Friday, 18 May 2007

Who wrote these stinkin' rules?

"All players go through these steps simultaneously.
The active player goes first in each step."


HUH???? I kid you not, the above rule is from a game that I have spent the last three days trying to figure out how to play.

In the past month I have read the rules to three new games. None of these games are particularly complicated. None of them were translated from another language into English.

One set of rules was clear and understandable.

One set of rules had about a half dozen instances of ambiguity, and one out right contradiction. It required three trips to the publishers web site, and a print out of the errata and the FAQ's to clear up the confusion.

The last set of rules read like they had been run through babblefish. After reading them three times, visiting the publishers website several times, printing out the new revised rules and reading those through twice, and printing out the eight pages of FAQs and reading those, I'm still not clear on a couple of points.


Poorly written rules are inexcusable. Hire a technical writer for heaven's sake. Hire a proof reader. At the very least, hand the rules to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the game and see if the person can understand the rules well enough to play the game. I'll volunteer. Send me a copy of the game and the rules and I will gladly tell you how friggin' awful they are. God, I miss the old AH rules with the cross referenced, numbered paragraphs.


Things in Game Rules that Piss Me Off

  • Grammatically incorrect sentences. All a publisher has to do is pick up the phone and call the nearest Catholic school and hire a nun to proof read the rules. While the publisher is at it, they should hire that nun to teach a workshop on ambiguous reference, general reference and weak reference. "Take the top card from the deck and place it face up in front of you," means "Take the top card from the deck and place the deck face up in front of you." In this case I know that the writer's intention was that the card should be placed face-up, not the deck; however, grammatical mistakes of this nature can make more complex rules incomprehensible. Futhermore, I don't want to waste my time diagraming sentences, and argueing with rules-lawyer friends over the strict gramatical meaning of the rule vs what the author really meant to say.


  • Rules written by someone so close to the game that they leave out what is obvious to them. In one of the games mentioned above, a player has to move one of their pawns onto a "challenge space" to attempt a "challenge." The opponent player can increase the difficulty of the challenge by playing cards out of their hand. What the rules fail to mention is that the opponent must have at least one of his pawns on the challenge space in order to be able to play those cards. This one omission makes the difference between an interesting game and a stupid game.


  • Rules that attempt to be funny, or that are written in a conversational tone. Extra verbiage is annoying, confusing and just makes the rules longer. The babblefish rules mentioned above contain the following gems:


"like...uh"
"Yep. Another two-player passing thing."
"Duh."
"Yikes!"

  • Rules with a section entitled "Sequence of Play" where every third line is "see page xx." If you are going to include a sequence of play, write it in sequence, damn it!


  • Important rules that are buried in a paragraph of a section that is about something else, such as healing rules buried in the section entitled "Movement."


  • Rules that don't define words that have specific meanings in the game but have other meanings, similar meanings or multiple meanings in the English language. The most common examples are games that have "turns," "rounds," "phases," and "steps," and games that have "skills," "traits," "attributes," and "talents." Games that have thematic names for things like points and money are also guilty of this offense.


  • Rules that use "player" and "character" interchangeably. My favorite example of this error is, "You can do X to the player next to you." The intention of the rule is "you can do X to the character whose pawn occupies a space adjacent to your character's pawn," not "you can do X to the person sitting next to you." How about "You can attack a player that occupies the same space that you occupy."? I claim that this rule breaks the laws of physics, however my husband claims this rule means that if I sit on his lap, he can attack me.

22 comments:

Michael Barnes said...

"Place the board in the middle of the table"

"Played cards are placed in a _discard pile_ off to the side of the board"

"This game includes dice that have more than six sides but function just like other dice you may have seen"

That's my favorite stuff, those "no fucking shit" rules...sometimes when I'm reading through rules I think "why the HELL are they telling me this?"

But really Uba...to write this article credibily you must have at least assailed the rulebooks of MAGIC REALM and UP FRONT at least once.

I believe "The King in Yellow" is actually the 1st edition rules to MAGIC REALM.

ubarose said...

The rule book for MAGIC REALM is long and dry. The rules are complex. However, the writing is clear. The problem is not understanding what is written, it is remembering it all. Whether or not it was a good idea to introduce the elements of the game piecemeal in "encounters" is debatable. A second rule book of all the rules together, rather than broken up in "encounters" would have been nice. An index would help too.

I have never tried UP FRONT.

Michael Barnes said...

Actually, the second and "unofficial" third edition rules do away with the Encounter rules altogether.

You're right- MAGIC REALM is difficult to apprehend because of the number of rules more than its actual complexity...but I'll tell you, back before I had the newer rules it numbed the mind and threatened sanity to sit down and try to learn to play.

UP FRONT is a similar situation...you read the rules and the game makes no sense whatsoever. You sit down to play it, and it makes perfect sense...after stumbling around for a while.

I definitely agree that poor writing is inexcusable...I've seen some grammar and diction in rulebooks that makes me wonder if a child wrote them. Not to mention typographical errors and just plain bad English. You'd think these companies would hire folks to at least proofread some of this stuff.

Mr Skeletor said...

I rarely have trouble with Rulebooks. I know a lot of people complain about the FFG books but I have never had a problem with them. TOI I 'got' first time through.

On the other hand I hate people explaining rules to me. I just switch off and end up learning as I go.

dgilligan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dgilligan said...

Just last night I ran into what I considered a rather poor example of rule writing. We were getting ready to play Railroad Tycoon, a game which I have played 3 or 4 times but for which I have never read the rules. It was a three player game and we needed to know how many operational cards to put out.

I immediately went to the beginning of the rules to look for that information. I found a lot of information on setting up the game but nothing on how many operational cards to put out. This information was actually located two pages later under the section on operational cards and the answer was the three Start cards and additional cards equal to 2x the number of players (9 cards total in our case.)

Why did they choose to put this information so deep in the rules? When I go to set up a game all of the information on setting it up should be in the section on setting up the game...

Muzza said...

Anybody played Pax Romana?

43 pages of rulebook and 34 pages of playbook (which includes a potted version of the rules as well as all the extra rules pertaining to your scenario). These do not include the 6 or so pages of charts (don't get me started on the charts). And after all of this still enough ambiguity to spark debate on every other turn.

Michael Barnes said...

I'll one-up you Muzza- Great Battles of Alexander...GOOD GRAVY. It's like 70 pages of historical minutiae, more history than was in the Oliver Stone picture...I studied and still couldn't play through a scenario without constantly reading the rulebook.

ubarose said...

I remember when moderately long rule books were considered a good thing. If I opened a game and it only had four pages of rules, I felt like I had been cheated. A long rule book indicated that the game was going to be interesting and challenging. A short rule book meant the game was going to be of the "lather, rinse repeat" nature. Now if I pull out a new game with more than 8 pages of rules, a collective groan goes up round the table.

Old style rule books were typically dry and dense. They were often neither fun nor easy to read. However, they were thorough, and finding a specific rule in the book mid-game was fairly easy.

My impression is that publishers are trying to write shorter rule books so that people won't be turned off to a game just by the sight of a thick rule book. Furthermore, rules are being written in a more informal, conversational or narrative style. These rules are easier and faster to read, and it is easy to get started playing. The downside is that the rules are less thorough. There is a greater risk of poor grammar, ambiguity, and vague language. Additionally, this style of rule book makes quick reference difficult. Rules are seldom repeated and are often buried in narrative paragraphs. I have take to reading rules with a highlighter in hand.

alan polak said...

I think this goes hand in hand with the supposed quick playing times. Look at Doom. The back of the box says 60-90 min. Yeah right! maybe to set up. That old adage less is more maybe. well in this case it's less is more confusing. Thing is though are rules ever really clear. I have rarely played a game where there wasn't at least some confusion over a rule. Gamers are devious little buggers. We always spot things in the rules that make no sense or spelling/grammar mistakes. For a good chuckle read the 'flavour' text at the start of Mall of Horror

mtlawson said...

Yeah, Michael, but I bet for historical accuracy the GBoA are better than the Oliver Stone film was.

The long rulebooks don't scare me much, mainly because the old AH rulebooks were very well organized. That isn't true of all of them, but if you wanted to find something, you could rather easily. Balancing that with some of the rulebooks for some of my other games, some of the "newer" rulebooks seem like disorganized trash.

My first thought on reading ubarose's discussion was "Medieval". I've often considered getting that game, but the discussions on the rules left out of the game on CSW and the Geek have always made me pause.

--Mike L.

KenHR said...

Glad to hear, judging by comments here, that I'm not the only one who really misses AH's Don Greenwood. His rulebooks might have been dry, but by and large, they were always understandable and well-organized reference materials. He did miss the mark once in a while (see Barnes' comments re: Up Front, and I'll add the Basic Rules of Tac Air for good measure), but his overall track record is pretty solid.

By way of contrast, I absolutely love GMT's games, but their relatively loose style has left me non-plussed more than once. My most recent experience is with the second edition Samurai rulebook, which is riddled with typos, grammatical errors and missing references. Nothing that's a game-killer, but it happens often enough (about 2x/column of text) to be annoying. And this is the SECOND edition; one would think these sorts of things would have been picked up by the editors.

Universal Head said...

This is exactly why I go to the trouble to make a rules summary for every new game I buy. Not only is summarising the rules a great way to learn them, but you ditch all that fluff and fill ("Place the board in the middle of the table") and end up with a short, concise summary on a single sheet that's easy to read through quickly when you want re-famililiarise yourself with the rules, or quickly find the answer to a question during a game.

Some might call it work, of course ...!

Mr Skeletor said...

Just hurry up with the TOI rules summary, because summary sheets that come with the game are crap.

StephenAvery said...

Rules?! RULES!!...We don't need no Steenking rules!

Ken B. said...

And now, here's Poor Ol' Steve Avery with YOUR rules summary!

"Okay. First off we'll put some dudes here on the map. Hang on, let's see...right there. No, wait. Right there. Hang on, we don't have all our dudes yet. Here, you're supposed to have these...no, wait, give those back. Those are my dudes. They go over here.

Okay, now on your turn, you can attack someone by rolling the dice. Yes, these two, I think...wait...(checks rules)...no, you'll need these other set of dice, over here.

You can move, too. Hey, wait, you should've done that before attacking. Did you factor in his cover on your roll? What did you roll? Did it beat his armor?

He takes fifteen damage, I think. No, wait...five damage. Five.

Now, it's my go. No, hang on...(checks rules)...I think the game's over. Wait, that can't be right. No...(checks rules)...OK, it's Michael's turn.

Where did Michael go? Did he wander off again?"

StephenAvery said...

Bah! *Real* gamers don't need rules...Just a couple of bowie knives and steel will.

6.5 Replying to Ken
6.51 The use of sarcasm in See section 7.2 Context and 7.28 Context Special Exceptions
6.52 Calculate the Hostility rating (section 5.21)based on postioning modifier and mood.
6.53 Agression index.
6.531 Every Charater starts with a base agression index of 1. The Aggresion index value is then calculated from the base personality traits found in section 2.
6.532 No Agression index should be above a 10 or below a 2 with the excpetion of 8.13 "Going Apeship bezerk"
6.54 The selection of retort. See table 3B Verbal Reparte' Cross index Hostility rating with the agression Index. Divide by humorous sarcasm factor to recive the CRT result. Roll 1D6 a roll greater >/= 5 equals


PBBBBBT!

Ken B. said...

Somehow, this went from rules explanation to my life being in jeapordy.


If you guys need me, I'll be in the witness protection program.

Michael Barnes said...

That's actually the best, and most precise, rules explanation I've ever seen Poor Ol' Steve Avery deliver.

Franklin- I saw him tell a young boy to "shut the fuck up" thursday night, so he means it. He offered to give me a Columbian Neck Tie once but I told him I don't wear suits.

ubarose said...

I believe "The King in Yellow" is actually the 1st edition rules to MAGIC REALM.

HA! I just got the joke.

StephenAvery said...

Franklin- I saw him tell a young boy to "shut the fuck up" thursday night, so he means it.

I have to overcompensate for being an elementary art teacher :D:D:D

Franklin, When are you getting yourself back down to Atlanta? I'll be explaining the rules to Paths of Glory...

Michael Barnes said...

NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!