Like many core game components, if a rulebook is done well, it can elevate the play experience, and if done poorly, it can grind the game to a screeching halt. Good rulebooks can resemble works of art that have just the right combination of text, images and diagrams which make it easy for you to quickly locate the information you need and not get bogged down in that which you don’t. Bad rulebooks often look like dense seas of text with little to no design hierarchy or diagrams making it necessary for you to read more than necessary to find the information you’re looking for.
My general layout M.O. (modus operandi) is keep it simple, keep it legible, and don’t make me read more than I have to. There are some very useful techniques that can really help us attain these goals. Here are a few things that I do when creating an accessible rulebook that flows well.
Judge a Book by its Cover
While some designers like to jump right into the rules by jamming the cover page with introductory text and instructions, I much prefer to treat the experience like any ‘book’ experience which means a nice thematic cover that leads the gamer down the garden path into our game’s world. Of course, there are always exceptions to this, for instance if adding the cover page would bring the book from 8 pages to 12 (since a booklet’s number of pages are multiples of 4) and we’d be stuck looking for content to fill the extra pages.
To the Margins and Back
When text is laid out in short columns, it’s easier to read. We’ve all been there, you’re trying to juggle setting up a game or navigating your way through a complex scenario, and you keep losing your place while struggling to read a 10” long line in a sea of text. By laying your text out in multiple, narrower columns, you make it easier to read overall. Additionally, by laying out your text in columns, you are able to utilize the available real estate more efficiently which reduces whitespace and also adds flexibility for flowing around objects.
Air it Out
“Whitespace” is not a four letter word (10, actually), but seriously, adding the right amount of whitespace can increase the legibility by spreading things out a bit and making the document less dense. The trick is to know when to say ‘when’. Adding too much can unnecessarily bump up our page count or make it difficult to follow, too little and we run the risk of making it impossible for the reader to easily navigate through the dense document.
A Picture (or table, or list, or diagram) is worth 1000 words
If I can say something in a table, list, or diagram, I generally choose to do just that. The majority of the reader’s interactions with the rulebook will be quick fact checking or rule confirmations while in the heat of play, and not cover to cover reads with a nice glass of brandy while sitting by the fire. Because of this, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to find what they’re looking for, and fast! When reading rules, our eyes gravitate to lists, diagrams and tables, they give us lots of information in a bite-sized, easy to navigate format, so whenever I get the chance, this is my preferred method.
Have a Plan
Jumping in to the design of a rulebook with both feet can get you into a little bit of hot water. You end up having to make sweeping changes to make up for poor planning. Do yourself the favour of taking the time to define things like column layout, character and paragraph styles (and their hierarchy), image, figure and table treatments and page numbering. These elements form the backbone of your document and should you need to modify any (or all) of them, the integrity of your document will remain intact.
In the end, your common sense will win out. When in doubt, take a step back and try to view it through the eyes of the end user. The goal is to make an easy to read, easy to follow document that facilitates you having a great game!