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How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)

Poorly written published rules can ruin a tabletop game. Rules/design documents may be the hardest part of game design.
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Last updated 9/2016
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  • 3.5 hours on-demand video
  • 12 mins on-demand audio
  • 3 Articles
  • 12 Supplemental Resources
  • Full lifetime access
  • Access on mobile and TV
  • Certificate of Completion

If you're doing it right, one of the hardest parts of game design is writing clear rules. If you mess it up, your game will be a dud, no matter how good the actual game is - because it won't be played correctly. How to write rules varies with your audience - of course. Polish the rules as you playtest.

If you're designing a video game for other people to produce (program, art, sound, etc.) then you have to write very clear game design documents if you want things to work as you envision.

This course is primarily about writing formal rules for games, usually tabletop games, but writing a game design document requires similar skills, as it must explicitly describe every possible interaction between player(s) and machine.


A other great course from Dr. Lewis Pulsipher. This is an one of a kind course on Udemy (the internet) about how to write rules for tabletop (board) games. All the do's and don'ts are discussed and more. From this course you will get some great tips if your planning to make a tabletop game your self. Highly recommend to watch. The teacher talks very clear and is easy to follow.

Jimmy Voskuil

Recommendation (from email to me):

"Last year I entered one of my games in the international Hippodice boardgame competition in Germany. Unfortunately I didn't make it to the final but did make it through to the first 33 (out 150) which meant it was playtested.

They were so good as to give me some test results feedback a few months later. One of the most positive points was with regard to the rules!

So I just wanted to thank you because by following your rules course, I picked up many things which improved the rulebook before I sent it off. Now I just need to use their feedback to improve the game some more - its overall score was good just not good enough for the final!"

Mark Bethell

Who is the target audience?
  • Tabletop game designers (and wannabes)
  • Video game designers who use game design documents
What Will I Learn?
Understand the purposes of rules writing
Recognize "the enemy" of rules writers and what you can do about it
Understand all the details involved in rules writing
Benefit from actual examples
Think about all the non-rules items you might include with the rules
How and why rules are tested
View Curriculum
  • Knowledge of tabletop or video games
  • It's better if you've already tried to write game rules that other people have read. But there will be opportunities to practice.
Curriculum For This Course
Expand All 71 Lectures Collapse All 71 Lectures 08:58:36
4 Lectures 08:30

Brief overview of what you'll learn in this Writing Clear Rules course.

Preview 02:47

Online classes are inevitably self-paced and self-directed, especially as students do not start all at the same time. Please ask questions/participate in discussion as it happens.

How this class works

Anonymous (if you choose) Voluntary Entry Survey
What's the purpose of written game rules?
14 Lectures 45:52

Written rules are not ideal. Unfortunately, what IS ideal is usually not possible.

The Tabletop Ideal would be . . .

Written rules are not ideal. But the Star Trek Holodeck is not yet reality.

The Video Game Ideal would be . . .

If you don't understand what you're trying to accomplish when you write a set of rules, they'll never be suitable.

Preview 03:25

A game design document tells the artists, programmers, sound people what to make. There's an enormous amount of detail, more than a tabletop game's rules because EVERYTHING must be described.

But will the others read it? Often not. So designers have experimented with alternatives.

Game Design Documents - and Alternatives

Knowing your objectives, your worst enemy is the human tendency to "satisfice", to do just enough to get by, which has become much more prevalent in this century because of so many distractions and the "Age of Instant Gratification".

Satisficing - the "enemy" you're faced with

The biggest problem is writing is that other people don't think like you. In rules-writing, the additional problem is that you know your game too well., far, far better than the reader will. You have to put yourself in the reader's place to see what they might misunderstand.

Writing: Put yourself in the reader's place (and try some "odd" readers!)

Use plain English in rules, and write to an 8th grade (or lower) level. DON'T use jargon or abbreviations. (The US Army uses "BMNT". That stands for "Before Morning Nautical Twilight". What it means is, "dawn". Duh.)

Call a Spade a Spade - write plain English

Anyone who tries to entertain or inform MUST know who the audience is, because the audience determines how the creator proceeds.

The "best" way varies with the audience!

It's difficult to create exercises that you can do when this is a no-grading format, but here's an attempt

An exercise - write rules for a well-known classic game

You need to understand the difference between mechanics, rules, the rulebook, descriptions, and narrative game design documents. Here it is.

The differences between mechanics, rules, and descriptions -and game design docs

This screencast is from my large "Learning Game Design" course.

Game schools used to emphasize game design documents, which are long descriptions to tell programmers, artists, etc. how to make the software. But now we're moving away from them for various reasons. Tabletoppers don't use them at all, they just make the prototype and write the rules.

Game design documents - and problems

From my "Learning Game Design" course.

Many game documents are marketing documents for games that do not yet exist (video games). They are written to help convince a publisher or investor to put up the money to enable the game to be created.

Game Concepts, Treatments, and other Marketing Documents

This is one of my simplest games, contrast with the vastly-longer rules for Britannia, later in the course.

I include this and the next set of rules to illustrate how much rules can change, even simple ones. Some of the changes are actual changes in the game, others are clarifications to cover situations that come up in playtesting.

Sea Kings first full set of rules 1377 words
5 pages

(The 414 is month and year.) I don't count each change as a new set of rules, only major changes that I save separately. So I have five different sets of Sea Kings rules saved.

One reason why this is so much longer is that I devised a variant for the game that involves much more direct conflict.

Sea Kings fifth set of rules 2917 words
10 pages
Writing the rules
19 Lectures 58:56

Is there a rule of thumb for how long rules should be? No. Use common sense, but remember, it's better to be long, than to leave things out.

Rules Length

Unless you are self-publishing, you can write with whatever you're comfortable with. Publishers don't want you to do the formatting, they'll do it. Most good word processors will let you add graphics for rules blind-testing.

Software for Writing Rules

Almost no one wants to read rules. And rules are, after all, a set of instructions. Try to use a friendly, personal tone to make the task less like reading a manual! Use the active rather than passive voice, to make the rules seem less formal (and more straightforward).

Preview 02:15

What can you do, when writing rules, about people who "skim" when they read? In the end, not a lot, if people want to be functionally illiterate, then they're not going to get everything from a set of rules no matter what you do. But there are some ways to mitigate the problem.


"Big words" often express meaning better than several small ones, but only if the reader/listener knows the word. For game rules you have to assume they don't, that the reader has about an 8th grade education (or lower for children's games, of course).

"Twenty Dollar Words"

Rules used to be written for later reference, usually numbered, more like a technical manual or instruction set. Now they're written in more typical narrative and organized in the same order as rules would be encountered in actual play. This sequence of play makes it hard to look things up, but it's now most rules are written today.

Preview 02:35

The Reference Rules version of Britannia as I submitted them to Fantasy Flight. When people had trouble with the FFG rewritten rules (next lecture) I'd give them a copy of these rules, which were generally regarded as clearer and more precise.

Britannia second edition Reference Rules
43 pages

This is the Fantasy Flight Britannia rules - actually the revision for the second printing. This illustrates Sequence of Play pretty well. It also highlights another point: rewritten rules MUST be playtested. These rules were rewritten (in 2006) by someone who may not have EVER played the game, and almost certainly were not tested in play. FFG was in a big deadline crunch (after some delays at their end); I was given a week, a very busy week while I was teaching seated classes, to look at the rules, and I didn't catch all of the screwups. The remainder were fixed in 2008.

Britannia second edition Sequence of Play rules (as rewritten by Fantasy Flight)
24 pages

Rules need to provide a context so that the reader understands why they're being told "whatever it is". You need to briefly describe the objective (normally, how to win) early in the rules, then with all the details near the end.

Put "How to Win" up front to provide context

Putting rules on cards, instead of in the instruction booklet, lets you put exceptions to the normal rules in a place where they're isolated, where they need not be considered until the player has the card. But they're not a solution to the fundamental problem of writing rules, that is, being clear and complete.

Rules on the cards

Some things you cannot "legislate" against. You can't prevent "out of game" behavior, such as cheating or metagame activity, no matter how much you'd like to. If it's in-game behavior that you don't like, saying so in the rules won't prevent people from doing it. Instead you need to redesign your game so that the undesirable behavior does not lead to success.

What can you not "legislate" against?

All but the simplest games can benefit from a Player's Aid (cheat sheet). Regard it as part of the rules, even though it will be printed separately in multiple copies (so that each player can have one).

Preview 04:03

You've seen how long the Britannia rules are. Here's a one-page reference I wrote for the same game. I now write one-page "Player's Aids" for almost every prototype game I design, and players find them very useful after they've been taught how to play (rather than read the rules).

Unfortunately I didn't think to do this until after the second edition was published. There will be such player's aids with the third editions.

Example: A one-page reference ("Quick Guide" to Britannia)
1 page

Here's a player's aid for one of my games, vaguely Stratego-like, scheduled to be published in 2014. Remember that the player will have the board and pieces in front of him or her, and will have a general idea of what happens, so this will make more sense than it can to you.

Pac Convoy is a much simpler game than Britannia, but not simple enough that it doesn't benefit from the player's aid.

Preview 1 page

Here's an outline of sorts to follow for Sequence of Play rules.

An outline for Sequence of Play rules

Don't wait until "you're done" with the game design to write a formal set of rules?. I don't recommend writing them before any playtesting, but some designers prefer that even though it wastes some time (because the game will change so much).

Don't rely on someone else to write the rules, unless they have played the game a fair bit. If someone hasn't played the game, there will be fine points in the rules they don't understand and they will screw up.

Drafts, drafts, and more drafts - it's not "write once and done"

Some say "a picture is worth a thousand words", but often in rules, a word is worth at least one picture. Graphics can be evocative, but rules must be precise. So use graphics sparingly (except in examples).

Use of graphics in the rulebook

Even the best writers can benefit from suggestions. And some people really need editing of their writing. It's when the editor's changes become compulsory that problems can occur. Especially, when a publisher assigns a "developer" (a different meaning than in the video game world) to test and potentially modify a submitted game, the developer's preferences may override the designer's.

Editors and editing - and "developers"

I hear a lot of claptrap that amounts to a belief, almost a religion, that somehow we can manage to say as much as we have in the past, with a lot fewer words. Yes, everyone wants to be concise, to say as much as possible with as few words, but concise blends into incomplete or incomprehensible. Don't screw up your rules by trying to be too brief.

This depends partly on your audience. More in the screencast.

Overly Concise rules may be Incomplete or Incomprehensible
Testing and improving the rules
6 Lectures 21:26

The rules are the most important component of a published game. You need to test the rules just like you test everything else, and that means writing the rules fairly early in the process, revising and retesting them as you go along.

Testing rules as you playtest the game

What do you do about people so inexperienced in games, and such poor readers, that they effectively make up their own rules, accidentally?

The original discussion I allude to at the beginning of this screencast is at:

People who make up their own rules without knowing it!

Blind testing - having someone play your game without your intervention of even presence, so they must read the rules to learn the game - is ideal, but it's hard to find reliable tabletop blind testers. REALLY HARD.

Blind testing

It's so easy to copy rules nowadays that you can assume yours will be. So why not distribute them before publication and gain some advantages?

Preview 01:59

"Living rules", updated regularly online, are convenient for players, but you can't expect most players to go and get them. Most will rely what's in the box, and that's where you must concentrate. "Patches" are a convenience of video games, not of tabletop games.

"Living Rules"

PAGE LAUBHEIMER: “A crucial point in discussing user errors is where to assign the blame for the error. The term ‘user error’ implies that the user is at fault for having done something wrong. Not so. The designer is at fault for making it too easy for the user to commit the error. Therefore, the solution to user errors is not to scold users, to ask them to try harder, or to give them more extensive training. The answer is to redesign the system to be less error prone.”

Don't make it easy for players to fail to follow the rules
What might be in the rules, other than "rules"?
13 Lectures 35:41

I like to include a box highlighting a few rules that are often missed, misunderstood, or forgotten. Readers have poor recognition and retention these days - help them out.

Rules often missed or misunderstood

Most rule sets include Examples of Play, which are not actual rules, they're illustrations of how the rules look. Be sure the rules and the examples don't contradict one another!

Examples of Play

Play-throughs are a combination of text and graphics to show players whether they're playing the game correctly. They take up a lot of space in the rulebook, however.

Preview 01:28

Example: Historical walk-through of the first two turns of Britannia

Frequently Asked Questions belong with website, companies - something that isn't highly organized and precise in the way that rules are. If there are questions, they should be incorporated into the rules. However, a "Frequently Missed or Misunderstood Rules" section is good, and I usually provide a one-page "cheatsheet" for players.

Keep in mind, calling something a FAQ begs people to overlook it, because a FAQ is supposed to be clarification, not new information.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) in the Rules? No

Often there are alternative ways to play a game that are as good as the standard, or make it more attractive to certain kinds of players. Why not include those with the rules? Pros and cons.

Optional Rules and Variants

Do you want to include hints about good play in your rulebook? It depends - be careful.

Strategy/Playing Hints

You can add designer's notes to game rules. What are they, where should they be, and do you actually want to use them?

Designer's Notes

Online aids will help some people learn how to play the game, or to play it correctly, at relatively little cost.

Learning Aids that aren't in the box (are online)

Online play aids don't have to be videos, they can be audio (podcasts).

Example: Quick "How to play Britannia" MP3 audio file

Example: A text strategy aid posted online - for Britannia
5 pages

Example: A strategy hint audio aid posted online - for Britannia

In the 21st century, even as we say a picture is worth a thousand words, too many people "turn off" as soon as they see a flowcharts. Lookup tables, which aren't even pictures, are even worse. That's why most wargames, which once ALWAYS had a lookup table (the Combat Results Table) rarely do these days.

Flowcharts? Lookup Tables? No.
9 Lectures 28:17

Rules translation is a can of worms, but there's not much a designer can do about it. Here are some "war stories".

Rule Translations

I'm including these two sets of rules in the course to show how much a set of game rules can change. This first set (when I still called the game "Naval Doomstar" because it derives from another game) was not, of course, comprehensive. The second set is much closer to comprehensive, and also has additional scenarios. And it's nearly twice as long.

Pacific Convoy first full set of rules (2219 words)
7 pages

I'm including these two sets of rules in the course to show how much a set of game rules can change. This second set is much closer to comprehensive, and also has additional scenarios. And it's nearly twice as long.

This is ruleset #6, but the rules went through many more iterations. I don't renumber for minor changes, only for extensive changes or changes after a long interval.

Pacific Convoy sixth full set of rules (3939 words)
13 pages

There aren't many resources about rules writing, that's why I created this course. Here are clickable links to those mentioned in the video.


Online Resources

This is practical advice about writing well, advice that served my (computer networking) college and grad students well for many years. (Yes, even computer people need to write well.) I've attached a revision of my writing notes for students in Resources (with part 1)

11 "Need to Knows" about Writing Well, Part 1

This is practical advice about writing well, advice that served my (computer networking) college and grad students well for many years. (Yes, even computer people need to write well.) I've attached a revision of my writing notes for students in Resources (with part 1)

11 "Need to Knows" about Writing Well, Part 2

10 questions

Exit Survey

There's no substitute for writing and USING rules. Using them either to play, or at least to have people read them to provide feedback.

Conclusion, and Where to from Here?

All the slides used in this course up to 15 April 14
171 pages
Bonus Material
6 Lectures 25:33

Lew's online courses and information sources

"Bonus Lecture" - Lew's online courses and information sources
14 pages

Why write a book in the 21st century, an era when people rarely read non-fiction books? And why a game design book? Here's why…

Preview 08:24

Lew's Games as of August 2015
20 pages

What makes my book "Game Design" unusual or unique?

What makes my "Game Design" book unusual or unique?

This is a "brief" summary, rather than new material, of what's most important in this subject. Part 1
10 "need to knows" about writing clear rules (and game design documents), pt 1

This is a "brief" summary, rather than new material, of what's most important in this subject. Part 2

10 "need to knows" about writing clear rules (and game design documents), pt 2
About the Instructor
4.1 Average rating
128 Reviews
9,490 Students
11 Courses
Commercially Published Game Designer, College Teacher

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher (Wikipedia: "Lewis Pulsipher"; "Britannia (board game)"; "Archomental" ) is the designer of half a dozen commercially published boardgames. His game "Britannia" is described in an Armchair General review "as one of the great titles in the world of games." Britannia was also one of the 100 games highlighted in the book "Hobby Games: the 100 Best". He has over 17,000 classroom hours of teaching experience including teaching video game design and production, and over 20 years of part-time graduate teaching experience.

His book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" (McFarland) focuses on practical advice for beginning game designers, about how you actually create and complete game designs. He also contributed to the books "Tabletop: Analog Game Design," "Hobby Games: the 100 Best," "Family Games: the 100 Best." His game design blog has been active since 2004, and he is a contributor and "expert blogger" on Gamasutra, the #1 site for professional video game developers.

His latest published game is the 2011 reissue with additions of "Dragon Rage," originally published in 1982. Three new versions of Britannia, including a 90-120 minute version and a diceless version, are forthcoming, as well as several other games from Worthington Publishing and others. His Viking adventure game "Sea Kings" was published by Worthington in August 2015.

Lew has a Ph.D. in military and diplomatic history from Duke University, from ancient days when degrees in media, computer networking, or game design did not exist--nor did IBM PCs. In 2012 he was a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference, PrezCon, Origins Game Fair, and World Boardgaming Championships. Long ago he was contributing editor for White Dwarf and Dragon magazines, and publisher of various game fanzines. In 2013 he was Industry Insider Guest of Honor at GenCon, and in 2014 is again speaker at the ECGC.

Game design blog and teach game design blogs are on blogspot

"Expert blogger", Gamasutra

former contributing editor, White Dwarf, Dragon, Space Gamer, etc.

former publisher, Supernova, Blood and Iron, Sweep of History, etc.

"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest." --Mark Twain

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