As a player, my experience of a game is influenced heavily by the structure of the rulebook. I’m currently working on designing my own game, so I have an increased interest in how to write clear instructions and help my players have the best experience. After
extensive research playing many games, I’ve found that the most comprehensible and accessible rulebooks follow concepts detailed by Barbara Minto in her 1987 book: The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking.
The first thing I want to know when playing a new game is “How do I win?” or more generally “What is the objective of the game?” People often play games to compete so this is the most critical piece of information to communicate early. All other game rules and narrative provided should support the players reaching their ultimate goal. This is clearly aligned with one of Minto’s key insights: start with the answer first. Often the game objective is of the form “Collect the most bits”, “Build the most structures”, “Win the race”, or most broadly “Get the most points”. This naturally raises questions like “What do the bits look like?” and “How do I get points?” These are precisely the questions a good rulebook should answer next and good authors use these questions to dictate a logical order for the remaining content.
Introducing the game setup immediately after the objective answers questions regarding vocabulary and gives players context for further instructions. As players navigate the unpacking of bits and shuffling of cards, they are learning the key terms used in the world (e.g. “these cards represent trucks”). These terms can reinforce the objective, especially if a player is collecting a certain kind of object unique to the game. A further benefit of following the objective immediately with game setup is that it engages players quickly. Players are in for a long game if they need to wait through half an hour of rules before they get to open the box. Once players associate the game’s vocabulary with the physical pieces, the game designer can proceed in relating further information about the order of play.
A next set of questions that good rulebooks anticipate are of the flavor “How will the game progress and what decisions will I make?” These are the coarse grain concepts that make up a player’s time during the game - i.e. their turn. The game cannot progress without turns, so clarity and repetition are especially important. Minto highlights the need to group and summarize supporting ideas in communications. Grouping and summary are critical in this segment of the rules because players will be more capable and have more fun if they remember the basic actions that make up their turn. If a game contains supplemental player cards, they are likely to pertain to this category of the instructions (e.g. turn order, prices, end-game conditions).
A good rulebook also outlines the specific constraints that will influence player strategy. Most game mechanics can only operate under certain conditions: elements and pieces have specific operating parameters that must be met. These constraints are critical to understand for strategic players, but it’s a grave mistake to introduce them before letting players assimilate a game’s vocabulary, objective, and basic turn order. This is an example of Minto’s third key principle to logically order supporting ideas. It’s often impossible to detail the ways a game element influences strategy without leaning on an understanding of surrounding ideas. If you find yourself skipping forward and backward through a rulebook to look up references, it is often the case that the rulebook does not follow a logical order.
In summary, the best rulebooks follow insights from Minto’s Pyramid Principle:
- Start with the objective first
- Logically order instructions to answer questions and build understanding
- Group and summarize supporting ideas using narrative
An example rulebook written in this style might take the following format:
- Game objective
- Elements of a turn: decisions to make, player order, acquiring key resources etc.
- Specific rules for elements or mechanics
- Resolving disputes
- Extensions or variants to the base game
As my game develops, I’ll share my rulebook here by way of example.