Skip to content

“The rules are too long.”

October 26, 2007

Video games have had a profound effect on the way the younger generation approaches game play, and I wonder how it’s affecting their desire to play board games, the staple platform of my generation.

For me, from the moment the box is opened, it’s a ritual of sorts – examining the board, the tokens, and the rule set. Among my gaming friends, getting a new game and reading over the rules is a critical and wonderful part of the whole play experience. She who gets the game first wins. Maybe it is because I am a game designer, but I find magic in good game rules – they’re full of anticipation of what I think will happen once the mechanics actually get going in the game.

Rules today, however, were a bother. While reviewing student commentary on their peers’ board game creations, I was amused and then puzzled by the following comment that appeared again and again: “The rules are too long.”

The team with the 6-page rules weren’t impressed by the two teams with 5-page rules, and the feeling was mutual. The team with the shortest rule set – a mere 1/2 a page in tiny type – was criticized for not being clear enough, but the length, apparently, was just fine.

Have video games truly conditioned people that “Press [Start] to play” is enough for a game’s set up?

The length of the rules actually affected their perception of their complexity, too. Though none of the games had a complex rule set, people also called the rule sets “overly complex”, “indecipherable” and “annoying.”

I’d read over these comments after playing the games two times myself and making my own analysis of the game’s design. My opinion on the rule sets? I thought the longer rules were fine. One was particularly good. They covered everything that needed to be covered, weren’t too wordy, and if they’d been printed up in an industry standard way, I’m guessing that they would have come out to about the same length as Monopoly’s rule set.

I don’t blame the players for their thoughts, either. This is conditioning at work. The game begins when you sit down at it, and when you sit down, that game had better start within seconds (or immediately after you press [Start], whichever comes first). It’s an expectation that they probably don’t even know they have. Among the traditional gamers in the room – and in a game development, there are more than a few – the experience was different. However, they were usually tasked with reading and interpreting the rules for those who had already become frustrated with the amount of work required to get this board game to “go”.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. ai864 permalink
    October 26, 2007 12:27 pm

    Actually, this is the case with many traditional boardgame groups as well (when they aren’t full of game designers :).

    My experience is that most groups have an “alpha gamer” who learns the new games through reading the rules. Then, their job is to explain the game to the others through lecture and demonstration. Think about a game like Magic: the Gathering — even in the original rule booklet it admits that the easiest way to learn is to find someone who knows how to play and let them teach you, and by today Wizards has gone to insane lengths to set up a video-game-like “tutorial” with preconstructed and preshuffled decks and step-by-step illustrations. Because they know full well that no one in their right mind is going to learn the game by reading the rules.

    Try this scientific experiment to see the difference:
    * Each group evaluates TWO other groups’ games.
    * The first evaluation is as you describe. They get the game components and the printed rules and have to decipher it for themselves.
    * The second evaluation is “designer in the box”. No printed rules, but one of the original designers of the game sits down and explains the rules to the new group, and moderates the playtest session.

    The interesting thing will be to compare people’s perceptions of complexity using the two methods!

  2. TJLK permalink
    November 3, 2007 6:19 pm

    Simple rules are well and good but I don’t think that complexity is always a terrible thing. Of course it depends on what audience the game will appeal to. I think generally the most important factor is the clarity of the rules that are being presented to the player. If the player does not know what he or she is reading it will seem much more complex than it really is.

    Chess doesn’t have an extremely complicated set of rules but the players make it really complicated. Technically it is just a war of patterns but it is a game that makes requires some intense thinking and planning. But I really like Chess and I think the rules are strait forward and clear.

    MTG, as mentioned above, was a pretty difficult game for to pick up at first. But after a few days, I was hooked. I would save my lunch money every other day so I could purchase booster packs right after school. This cycle continued until I reached the point where I couldn’t even fit all my cards into one suitcase. Perhaps it is unfair to compare a TCG to a board game because TCGs seem to evolve.

    Maybe the rules are too long because they aren’t geeky enough to enjoy reading them. If the teams were calling the games overly complex, indecipherable and annoying I think chances are good clarity is the issue. The rules must have a clear communication with the player otherwise the game will be frustrating before it has even begun.

    Having the teams review each others work is a really good idea but I also think including regular board game players would be a really good idea. I know there are usually a bunch of people at Metro playing boardgames and Apples to Apples. I’m sure if a team goes during a busy time they might be able to convince a few people to test their game.

    (Metro is located on MLK right across from the Enmark near the I-16 exit. It is a coffee shop.)

  3. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 3, 2007 6:53 pm

    Truly, it seems to be beyond the alpha gamer issue you mention above. We did have an alpha gamer in all the groups (in one group, the others just handed him the rules and let him run with it).

    Over the years, I’ve seen people’s passions for games grow almost exclusively toward video games. It’s a shame, really, because video games’ designs are not nearly as transparent as the design in a board game. On the flip side, I’ve also seen students fall completely in love with creating board games once they are allowed to do so. For almost every single one of them, it’s the first game they’ve ever created from start to finish, so it’s a real trip.

    Regarding MTG… goodness. Man, I spent so much money on that game. It’s been a few years since I’ve played, but I still have all my cards.

  4. ai864 permalink
    November 4, 2007 8:14 pm

    It just occurred to me, another exercise that might be instructive is to look at the rule sheets for some Eurogames and see how they approach the complexity issue.

    Puerto Rico is a great example; it’s easily one of the three best Eurogames on the market (the other two being Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan, of course). It’s also quite complicated; each full game turn involves each player making a decision in order, and then every other player responding (so there’s actually N-squared decisions per turn in an N-player game). There are seven different actions to choose from, and a couple dozen buildings that all give you special abilities, plus you have to balance cash, commodities (of 5 different types), human resources and a production pipeline. In short, the game is quite intimidating to a first-time player.

    They do some interesting things with the rules as a result. It starts with the game’s theme/backstory, so that the mechanics will be understood in context. The rules are explained in the order that they’re encountered in the game, so to an extent you can read as you go. There are lots of illustrations and diagrams to break up the text. There are also quick-reference notes in the margins, so that people who have played before and just need a reminder can scan the margins without hunting through the entire document. Consider how much harder this game would be to learn if the rules were not so well written.
    (In fact, here’s another potential exercise for you. Rewrite the rules to this game in a way that preserves the information while making it less clear. Rearrange the order of the sections. Place diagrams all in a single appendix, and refer to them by figure numbers in the text. Bury the backstory in some fine print marked “optional” at the end of the document. Remove any quick-references or summaries. Then ask students to rewrite these rules to be clearer 🙂

  5. November 5, 2007 6:34 pm

    The complexity of Puerto Rico is why I’ve never played it. I’ve attempted to play twice, and on both occasions, by the time I was done learning the basic rules, it was time for me to go home!

  6. dmcdonou permalink
    November 6, 2007 4:19 am

    The very idea that a rule set of six pages could be considered long is laughable to me. Granted, most board games even today don’t have more rules than that, but as one who grew up on tabletop behemoths like Warhammer, I am undaunted by even the most epic of rule sets.

    I think Brenda is quite right: it’s a symptom of “vidiocy:” thinking and imagination constrained by overexposure to video games. Trying to build a board game by thinking in video game terms is asking for trouble: they don’t translate well. To my eye, the big difference lies in speed and learning feedback. Video games are sophisticated in many ways, but nowhere more so than in their ability to instantaneously inform the player about the consequences of their actions. Despite its heartwarmingly simple rules, Risk games take forever: hours and hours while the players pore meticulously over their turns, tediously rolling the dice and picking off their armies one-by-one. By contrast, a computerized version of Risk can be played at speeds of a turn every couple seconds (if not faster). At that rate, the math is simply better: the player has enough chances to deduce and analyze the rules just by playing that they don’t need to bother to learn them beforehand. Only the rare few board games can manage that. So when video gamers sit down to play a board game, I feel there is an adjustment, a crisis of expectations they must overcome. Ever get ornery when your internet connection bogs down, even for a minute? I bet the same psychology drives frustration with board game rules.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: