Is Rulebook Development More Painful than Reading a Rulebook?

Updated: May 13, 2020

Hate rulebooks? So do we, and yes it is much more painful to develop a rulebook than to read one! They are, however, an unfortunate and necessary evil. We want to share some tactics we used for creating our rulebook to open up a conversation of best practices that work for other game designers and provide our list of the top 10 recommendations to have a successful game night when preparing to play Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle.

Before we were game designers

Prior to game design, I can't tell you how many questions and discussions came out of rulebooks while my friends and I worked to try and understand a new game. In some cases, we've even had friends fall asleep! Maybe it's my monotonous voice or all of us trying to grasp the rules while reading and asking different questions. And that doesn't even consider that different people learn, retain information, and interpret rules differently. Regardless, rulebooks have always been a pain! The absolute worst case for our overly competitive group is to play 60-90 min only to uncover or understand a rule that would have changed how we all would have played. When rulebooks don't quite work in tandem with the instructions on the game components or we feel like there are rules missing, we open up YouTube to hunt down How to Play videos in hopes of finding the magical 10 seconds we are looking for in 30-60 min videos. Why isn't there an easier process?!

While I'd like to classify our gaming group of friends as avid board gamer, I have come to realize we are not. Over the last 2 years, as new game designers, we have met many people who play 2-3 games a day while we only may play 3-4 in a weekend. So historically, the cost for us to burn time on a game as part of the "learning experience" may be higher than others who really are avid gamers.

Developing our rulebook

As we designed the rulebook for our debut game, Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle, we knew that our gameplay time would need to ramp up significantly as a result of an ambitious goal to hit 300 playtests. We had this ambitious goal because we have 30 different room tile types with different configurations that truly change the movement paths available throughout our game, a single usage of character abilities, randomized movement of Holmes across a modular board, 22 different types of event cards, Automa, Standard Multiplayer, and Play as Holmes gameplay modes, and an extended version of multiplayer - all of which vary between 1-7 players. Understanding that not every game is designed for every person, we would need to create a consistent experience for people playing our game and gained a major appreciation for how rulebooks are developed. It’s much better if people enjoy your game because they are playing it correctly!

I'm not sure we followed a process used by other game designers, but we chose to iteratively update the rulebook and have done so since late 2018 with some of the earlier prototypes. Rulebook additions, clarifications, and changes peaked up during the summer of 2019 before we decided to completely change the game based on other game designer feedback. We can promise that as hard and long as it takes to read through a rulebook, nothing is more painful than having to analyze the last 8 months’ worth of work (and playtest notes) to determine how to maximize the mechanics that worked well and mitigate or eliminate the mechanics and outcomes that caused issues and were not fun or engaging for players. Nevertheless, we persevered and ended with a game that we are extremely happy with and hope others enjoy the game when it is released this fall.

Here's a list of what we learned during the development of our rulebook:

1. Iterative reviews and updating the rulebook every 1-2 months will help speed up final rulebook edits.

2. Provide rulebooks to players to "blind test" the rulebook to determine where players are getting stuck in game setup or gameplay. Pairing people who didn't play the game (and were reading the rules for the first time) with people who have played the game to facilitate discussion on suggested verbiage and instruction changes.

3. Identify areas where players were interested in looking up a rule vs. where players wanted easy to remember language on components to avoid looking up a rule.

4. Prioritize the sequence of the rulebook's instructions based on anticipated usage.

5. Review rulebook updates in separate passes! This is definitely time consuming but will really help to hone in and catch more needed edits by limiting your focus of each pass. For example, we reviewed the rulebook from a grammatical standpoint, accuracy of rules, accurate illustrations, sequence of rules, formatting of component names and references, consistency of component names and references, replacement word options for pronouns, etc.

Since our Kickstarter launch in January, we have worked to finalize a 1 vs. all (semi-cooperative) mechanic so players can choose to play as Holmes. Play as Holmes is available in The 2nd Story Expansion with 4-7 players. Additionally, an Automa (solo) mode was added which coincidentally helped solve some areas we were stuck with in finalizing the Play as Holmes mode. We have been finalizing the rulebook content, language, images, and consistency rules and are in our final 1-2 week home stretch.

As a result, we want to share our top 10 recommendations to help guide your game night for a successful playthrough of Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle!

1. We will have a QR Code on the back of our rulebook that will link you directly to our Official How-To-Play Video. While we aren't releasing who it is just yet, it is someone extremely credible in the industry with a huge following, and does a really great job of explaining the rules with high production video and sound quality.

2. Try to play the Standard Multiplayer game first, then Automa, and then Play as Holmes if all 3 game modes appeal to you. This will mean you only need to read 8 pages of rules to get the game going instead of the entire rulebook. Otherwise, Automa, Standard Multiplayer, and then Play as Holmes would be the next preferred order.

3. During setup, make sure to always include 1 piece of evidence in each of the Basement room tiles (#1, #2, and #3). This is the same setup for all game modes.

4. For those familiar, the gameplay of the action tiles follows the same mechanic as San Juan and Puerto Rico.

  • A person selecting an action tile receives a selection bonus in addition to the action selected and then everyone else will also receive that action.

  • Once completed, the next person in clockwise order will select an action, receive their selection bonus, and so on.

  • The only exception to this rule is the Move Holmes action tile. This action and selection bonus is for the selecting player only.

5. Player abilities can be used only once per game. We have observed many players choosing to save this ability by passing up a chance to use it and then never end up using their ability. It is a choice you'll need to make in the game. As in all games, try to maximize any opportunity you can! This is a race to be the first to collect evidence and move back to the Pharmacy to win the game! An early move can have downstream consequences for other players.

6. Gameplay defaults to the Explore the Castle side of the action tile. The new Explore the Room action is on the reverse side and moves evidence from the Ferris wheel to rooms. The Explore the Room side of the action tile is only revealed if there is nowhere left to build.

7. Not counting any event cards, Holmes can move up to twice per round.

  • If a Move Holmes action tile is selected during the round.

  • At the end of each round, a Holmes Movement Card is drawn.

  • Note: There are 2 types of event cards that can also Move Holmes.

8. A player can drop any type of evidence of their choosing after receiving a Holmes Strikes! cube.

9. Holmes can use Hidden Bookcase Pathways in The 2nd Story in Automa and Play as Holmes modes.

10. The rulebook has many clarifications and "what if" scenarios, but the room tiles (special room effects), event cards, and Holmes Movement Cards are the "heart" of the game and most of the game can be played by just reading the language on those components. Most of our recurring playtesters did not have to consult the rulebook after the 2nd or 3rd playthrough, once they became familiar with the actions.

We’d love to hear from you!

  • Which popular board games do you feel should have revised rulebooks?

  • If you are a game designer, how does your team develop rulebooks?

  • Who do you follow for board game How-to-Play videos?

  • Do you like to read a rulebook or watch a video or both? Do you ever feel like a video might not cover all of the rules?

For those interested, pre-orders are still available by clicking the late pledge / pre-order button on Kickstarter or here.