Monday, February 7, 2022

Wargame Design: Rules Lay-outs


Hold onto your hats folks, we are about to get into a riveting topic!  You can thank your buddy Evil Monkeigh over at the Delta Vector blog for this one!  I was sharing with him my Work-in-Progress design from Homer's HeroesAs always, he and the Google Group gave me some good feedback.  However, in the process he also recommended that I share some thoughts on rule book lay-out and design on my blog!  That was the spark for this post.   

You may notice that in my reviews, I rarely talk about how a book is laid-out or how the ideas are organized.  For the most part, I gloss over that.  I find reviews that tell me things about font size, white space, lay-out, page count, etc. to be adding words but not a lot of value there.  Yet, here I am about to talk about it.    

At first glance, how you lay-out your rules seems like an after thought for post-production.  After all, the key ideas are your cool new activation system, fluffing out your concept, or how to resolve an action.  Those are all very important, but are completely useless if no one can understand what you are trying to tell them. 

Remember, to be a game designer you need games for people to play.  In order for people to play your games, they have to be able to interpret your rules in a meaningful way.  

Homer's Heroes

The Rules Flow

The first thing to consider is what order to present your rules.  This is how you intend to introduce players to what they need to play.  There are a few ways to do this that I will outline below, and try to illustrate with a few examples.  

The 4Ms on the Page
With this method, the rules are laid out in the same order as the 4Ms of wargaming.  The first section is movement, the next is missiles, then melee, and then Morale.  The exact order may be different, but the core is there.  The game then moves to how to play a game and the scenarios.  

Examples include the venerable GW rulebooks of various editions, most Warlord releases, etc.  This has been the traditional approach to rulebook lay-out for decades.  

This is a very logical method of laying out your rules, and addresses all the major points of the game.  As a designer, you know you have hit all the basic elements of wargame design, as they are laid out right there in the rulebook! 

This method also works well if it also follows the turn structure of the game.  If a player's turn is move, missiles, melee, and morale then this method works really well.  The players is introduced to the concepts as they theoretically need them on their turn.  

Like all things, there is a wrong time to use this method as well.  Many games no longer follow the linear 4M approach to a player's turn.  Therefore, using this approach can lead to confusing or unclear rules interactions to develop.  In such a case, the rulebook themselves may have a chapter dedicated to "putting in all together" in order for a the player to see how the 4Ms actually flow together.  Games with action/re-actions and other less linear activation or turn structures can struggle using a 4M approach to lay-out.   

As You Play
This method of rulebook design focuses on introducing core concepts and ideas of the game, in the order you will encounter them during actual play.  The rules start with how you set-up your gaming table, how you recreate your minis to fight, and then progresses through to actually playing the game itself.  This is a more recent model of wargame design.  

The best example is the works of Joseph McCullough for Osprey such as Frostgrave and the like.  In these books, he start with gathering your toy soldiers and organizing them to play.  Then, he proceeds with how to use them on the table.  

This is a very intuitive way to approach rules lay-out and is especially helpful to someone new to wargaming.  Concepts and ideas are presented "just in time" to use them in the game.  Therefore, the way the rules interact is unveiled for the player in useful chronological order in bite-sized chunks.  They are not reading about rules not relevant to the situation they should be in on the table.  

Most people do not read the rules as they play.  They read them before they start playing and then go back and try to apply them in game.   This approach can lead to big blocks of odd text in the center of your rules.  For example, you may have a lot of detail about warband generation, before players really know how the different warband stats connect to the game. 

Core Concepts
This approach starts with a brief description of all the "key ideas" or core concepts of the rules upfront, before going into the application in detail.  In this case, the first section will lay out the methods to roll dice, measure, and provide a definition of keywords.  The rules will then often refer back to these key concepts with simple phrases such as "Make a Morale Check" with the method of making a morale check outlined in the Core Concept section of the rules.  

Gamma Wolves is a great example of this approach.  The core concepts and glossary are dealt with early in the book.  As rules are introduced in the appropriate places, they refer back to these core concepts which the reader is all ready familiar with.  

This design approach gives the reader all the key ideas early and gives them a good grounding in the system before proceeding into the minutia.  It is also easy for players to reference these Core Concepts during play as they are all found in a single place, instead of scattered around the book.  

On the downside, you are introducing a lot of "upfront" work for the reader that maybe intimidating or off-putting.  Often, these core concepts can be technical in nature and can lead to confusion as there is no clear way to put an example to the concepts this early in the work.  That comes in the specific sections.  

Technical Writing
This format of rules writing is structured like a process document or formal writing style.  Frequently, the topics have a number, with various sub-numbers or bullets to indicate specific sub-sets of the header.  Each process or rule has its own heading and sub-heading that you can refer to.  This systems are often designed in as linear way as possible for the game system.    

This style was popular with game systems like De Bellis Antiquites (DBA) and Epic: Aramageddon.  

Everything has it place, and how it fits in relation to the rest of the rules is very clear.  How cover interacts with shooting is placed in a sub-heading.  If a player is familiar with the rules, they can easily find the sub-heading for any given situation.  They are also easy to place a table of contents and index to go along with such a rules system.  

Such systems are often not fun to read.  It is like reading the Owner's Manual to reset the clock on your car stereo (is that still a thing that people do?).  

In addition, it can give a false sense of completeness and formality to the rules.  In my experience, their are just as many edge cases and rules gaps in these systems as any other.  However, the structure is designed to try and cover these gaps with formality and authority.  This can make interpreting the grey in the rules a bit harder.  

Every wargame designer has their own tastes and preferences in detailing rules.  It is often influenced by their own background and experiences with formal writing and wargame rules.  For example, my own preferences have been heavily influenced by a more laid back "English" style approach of the 4Ms with a dash of Core Concept thrown in for good measure.  Meanwhile, someone else may lean in Technical Writing with As You Play in spades.  A Hybrid method is simply mixing and matching the above styles into a unique package.  

Best Practices
No matter which lay-out style you prefer, there are a number of best practices you should consider when laying out your rules books.  These will help your reader interpret with clarity what you are trying to get across in your rules.  

Fluff and Rules Divide
You should never mix background and rules together.  There should be a clear divide between what is background/fluff material and what is actually rules.  That does not mean rules can not have thematic names or conventions, but the rules should clearly be rules.  Fluff or background should be separate by a visual or structural firewall. 

Signpost Asides and Examples
Be sure that when you are providing an example or an aside from the rules, it is clear.  This can be done with different fonts, text boxes, or a graphic.  It should be clear when something is a rule versus something that is there to illustrate writer intent.  

For example, I start all of my examples to rules with the phrase "For example" and usually make it Italics. 

Pictures and Diagrams
Where possible, use pictures and diagrams to illustrate key concepts in the rules.  This is not always possible, but if you can do it; do it. 

Images under Text
I am guilty of this one!  Looking at a wall of text can get boring and be intimidating.  It is tempting to put images, designs, and other thematic details under your text.  Don't do it!  It just makes the text hard to read and printing it out a nightmare.  

Fonts, Spacing, and White Space
We probably all learned about it in school, but stay relatively consistent with your format for when you use BOLD, Italics, and other font typesIn addition, be sure you are spacing appropriately or leaving white space around your columns.  Like I said, a wall of text can be intimidating but erratic walls of text are exasperating! 

Table of Contents and Index
If you can, help players out by giving them a table of contents with page numbers and an Index if possible.  Smarter people than I can even make the index into hypertext links!  If you can do that, please do it.  

Designer's Notes
I love Designer's Notes.  Here I get to show off how and why I made the decisions I did!  This gives the players an insight behind the curtain and a glimpse into Rules as Intended.  However, these should always be clearly separated from the main rules.  The two should not mix.  

Final Thoughts
You made it!  Congratulations!  

Not the most exciting Wargame Design topic but a necessary one.  The ability to get your ideas across in writing is important for a wargame designer at the moment.  Maybe someday, you will learn wargames by only watching the rules video, but this is not that day.  Therefore, thinking through and making decisions about your post-production work is critical for sharing your ideas.  

Once you have done it a few times, it starts to become second nature to you.  

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  1. Interesting article. I wrote something similar based on my experience of editing rules which may interest you -

  2. Good article. I waded in expecting some typesetting advice about font size and numbers of columns. (Pro Tip: always go 2 points larger than you think necessary - it's a greying hobby, and with the greying comes fading eyesight).

    I welcome the greater depth of rules order, and the list of best practices.

    One last plea: Get an editor, even if it's just another hobbyist who can read the thing from cold, and tell you the hard truth "Sorry Steve, page seven, second paragraph is meaningless bollocks, needs a rewrite mate".