BGG in Review 5/24/2017: Thematic Rulebooks

On May 16, BGG user TheFlamingNOODLE started this really interesting post discussing 2 different approaches to rulebook design in games:

Subject: Thematic vs Meta Rulebooks: Holistically engaging the player in the

TheFlamingNOODLE describes these two different types of rulebooks:

If you have a game with a Rule Reference that simply explains the rules of the game nicely, neatly, technically that’s what I meant by Meta Rulebooks. They focus on the ‘game’ its flow and technicalities, and refers to cards as cards, boards as boards, etc. to help the clarity of the conveyance of the rules.


While a game that acts as something of like a storybook slowly explaining the rules always in context to the world it represents. Taking the time to weave the rule-explanations with storytelling and world-building (I think we can agree) is a very thematic rulebook.


What an excellent topic to discuss, thanks NOODLE!

As a designer, I definitely value well-organized and easy to follow rules.  I think most board gamers when given the option are going to choose this over anything else.

Your rulebook is your 10 commandments, your magna carta, and your supreme court all in one small, shittily stapled leaflet. It must gently hold your hand and guide you through your first baby steps of setting up the first game.

When you can finally stand on your own wobbly toddler legs, it must firmly present unquestionable rule of law in all points of play.

Finally, in your advanced years, when you are crippled in your bed and dying from antibiotic resistant super-flu… Having played a thousand times before, the rules must come to you softly in the night, with only a few spreadsheets and reference tables to whisk you off into your final sleep of death.

This metaphor does not really work. BUT MY POINT IS THE SAME.  The rulebook is everything, and composing a strong book of rules for a game is an incredible balancing act — it does not neatly divide into the two categories described above.

Thematic Rulebooks

On our most recent podcast Dan and I mentioned the complete tragedy of rule book writing that is The Doomtown: Reloaded Rulebook.  Featuring such lines as:

There ain’t no limit to the number of each non-unique goods or spells you can put into play


All jobs intend to do something to someplace or someone. The intended target is called the mark. The first sentence of the job text tells you what the mark is.

When attempting to learn the game through the rulebook, these flavorful affectations are pretty annoying.  I think the DTR guys were going for a conversational tone with their rulebook, while trying to provide good information as well.

I think the DTR rulebook primarily suffers from being a disorganized wall of text.  Arguably, a sterile set of spreadsheets would have hurt the immersion into the world; however when your players have to stop their game and spend 10 minutes flipping through a rulebook trying to find something, immersion is already ruined.


The Flavor Tho

Rulebooks with a lot of flavor text and using period-specific jargon to evoke a theme are definitely easy targets.  However, thematic rulebooks serve an important function, and to dismiss them entirely would be a mistake.

Opening the rulebook for the first time is a moment of excitement.  It is a moment of transition where the player begins their journey of learning how to play your game that you designed for them to derive pleasure and joy from.

Greeting that hopeful player with inscrutable rules jargon and instructions coded like a legal document can be a frustrating and discouraging experience. “Am I too dumb to play this game?” is the last thing that you want to make someone who bought your game think.

So fluffing the rulebook in ways that make it interesting to read for people who are browsing it casually, trying to learn more about the game – not necessarily be designed to serve the player in the heat of a game trying to find a specific rule – these are compromises that need to be considered.

Recognizing that not all players are looking to get the exact same thing out of a rulebook is the first step to realizing that you can’t have a simple this or that rulebook.


You Need To Balance Everything

If you are aiming to create an effective rulebook, you need to flawlessly incorporate flavortext, cool art, tutorials and codified rules.  If I were a lesser blogger I would leave it at that, but the truth is, composing an effective book of rules for a game is largely a feat of organization than a feat of writing.

Note the rules that you need to check most often during playtesting, think about what a player needs to know, can things be condensed into a reference chart? Can that reference chart be tucked into a back page where people would expect to find it? Every grid, table, chart or graph used in the rulebook, should be considered to be added to a set of quick-reference pages at the back of your manual.

If the players who just want to get the info in the middle of the game can reflexively flip through the back pages of a rulebook, then get back to the game without having to disengage from their game in progress – that is a huge success.

This leaves ample room for the single most important thing that a designer can include in their rulebook – a complete sample playthrough. Doomtown actually has a first play walkthrough in one of it’s rulebooks, but it’s done with mostly text, and is too short to give you enough to go off of for the rest of your game.

The ideal tutorial shows what the board looks like at each step along the way so that players can engage visually with the game which makes it easier to learn.



A rulebook seems like just another component to any game, but a better way to think of a rulebook, is as a tool for managing player engagement.  While playing a game, any point where players are unsure of how to proceed with something and need to consult the rules is a point of disengagement.  Many other factors go into pushing and pulling on a players level of engagement — and there is a point where players will become so disengaged that they just get up and walk away from your game.

The players who are being introduced to the world inside of a game box will enjoy pieces of art and fiction integrated with the rulebook, this along with a strong tutorial will draw players in and make them want to engage with your game.

All of this can be accomplished while serving the veteran players who just need quick references from time to time by incorporating a logical flow and intuitive structure into the rest of the rulebook.

As a player, we can definitely appreciate when a lot of thought has been given to the rules materials, it is a wonderful comfort in our final moments before the sweet release of death’s embrace frees us from the confines of our antibiotic resistant flu addled bodies.


Ruining the Geek,



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