The rulebook is the only gateway a designer or publisher can count on to introduce new players to a game. Sure there may be someone experienced with the game to teach it, but at some point, someone had to learn the game from a rulebook. This makes the rulebook so vital to the success of a game that it cannot be ignored. As a designer, I have been thinking at length about how best to layout rules so that players can learn the game and reference the rules for questions as they play. (This obviously applies mainly to complex games.)

This is a very hard thing to do. When explaining the flow of a game, a rule can end up needing to be in multiple places. Where do you put it? And how in depth do you explain it each time it comes up? What about rules that don’t have a good place? This makes for lots of redundancy and a thick, intimidating rulebook; not a good thing.

Rulebooks need to logically explain the flow of a game while at the same time putting all of the rules exactly where players would expect them for reference.

I could talk about all the different kinds of rule book styles out there, but I am going to skip that. There is a method that is old and new that I am really falling in love with. (Settlers of) Catan did it and now Fantasy Flight is doing it again. It is the 2 rulebooks style – a learn-to-play book and reference book.

I remember when I first received Imperial Assault and found this 2-rulebook structure. “This is FFG overkill again,” my brain said instantly. You might be Rules3thinking the same thing. Two rulebooks? That is sure to turn people off. And it might at first, but once people get used to it I think it will be a boon for our hobby.

Think about it. We are talking about a rulebook needing to do two very different things: teach the flow and provide a reference. Why not have a smaller learn to play book that teaches flow and a larger reference book that allows players to very easily answer their questions. This makes complete sense. Thinking back to Catan this worked out wonderfully. I didn’t have to go searching through the learn-to-play rules when I had a question. I could easily find it in the Almanac. FFG is taking this a step further by providing related topics at the end of each rule explanation and an index in the back to quickly find things.

The designer/publisher can then allow the learn to play book to focus on only that, putting rules only where they need to be for the flow of the game to be clear. Then it puts all of the rules in an alphabetical order in a reference book for easy reference. To me this is the ideal situation. It teaches clearly without getting too wordy and allows for quick and accurate reference. No more hunting through to find an obscure rule.

If I design a complex game (which is what I like to do) I will probably go this direction with the rulebook. It is actually something I already do. Before writing the rules, I create a document called Core Concepts which is an alphabetical listing of the concepts in the game so I can reference them as I write the rules. Now I just need to turn this into the rules reference. Even if this is something that is just put in the back of one rulebook, this would be a really handy reference for players.

What are your thoughts on rule books? What have you found to be most helpful about the rulebooks you have used?