How To Design the Rules of Your Board Game

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the fifth of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

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This suite is based on the Five Levels of Communication through Game Development, my own personal board game development philosophy. However, I’ve brought in Sean Fallon, the mastermind behind Rift Shifters and Paths so that you can get two viewpoints instead of just one.

Click this picture for some backstory!

Rules provide directions on how to execute activities within a game. They explain, limit, and clarify. Game rules are how we regulate the mechanics of our games so that they are consistent with the messages we want to send to players. Sean and I will explain further. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our direct messages on Discord.

This guide comes in three parts:

  1. Who is Sean Fallon?
  2. What is a rule?
  3. How do you make rules?

Who is Sean Fallon?

Brandon: Thank you very much for agreeing to work with me on this!

Sean: You’re welcome 🙂

Brandon: Tell me a little about yourself and your projects.

Sean: My name is Sean Fallon. I run a small independent tabletop games publishing company called Smunchy Games. I’m married and have four children, all of which are fantastic gamers themselves, ha! I really have a strong passion for both games and story as well as the experience that is provided to the gamer and reader. I’m working on a few different games right now that fall into three different worlds.

  1. Paths: World of Adia, a fantasy themed tabletop RPG.
  2. Paths: Temple of Ukro’Kaah, a fantasy themed dungeon crawling board game.
  3. Rift Shifters, a science fiction themed miniatures war game.
  4. Rift Shifters: Saint Albany 5, a science fiction themed micro card game.
  5. Town of Adams, a post-apocalyptic themed worker placement game.

Brandon: That’s a lot of projects!

Brandon: As I understand, this all falls under what you call transmedia publication. Can you speak a little about that?

Sean: It definitely is a lot of projects! There are quite a few of us working on these games too. Roughly 12 of us have invested a lot of time into creating these awesome games…specifically the worlds, game design, and artwork.

Sean: Transmedia publication is the model of publishing multiple different products of the same entity. For example: publishing a book, a tabletop game, a video game, and a movie. Transmedia publication, I feel, is extremely important when it comes to publishing any creative brand.

Sean: It’s very important to understand your goal and make sure it’s attainable. Typically with large goals in the creative world, transmedia publication will help you reach and accomplish those large goals. Many people dream of becoming as large as companies likes Blizzard Entertainment or Wizards of the Coast. Both of those companies used a transmedia publication business model and with patience and time have achieved greatness by becoming legends in the gaming world.

Sean: This is the same model we’re taking when it comes to our creative worlds and game titles. Though we are a tabletop games company, we are already starting to work on novels and novellas for each of these worlds. This will help us take that first initial step toward transmedia publication.

Sean: On top of that, we’re also creating two different types of games in the same world of Adia – Paths: World of Adia and Paths: Temple of Ukro’Kaah. We will be able to leverage any other world by doing the same. Rift Shifters is another example as we already have a wargame in development, as well as the micro card game. This is a very powerful model as long as you have patience, persistence, and endurance to see it through.

Brandon: In effect, you’re merging brand and in-game universes over a very long time frame, building both a customer base and rich, lived-in worlds ripe for exploration.

Brandon: With this in mind, let’s talk about Paths: World of Adia in a little more depth. Since it is an RPG, it’s very rules-heavy by design, correct?

Sean: That’s correct. Being an RPG, it is purely based on paper and pencil, a rulebook, and your imagination. Typically, unlike other tabletop games, specifically board games, RPGs will have these massively thick books that drive not only the gameplay, but provide the building blocks for others to create their own stories using the world and system provided.

Brandon: This means that your rules have to be easy to remember, easy to enforce, and perfectly worded for clarity when needed for reference. That goes for board games, too, but it’s extra critical in RPGs.

Sean: This is very true. Luckily for me I have a few of the other game designers on the team that will help structure those rules for clarity. Making rules clear to players is definitely critical in order to reach success with any game.

Brandon: So that begs the question…

What is a rule?

Brandon: What exactly is a rule?

Sean: In simplistic terms, a rule is something that is detailed, explicit, and understood within the activity that is happening. In this situation, the activity is a game. I believe writing a rule is very much an art form. Accurately getting the instruction across to the player, and having the player able to flawlessly execute on that rule is creative precision at its finest.

Sean: However, there is more to rules than just the written word. Though the written word seals the deal on what activity must be executed, there is also a visual aid that may be provided, and more often times than not, it’s ideal to have. This visual aid ultimately enhances the written rule and gives further clarification making a good rule, a great rule.

Brandon: In short, you define a rule as directions on how to execute an activity within a game. Rules can be written and are often complemented by visual aids.

Here is an example from Highways & Byways

If you travel the way shown in the middle image, you can remove the Travel Marker for the Catskills. If you travel the way shown on the right, you can’t because you didn’t travel the whole road in one go.

Brandon: To provide another perspective, I define rules as follows:

Brandon: The basic idea behind a game is the core engine. Mechanics are how you bring the basic ideas to life. Rules are specific directions on how you regulate mechanics. As an example, my own game – Highways & Byways – is about travel. This manifests itself as point-to-point movement on a highway map of the United States.

Brandon: Some of the rules that regulate the point-to-point movement are “you may move up to six (6) spaces per turn. You don’t have to move all six every turn, or even at all if you choose not to. You can move to any dot connected to the previous one.”

Brandon: Can you provide an example of what a rule looks like in your RPG?

Sean: Sure! Role-playing games can be similar in the sense that you measure spaces, but you need to sometimes add real life measurement systems into it. This helps define the action for the player. Here is a great example of something in Paths: World of Adia RPG.

Sean: “For every 1 square or hex on a map, that square or hex is equal to 10 feet by default, unless said otherwise by a CYOA campaign or Game Master. If you decide to take two move actions, that is 20 feet which equals 2 squares or hexes.”

Sean: This in itself is actually a very complex rule to understand as not only are we having to define the position on a map for a player, but also pin that position to a real life equivalent. In this scenario, it’s a 1 for 1 trade (“1 square or hex on a map will equal 10 feet by default”). However, there is an “else” statement in there defining an alternate path, “unless said otherwise by a CYOA (choose your own adventure) campaign or Game Master”. This lets the player know that the rule could change and be arbitrary in specific situations.

Brandon: And certainly measuring distance relates to a whole lot of different functions within Paths: World of Adia. That makes clarity really important.

Brandon: There are lots of different kinds of rules you can put into games, so it helps me to categorize them a little bit. I tend to think of rules as coming in three broad categories: rules that explain, rules that limit, and rules that clarify. Do you have any additions to that?

Sean: Coming from the perspective of an RPG, this rule could fall under all three categories you’ve listed above, so this may be more so a sub-category, but specifically rules that allow creative freedom. That is the very rule that all RPGs are built on. The creative freedoms that allow you to build a world, a home-brew game, or even your own rules and systems spun off from an origin system. That specific rule type then has its own sub-rule set that effect the initial sub-rule. This is probably why at times many feel RPGs can be very complicated, when in reality, there are just seldom explained well.

Sean: Rules recursion is a fascinating concept. I feel it adds a lot of the magic we hear and see when experiencing an RPG.

Brandon: Right, and rules sometimes don’t fall neatly into one category. Sometimes some rules become irrelevant and other rules become relevant.

How do you make game rules?


Brandon: When you see the need for a rule in a game, how do you come up with one?

Sean: Great question. That intuition really comes from understanding not only the feedback you’ve received from testing your game, but also from understanding the story you’re trying to tell. By story, I don’t mean just the lore behind your game or your character’s personality, I specifically mean why the game exists in the first place.

Sean: When creating your pitch to sell a game, your rules are weaved straight into it, which makes your rules ten times more important than originally thought. This comes back to thinking about your game, and why your game exists.

Sean: Here’s an example: “you’re a space pirate captain guiding your crew through space, and your personal mission is to board, loot, and pillage each space ship you come into contact with. Regardless of difficulty, it is your job as the captain of the Roger’s Skull to show your crew how great of a captain you are!”

Sean: In the above example, you’re a space pirate captain commanding your crew. Let’s say you run into a snag in the rules on how to board another space ship. You must then take that snag and break it down based on the action you’re trying to execute. This comes back to the initial thought of what the game is about, your sales pitch, and how this action would be executed.

Sean: Writing down multiple ways to execute a rule, and then testing each one in detailed theory can guarantee success. However, you must be careful when focusing on the details of a specific rule as you will often need to pull back and view the game as a whole to make sure all rules are working cohesively together to meet your vision for the game and provide fun, value, and a great game experience to the player.

Brandon: You can word a rule perfectly and wind up tossing it if it doesn’t fit your message overall. For example, if you’re the captain of Roger’s Skull, you don’t need to have rules that let you change the layout of the galaxy. That’s the external environment. That should limit you. That should be something you operate within. Now how you’re actually limited by your environment can come across in a few ways…

Brandon: “Each turn, you have 3 action points. It costs 1 action point to move 1 lightyear. A hex is 1 lightyear.” – that explains the action point system, limits movement, and clarifies that 1 lightyear = 1 hex

Brandon: “You can only move to connected galaxies, as represented by [insert symbol].” – limits

Brandon: And that’s off the top of my head. This is game dev improv class.

Brandon: “It costs 2 action points to pillage a ship on an adjacent space. Roll the red die to see how much loot you take.”

Brandon: Having too much fun with this.

Sean: I love that! Exactly, and maybe we could use specific symbols on the dice that display the type of loot you receive. Or possibly have the type of loot known and offer an alternative option to take, a different path to victory. Maybe you’re collecting red bands from the RedBand boys, and you have a special bounty card that asks you to collect 25 redbands, granting you “X” number of points by the end of the game.

Brandon: Maybe you have to collect a certain type of loot and return it to a pawn shop hex to get VP. As you continue to develop, you might find yourself tweaking the action point system in our example. Let’s say 3 is too limiting for number of actions per turn. You can bump it up to 4, or alternatively, reduce the cost of expensive actions.

Brandon: This is pretty much how rule writing works. Coming up with limitations to impose and ideas to test.

Brandon: Now testing…that’s a whole other story! Let’s save that for next week 🙂

Coming up with rules is an iterative process like other stages of game development. Over time it slowly evolves into a very meticulous process. That’s what we’ll talk about in next week’s article.

Testing your rules can be very hard, but don’t worry – both Sean and I will talk about this in more detail soon. Until then, please leave your questions and comments below 🙂

2 thoughts on “How To Design the Rules of Your Board Game

  1. Wow this has been some really helpful information and I just started creating my own boardgame and I’m definitely going to need help….

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