Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.
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Developing Highways & Byways has been an absolute blast this week. It’s been one of those weeks where everything is going well and I can feel the vision starting to becoming coherent. I’ve been rapid prototyping like a fiend this week, going from version State Route 5 to version State Route 7. The newly introduced Car Choice and Event Pool mechanics are going really well. It’s too soon to be more specific than that, though 😉
With the core engine and mechanics of the game pretty well determined by now, I’ve found myself focusing on tweaks, specifically tweaks to the game rules. As I said last week, “rules regulate the way mechanics are implemented. A mechanic is the concept behind the game and the rule is the way that it’s handled to ensure balance.” Rules are really tricky to do right because you have to serve two purposes: balance the game and communicate clearly.
Speaking of communicating clearly, let’s draw a distinction between rules and rule books. Rules are conditions within the game that constrain the players from immediately achieving their objectives. Rules can be in rule books, on cards or pieces, or on the board itself.
- “You may only move six spaces in a turn.” (A movement rule in Highways & Byways)
- “You must draw 5 cards and discard 3 of them.” (A rule from a card in War Co.)
- “The first to reach 20 VP wins.” (The win condition in Twilight Struggle)
- “If you get more than 3 cubes on a city, they spill over into the next ones.” (A rule from the book in Pandemic)
The rule book is a document meant to teach players how to play. It always includes at least some rules, but often doesn’t include all of them. Many of the rules in a game will come from the board, cards, etc. Rule books teach information as well as intention. Rule books need to be short, or else outside sources will explain the game for you. Rule books need to include examples and specifics, but they shouldn’t go overboard by explaining the finer points of strategy which are better left discovered. Rule books can be used to prime a player’s experience to make sure the player has the most fun possible. Rule books need to be concise, visual, and skim-able. Rule books need to give players enough information to play the game, even if they only halfway read it.
You can’t have a game without rules. A game without rules is by definition simply free-form play. You can have a game without a rule book – it might just be difficult to play.
With all this said, how does one create rules that fulfill the twin purposes of balancing the game and communicating clearly? I have some guidelines. This is non-exhaustive and it just includes what’s on my mind this week.
Making Balanced Rules
Playtest a Ton: No amount of planning, cleverly designed trade-offs, Excel spreadsheets, or game design theory will ever replace the need to play your game hundreds of times to make sure the rules work. Sometimes stuff you don’t expect work ends up working beautifully, and vice versa.
Consider How Much Challenge You Want Your Game to Have: Rules are the primary way to add constraints (or rather, difficulty) to the game. Think long and hard about how much you want the game to fight back against the players. Make sure your rules are lined up with your intended difficulty. Failure to do this thwarts player expectations, which makes them upset with the game being too easy or too hard.
Consider Where Your Game Falls on the Luck/Skill Spectrum: When it comes to luck vs. skill, there is no ideal way to create a game. There is a sliding scale of luck and skill and you need to choose a place you want your game to fall along that spectrum. Make sure your rules are tonally consistent with your intentions.
Avoid False Choices: If you give a player a choice, make it a tough one. Nothing takes the steam out of game like too many obvious decisions. It makes a player feel powerless, perhaps even like the game is being condescending. When rules force players to make a choice, all choices should come with important pros and cons.
Making Clear Rules
Clearly Point Out Relevant Keywords: Relevant keywords should be capitalized at the least. When you introduce them for the first time, it’s a good idea to bold the words as well. When you make reference to the color green or any other color, you should stylize your text to match.
Use Consistent Keywords and Phrasing: Nothing is more confusing than rules which call the same thing by different names. In Highways & Byways, I make reference to tracking pieces called Travel Cubes. I call them Travel Cubes every time I reference them. The words Travel Cubes are always capitalized in the rules – both the rules in the rule book and the rules on the cards.
Use Present Tense, Active Voice, Second Person: Be direct when writing rules. You will directly address the player with succinct imperatives.
If a Rule is Confusing, Drop It: Want to know how to find a troublemaking rule? Look for a rule requires a bunch of tracking or a bunch of caveats. Your game will be played by people who don’t know the rules inside and out. It might be played in a loud environment. The more you force your player to remember bizarre little rules, the more you risk being misunderstood.
Key Takeaways for Game Devs
- Rules regulate the way mechanics are implemented.
- Rules are really tricky to do right because you have to serve two purposes: balance the game and communicate clearly.
- Rules are conditions within the game that constrain the players from immediately achieving their objectives.
- The rule book is a document meant to teach players how to play. It always includes at least some rules, but often doesn’t include all of them.
- Rule books need to be concise, visual, and skim-able. Rule books need to give players enough information to play the game, even if they only halfway read it.
- To make balanced rules:
- Playtest a ton.
- Make sure your rules match the intended level of challenge.
- Make sure your rules match the intended luck/skill balance of your game.
- Avoid false choices.
- To make clear rules:
- Point out relevant keywords.
- Use consistent keywords.
- Use present tense, active voice, second person.
- If a rule is confusing, drop it.
Most Important Highways & Byways Updates
- I clearly marked starting locations on the map. (It’s amazing what you can forget to do in the early play tests!)
- Play tested version State Route 5, which included the Car Choice and Event Pool mechanics.
- Both mechanics introduced in State Route 5 showed promise, so I included them in the game.
- I upgraded the game to version State Route 6.
- I improved the Car Choice and Event Pool mechanics.
- I improved the rules. Instead of being bullet points, I’ve got about 3 1/2 pages of prose in a Word document.
- My brother and I tested the game again. It shows a lot of promise.
- I’ve upgraded the game to version State Route 7. I’ll continue to refine the Car Choice and Event Pool mechanics.
- Overall, the core engine of the game is complete. All the fundamental mechanics are likely complete as well. The rules need some serious tweaking.