Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reading the Rules Again for the First Time

If you are a Type A gamer then reading rules will be a big part of your gaming life, accounting for a significant portion of the hours that you spend on your hobby.

A Type A gamer, in case you're not familiar with this classification (which is likely since I just made it up), is the kind of gamer who spends hard-earned money on his game collection, often hosts his game group, is likely to be the one who suggests what the group plays, has the game set up when everyone arrives, and is the one who explains the rules and gets everyone ready to play - and usually loses. A Type B gamer is the kind who only owns 2 games, doesn't care what gets played, just turns up and lets someone tell him how it works, no-one has ever seen where he lives - and he usually wins.

Over the course of my life I have spent many happy hours reading rules - which tells you which type of gamer I am. From preparing to play Red Star White Star with a school friend many years ago, right down to yesterday and completing my first read-through of This Accursed Civil War. It's a part of our hobby which gets scant attention, yet consumes many hours, and can be anticipatory fun or headache-inducing toil.

I think my favourite rules in terms of layout and useability are the Alea big boxes like Ra or Puerto Rico. Those summary side-bars are inspired, they make it so easy to just quickly review the rules before you play it again after a break.

Many wargame rules suffer in comparison with German games. Empire of the Sun and Grand Illusion have both recently defeated me by just being so long and impenetrable.

When you read a new set of rules you are attempting to imagine how the mechanics of this game work, picturing the pieces and how they are allowed to move on the board. For a wargame you want to know how many pieces you can stack together; does facing matter? do they have zones of control? how is combat resolved? are there markers that sit on units to mark morale or losses? will it all become unmanageable? how does retreat work? what is the sequence of play?

Nothing destroys my enthusiasm for a new game faster than errors in the rules. If I notice obvious mistakes or ambiguities on my first read-through, the game is likely to hit eBay in the near future. The same goes for big errata sheets posted on the web, or an impression that the designer is struggling to fix serious balance issues, or if the rules seem to be a moving target, with a new version posted every time you look. This was what killed my interest in Barbarossa to Berlin.

The order in which the rules are presented makes a big difference. For the first read-through, it helps a lot if they are sequenced to tell an unfolding story that makes sense. If rules refer forwards all the time to rules that come later, they will be very hard to understand on a first read-through.

This Accursed Civil War and Von Manstein's Backhand Blow are two rulesets that I have read recently that made good sense to me on the first read-through. The rules to The Napoleonic Wars on the other hand, made very little sense to me even after I had played the game 5 or 6 times!

Even the physical quality of the rules makes a difference. If they are printed on nice thick creamy paper with beautiful illustrations, it makes a big difference to how I feel about a game. Likewise with layout, font, brevity, and English style. Columbia Games score highly in this area.

The next step is to punch out the counters and set the game up on the table. Run through a few turns solo, then go back and read the rules again from front to back. You'll be amazed how many little things you got wrong, and this second reading will start to cement the game in your head. Internalize it as the grognards say.

Once you have mastered a game your requirements change. Now you need rules that are organized according to the sequence of play. A good index is essential, so are well-designed and accurate play-aids. You need to be able to find the information you want quickly. (Full marks to Commands and Colors Ancients for its superb play-aids.) Repetition is a killer in this respect. If the rules you want are repeated in several different sections, with subtle differences between them, confusion and disillusion awaits. See Empire of the Sun for example.

And please leave out the chatty asides and so-called "jokes" that pad out the rules with useless text. (Richard Berg are you listening?) Likewise historical notes or justifications for design decisions should be removed from the body of the rules - to the designers notes or a separate playbook.

One final dilemma - should I fold back the pages of a new rules booklet? I want it to stay pristine and new. But by the time I'm playing the game for real the rules will be starting to get a bit dog-eared and worn, and besides, a back-folded rules booklet takes up half the space on the table. So I usually end up folding them back at some point - it's a sign of a well-loved game.



Gavin said...

You make it sound like a disease! Which I suppose it is in a way.

Mendon said...

Being a boardgamer that enjoys the complexity of player interaction to being bogged down by rules and the necessarily accompanying rules lawyers (one of which I am a bit of myself), I can appreciate your position. I am also the Type A gamer of my group. I've found that the easiest way to learn a game is when the game designer has written sequenced rules that explain the flow of play. Since I am most interested in flow of play (see player interaction), games that struggle with this or need to invent a host of exceptions to account for what could potentially be cool variation (or disastrously ineffecient) tend to hit the table twice, cumbersome games get tossed.

Friendless said...

The rules should be as readable as a story, but not written like a story! Some rules such as Return of the Heroes which actually try to tell you a story are almost impossible to use.

Chris Farrell said...

I too could happily live without all the inserted historical justifications. It's like "well, we know this rule makes no sense, here's why we did it". If you feel the need to justify an odd rule with a historical reference, odds are, having that reference isn't going to help.

As for Richard Berg, I'd say leave the jokes in. For me personally, reading the rules and scenario notes is 99% of the fun I'm ever likely to get out of any Richard Berg game (and don't get me wrong, it is fun). If most of the fun is in reading the rules, by all means make them entertaining. I take all the little jokes and witty asides in a typical Berg ruleset as evidence that he really does know what he's doing.