the way to the bank, with The Abner in hot pursuit.

        That could be a board game right there.

        I don’t know that I agree Bill. Journalistic integrity is a lot like attorney conflicts rules. Mike isn’t pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes here. If he wants to give an honest review, I really don’t see it as a problem. Disclaimers can go a long way.

  5. The criticism of the rules is fair.

    Interestingly, no red flags that this would be such a problem came from people reading the rules BEFORE the game was released. That is, we posted the PDFs and, while people found some minor things, nobody thought it was a mess. It was only in the context of their trying to use it with the physical game in-hand that this became the case. And yes, not sending it off for blind playtests was a definite oversight.

    Now that I am seeing all the trouble people have with it, I think the big error was to make the rules “as short as possible”. While a small part of that was a cost consideration – this was an incredibly expensive game to produce – the larger part was the design goal for the game was to bring together a vast scope, complex and abstract concepts like culture, religion and art, in addition to a more traditional military game and do it in under three hours. The thinking was, to illustrate to people how quick and light the game is relative to other games of similar thematic gravitas, have a teeny rulebook. For example, I very much enjoy heavier wargames, but their 24 page rulebooks – sometimes accompanied in the same box by a 24 page play book – give me a diamond point headache just thinking about them. We wanted the form factor to inherently say “This game is the opposite of _that_.”

    Didn’t work out so well. Live and learn. I’m glad people are still seeing the heart of the game despite these issues, and particularly glad Bill is working on the FAQ and other helping tools to make discovering it easier.

    1. Speaking as one of those who had access to the rule book in advance, I can only offer these few thoughts:

      1). I didn’t go into reading over the rules with my editor’s eye, instead planning to just give it a quick once over. I am not a big fan of reading rules before I have a game to play, because waiting for the game becomes more painful after.
      2). Rules for games with lots of card-based powers generally aren’t all that informative until you have the cards themselves in hand. This is another reason to wait for an in-depth reading until the game is in hand.
      3). By the time I Kickstarted, I was told the rule book was final. This was another reason not to dive too deeply… The ship had sailed.

      But I am a big fan of the game and know this will be a huge win in short order. This isn’t the first game with rules issues, and many of them go on to great success. And the quality of the rest of the game – art and card stock and bits – is so amazing that I have left the game out on my testing table in anticipation of the FAQ (and possible video).

    2. Thanks for the comments Dirk- and thanks for not “pulling a Petersen”.
      😉

      I think the design goals are there and are met, and that’s the upshot of all this…but the usability of the rulebook isn’t, and as the game gets into the wild hands of the consumer that’s becoming apparent. As another commenter mentioned, reading through advance rules is often a very, very different experience than sitting down to learn to play- or learn to teach. When I read rules online (which is almost never), I’m doing it to get the gist of what a game is all about. Not to engage in a learning process. That’s when the usability issue starts to crop up, and that’s why I think some of the shortcomings are popping up post-release.

      I’m with you on the longer rulebooks, for sure. Quite frankly, over the past year I’ve sort of shied away from the longer, more complex games simply because of time issues, playability issues, and the fact that I’m really rather sick of learning to play a game with a 24 page rulebook…and my group plays it one or maybe two times. But that said, I don’t think RtE needs that big of a rulebook. I think you _could_ explain everything in five pages in this game and have room for appendices, design notes, and what have you. It comes down to good, old fashioned technical writing chops, an editorial eye, and practical organization.

      There’s a lot of simple things that could be done to improve usability, like a very simple bullet list that indicates what exactly can be played into a stack:

      “Player actions are selected by commiting luminaries to one or both action stacks. These cards are played out of hand, and unless specified by a card effect or if the card is a favorite, all commited cards will be exhausted after resolution. An action stack may consist of:

      – One of the nation’s three basic action cards
      – A Luminary card granting an action
      – One of the above types of action cards plus one Luminary card granting an Enhancement to that action
      – A basic or Luminary action card with or without an enhancement and any cards required to pay any specified costs or to support military action”

      I’d probably do that differently if I were actually writing it, but that’s the spur-of-the-moment example.

      The game is there, and if the rules get up to speed then I think you’ll see that the goals are more evident to more people.

  6. Interesting thinking on the smaller rule book Dirk.

    I would think that if you did a Venn Diagram of people who like to play vast complex historical board games, and people who like to read thick and detailed game manuals, the intersection would be close to 100%.

  7. I’m curious. Has there been any focused thought on what the ideal game “should” look like?

    I’ve always kind of thought that “objective” should always be first, and for the most part, it is.

    But the thing that almost always gets concealed is, “what is a single player turn like?” That is, what is the primary activity of the game?

    I remember being introduced to 7 Wonders recently. There was a lot of discussion of the various things that could get you points, and I was starting to lose the plot. My friend could have just said, “This is a victory point game.” The very next thing I wanted to know was, “What should I be doing every turn, and how?”

    That’s not the order the game goes in – there are set-up issues, and prerequisite costs. But I almost feel like, in order to understand what it’s all “for”, the typical turn should be as close to the second thing you learn in the manual as possible. (I suppose third – setup is still probably second in most people’s minds.)

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