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At a GenCon auction ten or twelve years ago, someone suggested to me that the greatest tragedy that can befall a wargame is to be auctioned in a state where the shrinkwrap has been removed but the counters remain unpunched. Someone wanted to love this game but never began preparing to actually play. The game somehow turned an eager player into one who couldn’t bring him or herself to separate the components.

I’m reading — or, rather, have begun to read — a gorgeous rulebook that I picked up at GenCon. It’s a beefy, full-color hardcover crafted by a designer with a good eye. The game appears to have been designed from laudable assumptions, and word-of-mouth is positive.

What I discovered when I actually began to read it is that the text is a disaster, and in spite of the positive buzz, wanting to like the game, and thinking that it looks great, I can’t bring myself to continue reading. Much less play the game, to say nothing of buying the other beautiful components and follow-on products.

No creator wants this to happen to his or her game. Certainly this game’s designer didn’t set out to write a horrible rulebook. So, without naming names, I thought I’d enumerate some of this game text’s sins, that others may avoid them.

Leaping Voices

As the book unfolds, the game’s voice leaps all over the place. The game’s creators speak in their own informal voices (“Look, we made a thing!”), their own omniscient voices (“Our thing is like such-and-so…”), the omniscient voice of their world’s history (“Faction X arose when…”), the omniscient voice of the rules-instructor (“…then, move the component 7 inches…”), and the personal voice of your buddy (“…and if you do all these things, you’ll be a Master of The Game!”). At one point the presentation even shifts as if the game’s components are speaking in their own voice. (“We are red cubes! We love goodness and hate evil! We are made in Germany! Yay, cubes!”)

(All of these different voices occurred in the first 25 pages of the book. Who knows how many more lurk in the 100+ pages I’ll never read?)

The most damaging thing is not that the book uses more than one voice. It’s legitimate for a work’s introduction to speak differently than it’s flavor text, which will speak differently than its rules. Most damaging here is that the prose leaps between voices without signals ease the transitions and set the table. Headers like “Introduction” are key. Introductory text like, “This chapter spells out the rules of play” can do the trick. The game’s beautiful graphic design could have done functional wonders in this area, but didn’t.

My Snowflake is Special, But Mostly In Comparison to Other Snowflakes

When it talks about itself, the game defines itself not primarily by what you’ll do and the fun you’ll have, but by the ways it’s different from other games of its type. If you find yourself writing rules this way, it’s a good indicator that you might be composing a fantasy heartbreaker, whatever your genre.

Irrelevant Intricacies

The background of the game’s world is intricate in ways that aren’t remotely necessary to enable the fun that the game promises. This detail might be excusable or even welcome in Sourcebook #8, but in this game’s case, these intricacies are presented before a single iota of core gameplay has been covered.

Worse, there are intermediate intricacies that explain how the world came to be the way it is. These transitional intricacies were so tedious that I stopped reading the background section before even learning what the world is like in its present.

(Also, the world’s background is nonsense, but that goes to world-building rather than presentation, and the latter is the category of sins at hand.)

Lackluster Fiction

The fiction that demonstrates the world is not a good story. It has all kinds of asides that illustrate the nature of the game world, but the characters in the fiction are cut-outs and even they can’t be bothered to care about the things that they ostensibly want in their little micro-drama.

Fiction is good when its characters want something desperately, have trouble getting it, and we care. Don’t illustrate a good game with bad fiction, even if it’s accurately illustrative.

We Didn’t Bother to Outline

In this book, logical sub-sections of rules text are not of remotely equivalent weight, nor do they confine themselves to the scope suggested by their parent sections.

By way of example, a pair of adjacent B-level sections are terse in the first case and long-winded in the second, and in the second case, stray several kilometers outside the scope suggested by the A-level section enclosing both. If you find yourself talking about the best kind of characters to create in the section about the game’s components, your organization is suspect.

The Curse of the Singer-Songwriter and Writer-Director-Producer

The book credits no editor or developer. Although it’s possible that this is an error of omitted credit, I’d be surprised. And in any case, the sin isn’t lack of credit, but that there was apparently no development or editing done by someone who wasn’t also the game’s designer. Fresh, outside eyes are best at catching and fixing the oversights of a game’s designer.

Recruit (or hire) skilled supporters and let them know that their brief is to call bullshit on what’s weak, even if it hurts your feelings.

A Big Fat Bummer?

Re-reading the sections above, I worry that this entire post is a magnificent bummer at best and a mean-spirited attack at worst. In the hope of making it clear that what I really want to do here is call out common mistakes to prevent them from recurring, here are the positive lessons that I hope game creators can draw from one game’s shortcomings.

  • Speak in unified voices, and transition between them sensibly, using section headers, transitory passages, and graphic design to send signals.
  • Define your game in its own terms, not in terms of other games.
  • Get to the point. Don’t dwell your game world’s history so much as what it’s like now.
  • Fiction must stand on its own merits. If it wouldn’t be enjoyed outside a game book, see what you can change so it would.
  • Editors and developers are key. No one can produce a great game on their own.

There are other sensible practices and guidelines for writing great games and their rules, of course. This isn’t a guidebook, but a start.