Well, Hello there!
“How would you feel about playing a board game with me? You would? Great! Let’s see, let’s see… I think this one looks good. I’ll just pull it off the shelf and bring it to the table. Oh, look at all the pieces that this game comes with! It has standees AND minis, cards, counters, dice, and well, just about every component that a board game might have. Let’s break out the instructions and learn how to play!”
“I’m looking for instructions, I’m looking for instructions… Oh, here they are! But, it’s only one page. One page? Well, Monopoly‘s instructions are only one page. Let’s have a read and see where we get to. Ok. So these meeples start here. And these cards go here. But, what are these cards for? I’m sure it’ll say as we go through the rest of the instructions. Still reading, still reading… And what about these blocks? How are they used? I don’t see an instruction for them? Well maybe, if I keep reading… No, there’s nothing about these pieces OR these ones. Hmm? And these symbols on the cards aren’t explained either. Seriously?! That’s the breadth of the instructions that come with this game? Well, I hate to say it but I don’t think we have enough information to play properly. Wanna pick something else?”
Believe it or not, this happened to us the other day with a Kickstarter game that came after about a year of waiting. Was I disappointed? Yes, I was. The instructions were thin. How thin? Imagine one page of 8.5″ x 11″ paper (A4) folded in half. That was it. They didn’t explain the actions of the cards very well or any of the symbols either. The instructions for the first stage of the game were passable but after that, we couldn’t puzzle out what we were supposed to do next. Was there a rebuttal to the initial attack action? How did we total up the cards played to determine a winner? How were players allowed to react to cards already in play? Do cards remain in play from one round to the next? At what point does the round end and we begin a new one? None of these things were explained, and it made the game unplayable.
The instructions also didn’t go in to any special circumstances that we might run up against, such as how to break ties or any one of 100 possible situations we might run up against. Most of the cards in the game were unique in their actions and would probably cause a lot of head scratching as to how they ranked in a hierarchy of power. All told, the game was unplayable upon first sitting. Now, if we want to play, we will be forced to search for video play-throughs to understand the mechanics of the game. For me, this is a total fail on the part of the game designers. If we can’t play it out of the box (technology not withstanding, that is needing an app to play – see Mansions of Madness, Unlock! etc.) then the game is not complete and needs reworking until it IS complete.
To avoid these troubles for anything that you might be designing yourself OR that you might be test playing for a game developer looking for feedback, here is a list of 3 things that we have found to be really helpful when formulating board game instructions.
1. IN DEPTH DESCRIPTIONS OF ALL THE PARTS INCLUDED IN THE GAME WOULD BE NICE.
You’d think that this would be a no brainer, but I’m constantly surprised when a game comes to us and the instructions don’t go over all the moving parts. When they do, it’s often in a very limited way. As an example, the body of the game mentioned above is created from several decks of cards. All the decks are different. Some symbols on the cards are common but all the actions on the cards are unique. From my perspective, all of these actions and symbols require sufficient explanation of their purpose and use to allay confusion and streamline game play.
Specificity is what makes each tabletop game unique. After all, there are only so many components that can comprise a game making cards, dice, tokens etc. rather universal. How those ubiquitous pieces are defined though is what sets the stage for a unique game.
In the instructions for the game above, there was a ‘match up the symbols’ mechanic defined for using the cards but it didn’t tell us why there were twelve different symbols to begin with, how they related to each other or if they were grouped together (i.e. fire, water, earth, air). We didn’t know if they possessed a hierarchy of power or if the were meant to be played in a specific order. The moving parts of the game weren’t well explained and that put us on rocky footing right from the outset.
2. PHRASING IS EVERYTHING! CLEAR AND PRECISE LANGUAGE, PLEASE!
Again, you’d think that this would be apparent to anyone writing instructions for a game that the language used needs to be clear and precise. But again, we find games coming to us that have ambiguous language leading to more than one interpretation of the rules. From my perspective as a game designer, there should be NO room for interpretation. Each game has a premise and it is defined by rules so that the game play is focused and distinct, creating the game that was intended. If that isn’t the case, if there’s ambiguity in the game through a set of poorly phrased rules then the game in question needs just a little more development to hone it to its final, beautiful self.
A great example of a game with clear and precise language is Unstable Unicorns. Although most of the cards in the game have unique artwork, most of the actions available to those cards are limited. There are regular unicorns, magic unicorns, upgrade cards, downgrade cards and so on, but the pool of available actions is small. This has led to a rather slender selection of words available to distinguish the use of each card. This makes the game easy to learn and easy to play. How?
Try this dichotomy which is prevalent in Unstable Unicorns – MAY and MUST – Both of these words show up quite often and while they may seem similar on the surface, both offer up quite different options for game play.
- MAY is a word that suggests choice, that the specific game action identified is in the hands of the player. You MAY choose the action (discard, pick up, attack, assist etc.) OR you MAY NOT choose the action. Depending on the the goal of the game and where you are on your path to achieving that goal having the option to commit to an action (or not) MAY be desirable. Other words that denote choice: might, can and should.
- MUST is a word that brooks no interpretation. If a rule says you MUST commit to an action, then you have to do it. Even if the action you’re required to commit is one that will knock you out of the game, you must do the action and take the consequences. When a game mechanic is absolute, use the word MUST. Other words that give no room for interpretation: will, shall and do.
Where we were on the right; where we’re at on the left.
3. OUTLINE ALL POSSIBLE SCENARIOS. DON’T LEAVE US GUESSING.
This is another area of table top game rules that I find lacks proper attention. Most games that come to us have well defined descriptions / instructions for all the components, and they use concise language to govern the actions of those components. That usually covers 90 % of game play scenarios just by default. But what about the other 10%?
This is where interpretation or ‘house rules’ come in to play and from a professional perspective, there shouldn’t be any room for that because the included rules were a little flimsy. Of course, you can always come up with house rules that make a game more fun or a little easier/challenging to play!
As an example, the other night, Kitty and I sat down to play a game of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (HPHB). We had graduated to the end of the game (year seven) and were playing with all the cards available in the game. For a bit of clarity, a huge mechanic of HPHB is deck building. As you proceed through the game you acquire spell/item/ally cards from a reserve on the right side of the game board and combine them with your starting hand to defeat all the dark wizards and creatures from the Harry Potter universe. Well…
During the game in question it became quite clear that we weren’t going to be building our decks very much. The six cards that were in the reserve were all very powerful cards and too expensive for us to acquire so early in the game. This essentially shut down the deck building mechanic of the game and, even though we fought valiantly taking down many a foe, we lost the game (and it wasn’t the fun, exciting kind of losing where we almost won! Nope. It was just tedious.)
When we went looking in the instructions to see if there was a rule on how to replenish the reserve in the kind of scenario we encountered, we found that there wasn’t one. You’d think that a game relying so heavily on deck building would have a work around for a scenario that shuts down deck building but you’d be wrong. In fact, there are very few scenario based rulings in the HPHB instructions, and I’m curious to see what speed bump we stumble up against next.
There’s a possibility that the scenario we discovered has never happed before. That is possible…
CONCLUSIONS: WE WANT MORE INSTRUCTIONS, NOT LESS!
Give me instructions or give me death! Ok, don’t give me death but please give me instructions! The more precise the better!
When we came up against the snafu that was the almost non-existent instructions for my poorly chosen Kickstarter purchase, I reached out to the creators to find out what was going on. They told me that they had wanted to keep the instructions short and as minimal as possible, possibly thinking they might overwhelm their players with a 20 page thick book? I’m not sure. Their motivation was not well defined either. And this is exactly the opposite of what gamers need.
Sure, some instruction booklets are a little overwhelming (see Gloomhaven or Super Dungeon), but all those rules, uses, tactics and scenarios are in there for a reason. We require them to understand the boundaries of the worlds in which we play. After all, every game is a little universe unto itself, and it may not operate in exactly the same way our universe does. We need to know that—ALL of that. In more, not less, monotonous detail please! It’s better to have too much information than not enough.
On our journey with Honey Bomb, we’ve been receptive to people’s comments about the game and how it plays. I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is this, “If a player asks a question, then you’ve missed something in the instructions.” When questions come up, we’ve failed to delineate something and we’ll need to make an updated rule for the final version of the game. And wouldn’t you know it, just the other day, one of our play testers on Instagram came up with a scenario that we’d missed.
Q. Can you play bee tiles on the open sides of the Bear tile?
A. Yes, as long as the newly placed bee tiles are attaching to your own bee tiles.
And I thought we had been diligent. Yeesh! 😉
Naturally, we looked at it, realized it was a valid scenario and set about outlining a rule to govern that specific scenario. You can expect a well rounded instruction booklet to come with the tiles of Honey Bomb when it Kickstarts in spring, 2021.
For now, that is all.