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Quick Thoughts on Previewing Rulebooks

Size matters. Lets face it, we all know about the wildly varying lengths rulebooks that accompany this hobby. However, what we don’t always talk about is how well rulebooks use their girth. Seriously. Today I’m putting down some quick thoughts on previewing rulebooks. Specifically, we’ll be looking at three different rulebooks and what I’ve learned from each.

This isn’t a judgment on the quality of a rulebook. It also doesn’t suggest that rulebooks should only be laid out a certain way. In fact, if anything, this article will reinforce that form follows function. A longer article about rulebooks and effectively creating rulebooks is coming soon. It’s a piece I wrote about a year ago, but never got a chance to finish up. It will see the light of day though!

Rulebook Case #1: Rachel Simmons’ Guns of Gettysburg

Guns of Gettysburg Cover

I wish I had something charitable to say about this rulebook. There’s no way to do that though. This is the prime example of a rulebook where an economy of words was favored over an effort to convey rules to the reader. Rachel is clearly a fantastic writer. Her precise and concise use of words throughout the rules are exemplary. Unfortunately, you don’t score points in this article for minimizing the rulebook experience. You win points by publishing a rulebook that can be used to … you know … learn the rules of the game.

Let’s take a quick look at a few examples from Guns of Gettysburg.

Guns of Gettysburg provides an interesting take on the uncertainty of the reinforcement locations and their time of arrival. It’s a much needed perspective on the well-worn fields, woods, and hills of Gettysburg. It may be one of a handful of games that have actually tried to have a unique opinion about the battle. That naturally grabbed my attention as I was seeking yet another Gettysburg game…

Unfortunately, the rulebook is perhaps too dense to grok for first-timers and that ultimately leads to a frustrating experience out of the box. Here’s a great example:

Not only do these three sentences encapsulate the rules about a block’s field of fire, but they also gloss off the nuance of those areas which also have their own ruleset as do the rules for what constitutes and doesn’t constitute extended front areas. In effect, this rule is as simply put as possible, and in isolation, makes perfect sense. The problem arises when you attempt to play the rules as written. They are hard to search back through to make all the connections. The rules are also so interconnected, and unrepeated, that you quickly forget. In short, they’re condensed to the point of incredible difficulty as a learner.

Here’s another gem from the rules that has me both tongue-tied and brain-tied:

Guns of Gettysburg - Multiple blocks in a position

The construction of the rules here, while grammatically correct, are a mess from a learner’s standpoint. The terminology, exception cases, and multiple separate rules instances overlap. It’s a ragout of poor choices. In effect, you have rules for how a block can enter a position held by an enemy block. The nomenclature of areas, endpoints, and positions creates some confusion here as well. The reality is that this is the kind of rule that makes you go back over and over again to hunt for how to handle each situation. That’s a poor learning and play experience.

Examples like this litter the Guns of Gettysburg rulebook. While the game might be excellent – the time to learn it far exceeds what it should!

Rulebook Case #2 – Lock ‘n Load Tactical Rules 5.x

Here’s an example of a group going perhaps too far in the other direction. The rulebook is a spiral-bound affair that covers nearly 300 pages. This puts to shame nearly all other wargame rulebooks by page count. Don’t worry though…there’s a good reason why! The publisher is quite clear that the rules are written in a larger typeface, are two column instead of three column, and includes many examples of play. Those are all to the benefit of the series. The rulebook, after all, must cover conflicts from the 1930s through the 2000s. That’s a tall order for any core ruleset, let alone at the tactical level!

The funny thing is, the book DOES actually teach the game well. The problem is that you get so bogged down in rules, designer notes, examples, and maybe too much repeating of concepts that it feels like you’re reading sections multiple times. I would much rather this approach over Rachel Simmons’ approach though any day of the week. The nice thing is that I can find a rule and know that basically everything I need to “remember” about it is close by or adequately referenced.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. The first is that a huge chunk of this rulebook is made up of a long-form narrative gameplay example. I’m not talking about a 10-15 page narrative, but more like a 30’ish page example with lots of full color illustrated examples for you to follow along like this one.

LnL Example in Rulebook

However, when you’re just talking about the rules…things get a little more dilluted:

Here you can see the rule, the counter, an example, a designer note and color coding to see what’s different from the 4.0 ruleset. In all, it’s easy to read and in generously sized typeface. The problem, of course, is that assault movement is now referenced moving forward every time it comes up again. This is great from the perspective of someone who is playing the game and grokking a specific part of the rules. From a learner’s perspective, it’s even more text to slog through. Repetition is great, until it’s not. This is a situation like the supreme court’s obscenity test of “I’ll know it when I see it.”

That’s just it … so much of learning is personal! We’ll get to that point after one more rulebook example.

Rulebook Case #3 – Normandy ’44 & the Happy Medium

Mark Simonitch is no late-comer to wargaming. His rulebooks demonstrate that with every page. While many consider the work of Kai and Chad Jensen on the Combat Commander rulebook(s) to be some of the finest in the hobby, I would contend that Simonitch’s rulebooks are fantastic as well.

We’ve explored the technically stunning, but ultimately too concise work of Rachel Simmons. Lock ‘N Load went the other route with an eminently readable and grokkable rulebook for Lock ‘N Load Tactical. That one clocked in at nearly 300 pages. Simonitch is a different creature who balances the need for brevity on the razor’s edge with fully explaining novel concepts.

Let’s look at the way Zones of Control are handled by Simonitch:

We get the general rule and then bullet points that demonstrate the main exceptions along with images and a clarification statement. The reader immediately builds understanding of what units carry ZOC and which do not with minimal text and graphical clarity.

Simonitch rulebooks also, smartly, provides some of the best examples of play. Take this one on retreats for example:

We get a familiar multi-faceted example. What’s better here than in most rulebooks though is that while the example is short enough to explain in a column footer – it’s realistic to what will arise in the game. I’ve seen, too frequently, examples that are so over-simplified that they bear little use as a tool for learning how the game’s rules will interact.

Finally, a longer example that shows these two concepts used in unison:

Here we get to see a refresher for ZOC alongside a meaningful example of play along with well selected primary rules language for the Cherbourg Perimeter. Chrome is handled beautifully in the Normandy ’44 rulebook by following this example across the 20’ish pages.

It’s not all roses and unicorns though. Simonitch’s rulebooks make one grave mistake – They assume A LOT about a player’s familiarity with the hobby. Many times there is simply shorthand for rules that otherwise will be foreign to new players. As such, it too cannot grab the designation of the “best rulebooks ever written.” I’m not entirely sure such a creature exists.

Previewing Rulebooks

Let’s get back to how rulebook size shouldn’t be taken into consideration when previewing rulebooks now that we’ve seen some examples. We have three very different approaches from three different designers and three different publishers. No one “perfect” way of writing a rulebook exists for much the same reason that there’s no one “perfect” way of teaching and learning.

In effect, rulebooks will always suffer from the learner’s deficiencies for both language processing, capacity to remember, and pre-existing familiarity (scaffolding) with the subject matter being presented. So, the rulebook length isn’t in and of itself a marker of a complicated rulebook or an efficient one. The truth is that some epic rulebooks, like in the case of Lock ‘n Load Tactical do a wonderful job of presenting complex game rules to players in a conversational tone. Rachel Simmons proves with her writing that she is perhaps the most talented grammarian alive in the wargaming world. She is not, however, a particularly adept rulebook writer. You CAN learn Guns of Gettysburg from her rulebook, but you’ll be struggling along the way to ensure you’ve captured the nuance of how all those lines, dots, and areas affect the frontage and movement of your units.

We’ve even learned that as great as Simonitch is at presenting rules for his ‘4x “series” – it’s not perfect. It assumes a lot about the prior experience of the reader. As such, it too could fail miserably for some while being the standout that I’ve presented herein.

Length is a function of the ability for the rules to teach the player how to play the game. If it takes 5 pages or 500, it’s a bit immaterial. What’s more important, of course, is that you don’t fall asleep reading them and after a long day at the office … I wish more rulebooks could keep my attention longer than the 10 minutes between cracking one open and me falling asleep!

What are some of your favorite rulebooks and why?

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