Writing Boardgame Instruction Manuals, Part 1: Content

Clear instructions can make or break your game. No matter how fun and clever your game is, if players can't figure out how to play it, then they're gonna have trouble enjoying it.

Bear in mind that the first play of a game is often the most important play, and that a poor set of rules can turn that experience into a dull and confusing mess, rather than the exciting discovery that it should be. This means that your instructions need to be awesome.

Over two special posts, I'm going to look at how we can make our boardgame rule-books as clear and concise as possible. This first post will look at some issues regarding the content of your rule-book and the second post will look at the language we use.


When it comes to the content of your rule-book, one of the key tenant is to simplify as much as possible. Even the smartest player can become overwhelmed with new information, so key information needs to be clear and paramount, with specifics and details that are needed less frequently being resigned to an appropriate section, for when they're needed.

With this central rule in mind, lets look at some of the key information we need to immediately convey to the reader.

"Who am I and what am I trying to do?"

This is always the first question I ask when I'm learning a game and I think it's one of the first things a manual should address, particularly if your game is thematic. Essentially, we are telling the player what their role is and what the victory conditions are. Once a player understands the purpose the game, subsequent rules should become far more logical as part of a larger structure, and thus, more memorable.

If your game is not thematic, then the victory conditions should at least be clear.

If the victory conditions are somewhat difficult to define (for example, if they are based upon victory points that can be acquired in a variety of ways), you can still provide some direction. Agricola is an example of this - it's rule-book should state that though there are many ways to victory, players are still trying to develop the most successful farm.

Prolific use of diagrams

A picture says a thousand words, and this is certainly true of board game instructions. Particularly when addressing issues such as setup and card elements, diagrams and illustrations are invaluable. Humans are visual creatures and able to digest far more information when it's presented in a visual form. Similarly, charts and tables are great visual tools for conveying information quickly and concisely.

Netrunner can be incredibly difficult to understand for new players. Fortunately, the rule-book has some excellent diagrams and illustrations.
The Agents makes great use of illustration to show examples of the game in play for two, three and four players.

Carcassone's rule-book is fantastic. Every element is clearly illustrated to make things as easy as possible.

Resign specific rules to the cards themselves

If your game makes use of cards, remind yourself that you have a large chunk of real estate right there. Rules that are not part of the core mechanics and only take effect when a specific card is played could well be resigned to that card (and perhaps a reference section of the rule book, if needed).

Additional complexities resigned to specific cards. Pretty much a no-brainer in a massive game like Netrunner.

Provide prompt cards

Individual player prompt cards are awesome for several reasons.
  1. They make sure players don't miss or forget key points.
  2. They allow the game to flow with greater ease during those first few plays.
  3. They allow new players to remain competitive by not giving away their future moves. I've been in the situation many times where I've hurt my chances of victory by asking for clarification on a rule, effectively letting other players know my nefarious plans.
    Divinaire has a pretty simple scoring system but a horrible page of scoring instructions! It needs a clearer table, prompt card or appendix.

    Outline steps/phases

    On the prompt cards and in an appendix, let your players know the phases of a turn in the clearest fashion possible. Flow charts and other diagrams are a great help here.

    Smash Up's manual features a step by step guide through a turn.

    Again, Netrunner provides visual aids. This time in the form of a flowchart outlining a key game mechanic.

    Reset the product

    If your game comes with, for instance, multiple card decks, or player specific components, make it clear how to group these components and cards back together in case of catastrophic mix-up. It's as simple as, if there is a "Chance" deck and a "Community Chest" deck that must be kept separate, say so, and explain how cards from each deck can be individually identified. It's as easy as saying, "The chance cards have 'Chance' written on the back." Don't just assume we can figure it out.

    This article continues in Part 2.

    Have I missed anything? Am I totally wrong? Let me know by leaving a comment. Lastly, if you are a designer or publisher and are concerned about the quality of your rule-book, you can contact me using the about page and I may be able to help -- I am a professional language instructor, after all.