Every group of tabletop game players needs a Rules Person. Exactly. One. One person who loves reading the rules, keeps them beside them during gameplay (just in case), and gets low-key anxious when someone else asks to see the rules because then they have to give up the rules sheet. More than Rules Person per game and you have the recipe for bickering, mansplaining, and misery. Less than one Rules Person and no one knows quite what they’re doing, leading to a more arduous process of beginning a game, possibly resulting in a default to a game someone in the group already knows how to play or in no one playing any game at all because no one knows how or cares to find out. One Rules Person and you’re golden- someone has taken ownership of the process of understanding the game, setup, etc, and will be so invested at that point that the game is more likely to happen and to be played by the rules rather than a perception of what the rules might be based on the board and the pieces. If you don’t have a Rules Person in your group, pray for a Quick Start Guide to the game. Even then, who wants to read a whole half-page of rules?
I am not the Rules Person when I play board games. I’ve got way more fastidious friends and family who occupy that role. But for as “not me” as rules analysis is, I also recognize that it is a valuable practice. One of the earliest revelations I had as a game designer was that front-loading all of the rules for the players was a massive hurdle to accessible and surprising gameplay. The first game I designed, Schrodinger’s Cat, requires players to read the rules one step at a time. They are specifically instructed not to read ahead in the rules book until they have completed the step they are currently on. Rules as Surprise is a core mechanic of the game; it is an essential action that players use to move through the experience as it was intended to be experienced.
Video games figured this out a long time ago. Tutorials invite players to do things rather than just read about doing things. They have an embodied learning experience of what each button, etc does in the game. A game like Limbo shows the player step by step what to do in the game and what environmental elements to pay attention to in order to know what to do when. It teaches them step by step, never jumping ahead, never giving them more information than they need right that second. They can get started on the game quickly. They probably don’t even know that what they’re doing is a tutorial.
Tabletop games still suffer from Lengthy Rules Syndrome. In fact, I recently set the students in my Tabletop Role Playing class the task of playing a game with eight-page rules set. After 4 minutes one of my students asked if I could just explain the game to him. I asked if he’d read the rules and he said he’d skimmed them. I asked that he go back and read them and come to me if he had questions. He didn’t. The rules explained all he needed to know… except why he had to read them in the first place.
Included in the Tabletop Role Playing class is a day of analyzing rule books. This might sound torturous to you. To be honest, it sounds torturous to me. But the goal is to better understand why reading rules is so torturous to so many people and what we as designers can do about it. This is not to undervalue the Rules People out there. Bless them. Truly. And most of them love their roles. I’m looking at you Systems Thinkers, Control Freaks, and Introverts Who Like to Know What/That They’re Contributing to the Experience and Can Also Use Their Rules Reading Time to Be Alone For A Few Minutes. And game designers do have some tools that they employ to mitigate the problem of not having a Rules Person, including cards players can place in front of them while playing the game to remind them of the important rules and actions they can take so they don’t have to sort through the rules book every time they have a question, or, again, quick start guides to get the players comfortable with the setup and core mechanics of the game. Campaign games like Gloomhaven invite players to read along with one scenario at a time as they play through various levels- but let’s not pretend for even one moment that Gloomhaven is a game that can be started in under an hour of opening the box.
What I am craving/playing around with/researching right now is how the rules are core mechanics of a game. My interest is in how they can feel essential and exciting in tabletop games rather than a slog and a half. As a theater maker, I have so many more tools available to me to explain game rules to players. I can model behavior, answer questions as they come up (as opposed to answering any question anyone might ever have, upfront), and I’ve already set an expectation in this form that the narrative of the story and the game that is being played is connected. In immersive theater, every part of the experience can be “in-world.” And yes, before I go any further, this is different from onboarding (potentially) and there are plennnnnnty of immersive theater folks who would disagree with me on this front (and sometimes they would be right) but they run into the same problem that the tabletop community runs into, which is how to deliver necessary information to players ahead of time if it’s not in-world. Do you know who reads the e-mails that tell audience members what to bring to a show, how to prepare, where to go, etc? Spoiler: Not. Everyone. Not by a long shot. I’m wrestling with this right now with a live theatrical production going up next month that requires prep from participants. I love this challenge but it is a big one. Even if we created a beautiful system for drawing players in, it would have to hook them immediately. They would have to trust that we have crafted this as an experience for them rather than a throwaway, and why would they? They’ve had so many perfunctory experiences around onboarding in the past, be it live-action or tabletop. We have so far to go in making this learning process alluring to participants and players but I believe we can become more elegant designers in this space and I am excited to put my mind to the task. Care to join?