Why Do We Need Clear and Concise Rules in Tabletop Skirmish Games?
Tabletop skirmish games offer us a unique blend of strategy, camaraderie, and immersive storytelling. Central to the success of any tabletop skirmish game is the clarity and conciseness of its rules. In this blog post, we'll discuss why it's important to craft rules that are easy to understand and enhance the overall gaming experience.
Why Do We Need Clear and Concise Rules?
Clear and concise rules help make a tabletop skirmish game fun and enjoyable to learn. A well-written and formatted rulebook offers many benefits to players, but four stand out the most. Let's explore those now.
1. Facilitating Learning and Accessibility
The journey into a tabletop skirmish game should be welcoming for both new and experienced players. Clear and concise rules play a pivotal role in facilitating the learning process. By avoiding ambiguity, jargon, and convoluted explanations, we can create an approachable game for players of all skill levels.
Clear and concise doesn't have to mean simple. As game creators, we can put together a complex system but explain it in plain language that flows in a logical progression. I like to use step-by-step instructions to explain some of the rules. In Population Z, I created nine steps to follow to create a Survivor Character. If players follow the steps in order, they can easily create a new Survivor without ever reading the book. All the tables they need to refer to are placed on the following pages of the book, so there is no need to flip back and forth or go to another resource to get the information they need.
Make it obvious and easy for players to find information, and if you do have to refer to a different section at any time, add a page number and section title. Try your best to avoid 'wordy' rules, and invest time and money in editing and play-testing to ensure a new player can understand and implement what you have written. It's a good idea to give the rules to someone who has never played a tabletop skirmish game before. If it makes sense to them, you're on the right track!
2. Enhancing Gameplay Flow
Imagine a game where every move, every decision, flows seamlessly from one to the next. The gameplay loop (discussed in previous blog posts) would be smooth and continuous, going unnoticed by the players. I'm sure you can think of a game like that and many that are the opposite!
Well-structured and clear rules contribute significantly to our gameplay experience. They reduce misunderstandings, disputes, and potential disruptions, allowing players to focus on the strategic aspects of the game rather than grappling with confusing mechanics. Organising rules effectively, providing examples, and using diagrams contribute to a smoother gameplay flow.
I love it when rulebooks include diagrams that complement the text and show clear, unambiguous examples of what the text is explaining. Often, a diagram will serve to better explain a movement or interaction while breaking up the text and making the layout more appealing to the reader. Contrast this with a page of text. It's boring to read, a lot to process, and if, for example, you have to read an A4 page to figure out if something is in your character's line of sight, that might be too much.
3. Minimising Rule Lookup and Downtime
Nothing interrupts the immersive experience of a tabletop skirmish game more than frequent rule lookups and extended downtime. Going in and out of the rulebook is my pet hate when it comes to gaming. You get your table set up, your characters are ready to go, and battle commences. Before you get through your first activation, your opponent questions a rule and gameplay is immediately paused as you have to go to a rulebook. Now, if the rulebook is organised well, this isn't quite as bad, but if it's not well laid out, it's frustrating, to say the least.
Clear and concise rules mitigate this issue by minimising the need for players to consult the rulebook continually. Techniques for condensing rules without sacrificing crucial information, coupled with easily searchable references or quick-start guides, ensure that players spend more time in the heat of battle and less time buried in rulebooks. A good solid reference sheet with the most common information on one page helps gameplay immensely. Bolt Action is an excellent example of a game with a very good reference sheet that is helpful for new and seasoned players.
Blood Bowl is an excellent example of a game with too many rules that are difficult to find, aren't intuitive, and don't get used enough to remember. Even with an index, I found myself going to one-page number only to be told to go to another page immediately. At least they included the page numbers to go to, but by the time I negotiated the index, found the first page and section, second page and section, identified the answer, and then discussed the answer so both my opponent and I understood and agreed, the immersion of the game was completely lost. Of course, this gets easier with time and frequency of play, but if this can be avoided from the get-go, it makes for a much more enjoyable game.
4. Longevity and Community Building
If we want players to play our games frequently and enjoy the experience, we have to make sure the process of learning is fun and enjoyable, too. I've read through a few pages of wordy rulebooks and have not wanted to attempt to learn the game. Anytime I get a new rulebook, I look through the contents section, look for an index and reference sheet, and after an initial flick through, head to the line of sight and cover rules. If the line-of-sight rules are clear and concise and have diagrams that clearly show the rules in action, I'll likely enjoy learning the game.
I have to use Kill Team as an example of a game that doesn't get this right. When the new edition was released, I was excited for it. The models were fantastic, the terrain brilliant, and the lore spot on; I couldn't wait. After learning the rules, particularly the line of sight rules, I was disappointed. The shape system didn't help, as it was unintuitive. The line of sight, obscuring, and cover rules were ambiguous. The terrain rules added to the ambiguity. It took a long time to clarify the rules and solidify them in my mind. I was not alone in this, as after making several videos and reading updates and errata from Games Workshop, I was left unmotivated to carry on.
Imagine if an independent game creator designed a game with similar shapes and line-of-sight rules. Would players continue to support and play it? I don't think they would.
Why Do We Need Clear and Concise Rules?
With so many tabletop skirmish games available, we are in a fantastic position to sample rulebooks and find both good and bad examples of clear and concise rules. If you are creating a tabletop skirmish game, consider spending time reading as much as you can. Look at different layouts and ask yourself why some 'feel' better to read while others quickly become hard work. Take notes and then implement those findings in your work.
Now that we've examined why we need clear and concise rules, we need to look at how to craft them. In the next blog post (find it here), we'll discuss some methods you can use to ensure that your rules are clear and concise.
I hope you've found this blog post helpful. I'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions on the subject, so please join the conversation in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!
Look out for my new game, Population Z: Welcome to Huntsville, launching in January 2024.