6 Steps for Writing Rules

new mech game image

Something I tend to hear about a lot in the community is trouble writing the rules or instructions to one’s game. “How do I start writing my rules?” or “How I organize my rules?” or “Dang it Eric, I’m a designer, not a technical writer!”

Okay, I may have exaggerated on that last one, and I may have a little bit of bias since most of the designers who contact me are looking for help with their rules, but it still stands that your rules are an incredibly important part of your game. Arguably the most important, because you need to have a way to explain to your future players how all these little bits in a box work together.

Below is a generalized look at how I approach the daunting task of writing rules.

Step 1: Description and Goal

Try this: Take your game and write a short, 3-4 sentence description. This can have the theme integrated if you like.

Example: The players are all Goblins bidding on storage lockers. Every round cards are dealt face down and players look at the cards to their left and right. Players bid and the winner gets the cards. All cards do something different, and the player with the most valuable stash at at the end wins the game.

Second, write down how you win. Highest victory points? Three in a row on a board? Capture a certain combination of cards? You may have already written this into your short description. But if you didn’t…do it now.

Step 2: Write the Gameplay Skeleton

How does your game actually play? What does a player do on their turn? How does play flow?

Write down what a player does on their turn. 

  • Draw a card. Take 3 actions, or
  • Place one worker on an available space and collect the reward, or
  • Move up to 3 spaces. Play any green cards you like. Play a maximum of 1 red card. 

If your game is organized by phases instead (and the players act within this phases), try writing the flow instead. Initiative Phase. Draw Phase. Action Phase. Cleanup Phase, for example.

If your game doesn’t really fit one of these formats, then try the best you can to come up with some sort of outline as to how it plays.

Step 3: Fill it in

Now that you have your skeleton, fill it in! Explain what players must do in each phase. List the actions that a player can take, then fill in the details. Here is where most of the work will go into your rules.

You may find yourself creating an even more in-depth outline as you go. After all, your Battle Phase might has many different sub-steps within it. You may need to jump back to step 2 as needed, but the strategy remains the same: Outline, then fill in.

Step 4: Write the Setup

It may seem counterintuitive when I suggest writing this section now (after all, setup is the first thing your players do). But trust me, once you have your gameplay figured out, setup will be a breeze.

I recommend writing this in numbered steps. Be explicit as you can, because if your game isn’t set up correctly, it probably won’t play properly. This is not really the section for theme or humor unless you can be both direct and thematic at the same time (for an example, check out the Dungeon Lords rules). I recommend keeping it straightforward.

I also recommend going through your gameplay after writing the setup. Is there a pre-sorted stack of tokens that needs to be made? Is there a special deck of cards you forgot about? Add it in. Go over it until you’re sure you have captured everything.

Step 5: Components

It’s time to write your components list. This is also a very important section as players will often refer to this section to confirm the names of pieces (it can be very confusing exactly which markers are used for what, or which cards are the pirate cards and which are the crew cards if they have a similar back, for example). And for many players, the very first thing they do when receiving a new game is count the components to make sure they have everything.

This is also a good place to explain your components. Do your cards have a lot of different icons and symbols that indicate information? This may be a good place for a diagram and description. Although you will probably be writing your first rules draft with text, definitely make a note to include graphics in this section. Your players will thank you for it.

Step 6: Other and Review

You now have an effectively functional rulebook. Now it is time to write out the other sections. Do you have a lot of cards which break the rules? Many rulebooks contain a clause which states that card text overwrites rule text. Do you have some more complicated mechanics that you would like to flesh out in greater detail? Try adding an Other Rules section. Optional Rules? Tack them on to the end. You can also add story text and flavor. Season to taste. 😉

As you review, you may find certain sections do not flow the way you wish. Maybe you would have preferred to reword certain passages or rearrange certain sections. Have at it! You can only make your draft better (hopefully).

There are quite a few unique ways that some designers have done their rules. Some games are very simple and have the instructions printed on the inside of the box. Some games do not have a traditional rulebook, but instead teach the game as players proceed through scenarios. However, the written rulebook still remains the most common approach for explaining the instructions for your game to your players and should be given the time and respect it deserves.

Game on!

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