How to Make Board Game Rules

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This week while working on my current board game design, a lot of things have come into focus. Now it’s time to start tweaking board game rules. This is where board game design often becomes very tricky.

With this in mind, let’s talk about how exactly you can make board 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.

 

Rules vs. Rulebooks

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.

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. They 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. They need to be concise, visual, and skim-able. They need to give players enough information to play the game, even if they only halfway read it.

 

If your rule book needs a hard cover, it’s probably too long.

 

Making Balanced & Clear Rules

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.

 

Balance Scales

 

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.

 

Metro of Tokyo
Too much information will rob your game of clarity! (Photo taken by Antonio Tajuelo. Source, License)

 

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.

 

14 Rules for Board Game Rules

Let’s conclude this article by giving you some rules for making rules.

  1. Rules are how we implement game mechanics.
  2. The reason we have rules is twofold: balance the game and explain how to play.
  3. Rules are conditions which prevent players from immediately achieving their objectives.
  4. The rule book does not just contain rules. It teaches players how to play the game.
  5. Rule books need to be concise, visual, and skim-able. 
  6. Rule books need to give players enough information to play a game, even if only halfway read.
  7. Good rules match the intended level of challenge for gamers.
  8. Good rules match the intended luck/skill balance of your game.
  9. Avoid false choices!
  10. Always point out relevant keywords.
  11. Use keywords consistently.
  12. Use present tense, active voice, and second person when writing rules.
  13. If a rule is confusing, drop it.
  14. Play-testing above all else!

How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

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Many of you know that I’m in love with Tabletop Simulator as a testing tool. It’s a simple app on the Steam store, it costs $19.99, and it’s been an extraordinary resource for me during the development of War Co.Highways & Byways, and Tasty Humans.

 

 

 

The 4 Benefits of Using Tabletop Simulator

I’d like to explain to you exactly how to create a demo of your board game on Tabletop Simulator, but first let’s discuss what I perceive as its four main benefits:

 

1. It saves you a ton of money and time on prototyping.

Even using simple paper and ink from your printer can add up pretty quickly when you’re making different versions of your game. This can easily add up into the hundreds of dollars, as it did with War Co. for me before I discovered LackeyCCG and eventually Tabletop Sim.

 

2. It takes less time to create a prototype.

Instead of physically creating a new game or swapping out parts every time you make a substantial change, you can simply update the image files on your Tabletop Sim demo. It’s pretty straightforward.

 

3. You can play-test online.

This means you can find play-testers all over the world, which allows you to see how well your game communicates with people from different cultures or who don’t speak your language as well. Not to mention, it’s easier for many people to find others online than in person.

 

4. It’s great for publicity.

Because you can play online, you get the tremendous opportunity to livestream your game with people who have a good size audience on Twitch or YouTube. This is one of the most underrated marketing opportunities around for board game dev. I could easily make two or three articles on livestreaming board games.

 

How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

 

Step One: Create Images of Your Board, Cards, and Components

For the purposes of this guide, let’s assume your game involves a board, some cards, and some two-dimensional pieces. If it involves 3D models or other complex pieces, see the knowledge base that the development studio put together.

First, you’ll want to create JPG images of your board and each unique component. If you have duplicates of components, just create a single JPG – you can copy and paste the piece multiple times once you’ve loaded into Tabletop Simulator. This is pretty straightforward – all you need are some files that show what they actually look like. The Tabletop Simulator software will automatically size the board and pieces around your images.

Cards are more complicated. You’ll need to use this template or one similar to it. You’ll need to place the front of each card on one of these numbered slots, starting with 1 and working your way up from there. If you have 50 cards, you’ll fill up the first 50 slots and no others. If you have more than 69 cards, you’ll need to make multiple decks. Once you have all cards placed, save the whole grid as a JPG.

If your cards are a different dimension than the template linked above, you’ll need to create a template that is 10 times the width of a card and 7 times its height. Then you’ll place several gridlines so you get a similar template with different dimensions.

As for the card back, you’ll just need to save that as a JPG. If you have multiple card backs per deck, you’ll need to make another grid based on the template. Card back 1 needs to correspond to card front 1, card back 2 needs to correspond to card front 2, and so on.

 

 

Step Two: Upload Your Images to the Internet

Once you have your board, cards, and other pieces ready as JPG files, you need to upload them to the internet. When you’re creating a Tabletop Simulator demo, you’ll need to reference the URL of each image. I suggest you upload files to your own web server, if you have a website. If you don’t have your own web servers, Imgur will do the job.

 

Step Three: Create a Workshop Item on Tabletop Simulator
  • Start Tabletop Simulator.
  • In this order, click CreateSingleClassic, then Custom.
  • Delete everything from the table by right-clicking each object and clicking Delete. (You can use the default stuff, but I want to show you how to do this the long way.)
  • In the top middle of the screen, click Objects.
  • Click Table on the menu.
  • You should now see a screen similar to the one below where it shows a list of tabletops. Pick one you like.

 

 

Now that you have a table, let’s get a board on it.

  • Click Objects in the top middle of the screen.
  • On the menu that shows up on the right, click Components.
  • Click Boards and then Custom.
  • You should see a screen similar to the one below. Copy and paste the URL of your board’s image.
  • Click Import.

 

 

Next, let’s add some cards.

  • In this order, click ObjectsComponents, Cards, then Custom Deck.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Face – enter the URL of your card fronts template
    • Unique Backs – check only if each card has a different back
    • Back – enter the URL of your single card back OR the unique card backs  template
    • Width – 10
    • Height – 7
    • Number – number of cards in the deck
    • Sideways – check only if your cards are meant to be used sideways
    • Back is Hidden – check
  • Click Import.

 

 

To add a custom component, follow these instructions.

  • In this order, click Objects, Components, then Custom.
  • Click Tile for flat pieces or Figurine for stand-up pieces.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Type – Box for square, Hex for hexagon, Circle for circle, Rounded for rounded square
    • Top Image – enter URL
    • Bottom Image – enter URL
    • Thickness – 0.20
    • Stackable – (your choice)
    • Stretch to Aspect Ratio – (checked)
  • Click Import.

 

 

At this point, you can hover over any individual piece and press the plus or minus key to increase or decrease its size. You can also highlight any pieces you wish to copy and use CTRL+C and CTRL+V to make copies.

 

Well, let’s not go overboard with copy-paste…

 

Step Four: Release the Workshop Item

Once you’re done, click Upload > Workshop Upload. Fill out all the information, and click Upload. It will upload it to Steam and then give you a Workshop ID. Any time you want to update your workshop item, pull up this same window and click the Update Workshop tab. Then type in the Workshop ID, fill out the information, and click Update.

 

 

Step Five: Get Noticed

If you plan on using Tabletop Simulator for anything other than rapid prototyping, it’s not enough to simply create a Tabletop Simulator demo. After you create the demo, you’ll need to go looking for people who will want to play your game. This can be tricky because not everybody has Tabletop Simulator and oftentimes people are not willing to spend the $19.99 to get it. Think about how you spread your message. Consider reaching out to people who like Tabletop Simulator and play-testing new games on Twitter or in Facebook groups.

 

Final Thoughts

There you have it! This is a quick and dirty guide on getting started in Tabletop Simulator. Once you understand the basics, you can learn more of the nuanced aspects of creating a demo. I’m just here to help you get started 🙂

The Last Dev Diary & What Comes Next

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Today marks the conclusion of Dev Diary: Lessons Learned through the Making of Highways & Byways. This is the last Dev Diary. Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game is still going to continue. I’ll be doing a post every Monday instead of every Monday and Friday.

 

 

Considering the insights I have gained with the unsuccessful conclusion of Highways & Byways, I will be creating a brief series on Failure Recovery which will be worked into Start to Finish. This is a really important part of getting started in the board game industry which I had not considered writing about until now. Failed product launches happen from time to time, especially with newcomers. Keep an eye out for the Failure Recovery series around the middle of May 2018.

You may be asking: why stop the Dev Diary now? There are two really compelling reasons:

  1. The Dev Diary series was created to detail to development process of Highways & Byways from start to finish. With Highways & Byways having concluded, so too must the series.
  2. This will also help me since I’ll regain a few hours each week for game development.

 

Some of you may be wondering what the conclusion of the Dev Diary and the failure of the Highways & Byways campaign means for me personally. What comes next?

First and foremost: I’m still going to make games and write about making games. I’ll be taking the lessons I’ve learned from Highways & Byways and making games more carefully next time. The big two lessons for me are “start by validating the market” and “don’t work alone.” That means I’m doing a lot of polling and question-asking to see what people are into. I’ve also started working with some people who I’ve grown close to over the last couple of years on new games.

In addition, there is a whole lot of clean up I need to do in order to make sure Pangea Games runs smoothly in the future. For one, I have cut back on unnecessary social media accounts, including the War Co. and Highways & Byways accounts. I’ve streamlined my social media to where only the blog and Pangea Games have social media accounts. On top of that, there are a number of small inefficiencies that I’m resolving.

Most importantly, since I’m no longer working alone, I’m going to start making formal budgets and plans. I’ve always relied on written documentation, even while working alone. However, when working with others, it’s extremely critical to capture timelines and to-do lists in a formal way.

 

Here we stand on the precipice of a brave new world. There is an enormous amount of opportunity ahead for Pangea Games and my future projects. Bringing the Dev Diary series to its conclusion is just one part of that. Thank you for reading this series and enjoy the continuation of Start to Finish 🙂