How We're Trying to Improve Board Game Rulebooks

How We're Trying to Improve Board Game Rulebooks

Nick Bentley Nick Bentley

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Welcome to this week's behind-the-scenes post.
Note we're offering a pre-Kickstarter campaign deal for our upcoming game Trekking the World 2nd Edition, through which you can get a $20 expansion for $1. See the offer here.
Today's we're talking about how we structure the rulebooks for our games.
It might seem like a small thing but I think it's a big thing, because: 

The single biggest obstacle to adoption of a board game is its rules. 

If you doubt this, imagine a parallel universe which is the same as ours, except for one difference: 
Before you watch a movie, you have to read a manual about how to watch it, and if you don't, you won't understand the movie at all. Even after you do read it, when you watch the movie for the first time, you can't fully enjoy it because you have to spend a lot of it cross-referencing the manual, and you miss stuff.

In that parallel universe, how big would the movie industry be? 

I contend it would be, at most, 10% of it's current size, but probably more like 1%.
So that's why we spend inordinate time thinking about and working on rules.
Through this, we've found lots of ways to reduce the text, and the cognitive capacity, needed to understand them. 
Here's one example, one that drives me crazy because I think every company should do this and many don't. 
You know how comics have speech bubbles pointing from the mouths of the people talking, so you always know which words came from who?
Imagine if, instead of putting the text in each speech bubble, you instead placed a reference number. Then you put a matching reference number on the page margin, and put the speech in that margin.

To see what a character says, you'd first have to look at the reference number in the speech bubble, then find the matching number in the margin, and then read the character's words there, then scan back to the picture to continue the story.

How annoying would comic books be?

This is how the setup pages in game rules are structured!

We used to do it this way too, but then we wised up. Now, instead, we do it like a comic book: we have "speech bubbles" that point to components in an image of the game setup, and each bubble tells you how to set up the component it points to. 
For example, here's the setup page for Trekking the World 2nd Edition (this isn't final, just a draft, but it should give you the idea):
Now compare it with the setup in 1st Edition, from when we did it the old way:
In the new one, there's a lot less text and your eye doesn't have to bounce around as much to read it.
This is one example of how we're streamlining rules. There are a bunch more, and through the aggregation of marginal gains, we've managed to make rulebooks a lot easier to get through. 
...even though 2nd Edition is strategically more complex.
One thing we've learned is that, having gotten better at rulebooks, the response from customers isn't always "These rules rules are great", or at least not only.
We get a lot of responses like "this game is simple". It makes me think a lot of the complexity that people perceive in games isn't really game complexity, but complexity in how the rules are conveyed. 
I'm interested to see how Trekking the World 2nd Edition will be received, in light of the work we've done on the rulebook.
Anyway, if you're interested, do consider signing up for our pre-campaign deal for Trekking the World 2nd Edition. See the offer here.
Don't hesitate to share your opinions in a reply, positive or negative. I read all your replies (and reply when time permits) and it helps me understand what we're doing right and wrong.
Nick Bentley,
President, Underdog Games Studio

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