BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Game Design 101: The Price of Magic

In which I consider rules — the thorniest issue in all of game design! — muse on the nature of them, and propose my ‘Five Cs’ of good rule writing.

In the episodic graphic novel Gossamer Commons, Eric A. Burns set out to tell the story of a writer who, having saved the life of a fairy child is, somewhat ungratefully you might argue, marked for death. But before he can die, he is owed a Boon by the fairies and asks for the one thing all writers desire: the ability to write a truly significant novel, something the fairies are ill-equipped to provide.

The story was published online in 2005 and 2006 and is, as yet, unfinished, but at each step the author provided a commentary both on the project and his philosophy of writing, a commentary which included the following fantastic quote:

It’s not enough to create magic. You have to create a price for magic, too. You have to create rules.

Eric A. Burns

The author is talking of the need to create boundaries within fantasy fiction. Fiction is of course the realm of the impossible but the author’s thesis is that if no limits are placed on the power or authority of the supernatural then the storytelling itself will fail. Actions require consequence. Resolution can only follow from genuine tension. And with great power — to use an oft-repeated caveat from an entirely different fantasy franchise — must come great responsibility.

In short, the fantasy world needs rules; its magic needs a price.

What are rules?

That may may seem a trivial question, and a trivial answer might be to suggest that the rules of a game are simply the things that stop the players doing whatever the hell they like. This is true, but not particularly enlightening.

A more interesting answer might be to describe rules as the interface between two experiences: the one the designer intends the players to have, and the one the players actually experience. The designer’s hope, of course, is that these two experiences are identical, but it is the quality of the rules that will decide this. Players can never directly know the designer’s ideal. Their experience of a game is always an interpretation of that ideal, and one that is governed solely by the rules.

There are, then, two very important things to say about rules:

  1. Rules are vitally important! Without them a game would be little more than a box of colourful bits and pieces, which at best might be described as an intriguing toy. Rules are a necessary codification of everything the designer has spent months or years creating, and for the designer not to give them as much care and attention as was given to the game itself would be an act of hubristic foolishness of the highest order.
  2. Rules are largely futile! Players, being only human, are flawed, capricious beings who as a breed can rarely read with absolute attention nor be relied upon to understand what they have read with absolute precision. This is simply a statement of human nature and its accuracy and veracity cannot be disputed. Unfortunately, this means that the creation of rules is an act of hubristic foolishness of the highest order.

So it seems we have a problem, albeit one I am exaggerating for comic effect. Since these statements appear to be both true and contradictory then the truth must inevitably lie someplace else. You can, after all, never please everyone all of the time, much less teach them; and as a designer you share precisely the same flaws as everybody else. The best I think we can do is to acknowledge the following conclusion and move on:

All rule sets are imperfect, and all will be interpreted imperfectly.

The ‘Five Cs’ of good rule writing

Having accepted the folly of our endeavour, I think it’s time we got on with it, to which end I am here proposing my ‘Five Cs’ of good, or at least better, rule writing.

The first thing to say is that my intent is to formulate a cribsheet of useful and succinct ‘ways of thinking’, and not to espouse a set of prescriptive or doctrinaire ‘ways of doing’ nor some universal standard of language, structure or tone. It is important to realise that each game will have different requirements and limitations, and that each game genre a different set of stylistic and linguistic conventions.

The second thing to say is that writing rules is essentially an exercise in communication design. The purpose, then, of a rule set is to effectively communicate a game’s principles and regulations. Rule sets may do other things too — provide historical background to a war-game or a sense of narrative fantasy to a eurogame — but these are secondary concerns.

I think then that it is both possible and fair to say that a rule set is meaningfully and empirically ‘bad’ if it fails in any way to fulfil its primary objective, that of communicating the aforementioned principles and regulations. And I think too that there isn’t a ‘bad’ rule set out there that would not have been improved if the designer or rules editor had given the following five ‘ways of thinking’ just a little more thought.

Clarity

There are two ways in which the game designer needs to demonstrate clarity. It is of course always important to write clearly about the game, but for the designer there is a more important imperative: to have first thought clearly about the game.

All games have an internal logic and structure, a narrative that either originally inspired the designer or emerged as the game developed. The logic at work may be entirely personal to the designer — and quite labyrinthine and opaque to anyone else! — but no game can exist without it.

But the written rule set is not a direct translation of this logic and structure; rather, it is itself an interpretation of this deeper, and often hidden narrative. There are, in this sense, always rules behind the rules, and it is the designer’s duty to be clear on both!

Consistency

For me consistency is one of the most valuable ‘ways of thinking’, although I realise that many consider it a sort of grim addiction to an artless and rather futile pedantry. It’s true that simply being consistent certainly requires a degree of pedantry (a skill that will come more easily to some!) but within game design there is nothing simple or futile about the results.

To fail to be consistent is to introduce the possibility of confusion and error to the players. To refer to a single game piece as, for example, a ‘pawn’ in one place and a ‘man’ in another is to create an illusion of complexity that has absolutely no place in the well-designed game. How are players to interpret this apparent ‘choice’ of language? Is the disparate terminology intended to imply some semantic difference? If not, why was the different language used? Simply to create the space in which players might ask such questions is a failure on the part of the writer. A lack of consistency shows a lack of engineering nous which will do nothing to further the success of a game.

Part of the joy of game design is finding names for things; there is something profoundly rewarding and essentially creative about doing so. So choose your terminology wisely. And stick with it!

Concision

Or, to be blunt, be blunt. Be careful never to talk at unnecessary length about some aspect of the rules, or to introduce needless repetition. Note that I use the words ‘unnecessary’ and ‘needless’: lengthy or repetitious explanations are sometimes required or useful, but a written rule set is most likely to succeed in its primary objective — that of communicating a game’s principles and regulations — if the language used is as direct as possible.

The designer must consider every word of a rule set, and decide whether its inclusion or exclusion better serves the goal of effective communication.

As a native speaker I know that English is at once both a remarkably abundant language and a remarkably economical one. There are typically myriad ways to express a single idea, and whichever you choose there will usually be a shorter one. The mileage of other languages may vary, of course, but the principle is the same.

Completeness

You might think that it goes without saying that a written rule set should aim to contain all of a game’s rules. If so then it is notable that this is the one aspect of game design where commercial products often fail.

However, it is probably fair to point out that achieving completeness is not as simple as it sounds, and may often be a near-impossible goal. Game rules often need to rule as many things out as they rule in, and is it ever possible to rule out everything that a player might conceive of doing? Even the simplest games can generate ‘edge cases’ where the consequence of a sequence of actions is unclear. More complex games may generate so many that it would, at best, be impracticable to cater to all of them in a printed rule set.

The designer is therefore charged with trying to second-guess every player that may ever experience a game and provide a rule set that will satisfy most of their questions most of the time. And unfortunately this is the one directive that designers themselves will find most difficult to police. To the creator every nook and cranny of the theoretical rule set is familiar, which makes them all too easy to overlook when the theoretical rule set is transposed to a written one.

Coherence

This is perhaps the ‘The Big C’, since to me the goal of coherence represents the need to view each rule set as a single piece of communication design that ideally amounts to rather more than the sum of its parts. It is quite possible for a rule set to be complete without being particularly consistent, or to be clear without being terribly concise, but I think for a rule set to be genuinely considered all of these things — clear, consistent, concise and complete — requires it to be, in an holistic sense, coherent.

Genuine coherence combines clarity, consistency, concision and completeness with something else: an elegance and thoughtfulness in the expression of the rules that reflects the elegance and thoughtfulness of the game itself. A rule set’s language, structure and tone — the three things that I am deliberately not attempting to define here — must still be made to work seamlessly together to effectively communicate what a game is, how it is played and what it is about.

Paying the price

There are many ways to approach writing and designing a rule set, but if I am saying anything at all, then I am making a plea for writers and designers to simply take care when they do so. Anybody smart enough to design a game is smart enough to understand and apply my ‘Five Cs’, and I may have said that all rule sets are imperfect, but that’s no reason not to strain every mental sinew to improve them. If you care about your game, you must care just as passionately about your rules. That effort is the true price of magic.

And, if at the heart of that bargain, there is both necessity and futility, then there is irony too. I dismissed as trivial the notion that rules are simply the things that stop players doing whatever the hell like like. The twist is that they don’t even do that.

Players are always free to create their own magic, and it won’t cost them a penny.

This article is part of a series examining various aspects of board game design. The story so far can be found at the following locations:

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