One of the most puzzling challenges of any board game project is how to convert an abstract concept, into something that people can engage with. How to convert something from a mere idea into something that is practically, and predictably fun.
There are a lot of ways to approach this; some game designers spend hundreds of hours refining their game’s mechanics so that the fun of the game is embedded in its carefully tuned economy. Some blow their load on pages of luxurious artwork to immerse players in a rich world of lore. Others focus on crafting the physical components of the game into something satisfyingly tactile.
What we can all agree on, though, is that no one ever thinks about the bloody rule book.
Many game designers (myself included) end up spending so much time on the economy, strategy and thematic immersion of a game that they entirely forget that ultimately, board games are products that are meant to be played with by people who’ve not played with them before.
This isn’t to say that we should optimise everything to suit the blobbomorphus desires of the mass market, we’re not Hasbro, but it does mean that we should put effort, and even love into the design of the experience of the game as a whole, not just the bit where you have fun!
A while back the aforementioned blob did a bunch of research into people’s excitement levels as they ‘consume’ a board game, from unwrapping the box to chatting about how they would best dispatch their enemies next time. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that people’s excitement peaks when you open the box, stays pretty high when you get to pop out all the bits from the punchboard sheets, then takes an irretrievable nose dive when you open up that trusty tome of waffly jargon – the rules.
This is mostly because a horrible set of rules represents the least fun bit of any tabletop experience, learning a bunch of new stuff the enable you to have fun. What feels like an unnecessary hurdle to the enjoyment of you and your friends. Why should I have to absorb 100s of pages of subtly worded arcane prose just to know how to buy a camel?
I’M LOOKING AT YOU WARHAMMER FANTASY BATTLES.
Ideally we want to make rules that don’t feel like…rules.
Ideally we want a helpful guide that leads players into a new world where they can progressively discover more and more about that game, whether it’s an integrated thematic game or a more abstract euro-economic game. Matt Leacock, of Pandemic fame, recently gave a speech at a User Experience (UX) design conference, on how he embedded this sense of procedural learning experience into the hit Pandemic Legacy, which didn’t inundate players with rules, cases and exceptions in a hefty booklet at the beginning.
What’s even more powerful, though, than drip feeding players new tidbits of text is to hammer them with such intuitive visual language that they don’t actually have to read anything! In game publishing circles, the idea of a game being ‘language independent’ is super popular, in that games that don’t need text on the components are great, because you can print a bunch of copies and sell them around the world, and just slip in a new rule book or just offer them online. This is really cheap for the publisher, and really handy for those people who don’t speak the main languages that board games are published in (generally Western European languages).
The difficulty with this strategy, though, is that the more symbols you introduce to replace text in complex games, the more learning you end up having to do by reading page upon page of reference guides. Once you get there it’s great because you’ve absorbed that new language and can literally play with any other player in the world, but getting people to that point frustrates a lot of potential people away from something they could enjoy.
So here’s the idea.
Let’s make ‘rule books’ like IKEA Instruction Manuals.
IKEA operates over 200 stores across the world in 50 countries and territories, speaking dozens of various languages. How many different manuals does it need to print for each item of furniture? ONE. Doesn’t matter if you’re in Beijing, Belfast or Bucharest, you’re going to be reading the same piece of uncoated, recycled paper with fantastically intuitive instructions, taking you from a headscratching table noob to a god-level luxury carpenter (well not quite, but you’ll have tables that aren’t shit).
So why should we care?
Board game rules are very similar to instructions for making furniture (Really Peter, are they? Just hear me out ok!). You’ve got a series of abstract spatial concepts that indicate the value of various actions (like moving a meeple or rotating a screw, or negatively, flipping the wrong tile or attaching a shelf to your ceiling). These concepts are normally communicated through a series of logical text-based instructions, but in this case, they are communicated through a series of well thought out, engineered, diagrams, that are accessible to the everyday user.
By thinking carefully about how people will actually interact with the thing you’re designing (whether than be a Kallax shelving unit or a fistful of dice) you can reduce the amount of crap that people won’t actually read, and thus reduce the chance of them going wrong, and just make it a much more pleasant experience, rather than it being something that turns people off your game, or gaming in general.
Remember that graph? What if we could eliminate that phenomenon? Obviously popping out chits is more fun than reading through some diagrams, but that’s a hell of a lot better than recreating the painful experiences of finals revision. There’s little else worse than being sat in the spotlight as your friends badger you for an explanation of how your newly popped game works, when you haven’t read the rules yet…especially when you can’t read them.
I’m certainly not claiming that we can start a revolution in game manual design to remove text entirely, but I do firmly believe that with more effort and affection, we can pivot the world of boring manuals to a modern utopia of intuitive diagrams to accompany those (hopefully carefully chosen) words.
Let’s make the whole board game experience, from cracking open the box, to punching out the pieces, to learning it for the first time, to playing it for the hundredth, a great time.
How will you do this with your game?