How to write or design game rules

Infographic of rules for the Funny Feeling Party Game

When you buy a game and open the box, it's exciting to flick through all the cards and admire the board and playing pieces. If you're like me, you will appreciate the details in the artwork and just soak up the whole ambience that any board game, card game or party game has.

When you get to the rules, you may find that your enthusiasm takes a dip.

Players want to play the game right out of the box and find it frustrating having to wade through rules which are surprisingly often badly written and unclear. If you're multilingual and are playing a game in another language, it's even more likely that the rules will have been badly translated and while they may be hysterical, normally not in the way the game designer intended.

Above is one example of rules for the Funny Feeling Party Game - a hilarious game where you have to guess which feeling a player is acting, saying or even singing. One of the things that we spent a lot of time on was how to write the rules so they:

  • Are easy to understand and can't be misinterpreted
  • Are written in a casual, fun fashion
  • Are as short as possible
  • Make a positive first impression, creating an 'ooh!' feeling, rather than an 'aaagh!' feeling

When you first start designing a game having written rules isn't important, early prototypes are often bits of paper and hand-drawn designs on cardboard and if you're play-testing it, most likely it's with yourself pretending to be multiple players or with one or two close friends or family members. Verbal instructions or rough notes are all that's necessary at this stage.

If you've created a game you feel has potential, then you will want to move onto a more professional looking game design. This is the point where it's a good idea to write the rules down. When you're play-testing it, particularly if all your play-testers are new, instead of telling them the rules, start by giving them a printed version of them and ask them to pretend you're not there while they figure out how to play the game.

This means you start to get feedback early on about how to refine the rules, so you can ensure they're clear. Personally I normally only give out one or two copies of the rules, as in a natural setting some people will be 'rule readers' while others will always prefer to have someone else explain how to play the game to them.

Make a note of anything players say and consider suggestions seriously. Even if you think a suggestion is terrible during a play-test, thank the play-tester for it and make a note of it, as this encourages everyone else to make suggestions too and you never know, when looking through your notes afterwards, you may find some gem of wisdom, even if it's not exactly the one the player had in mind.


Rule examples which immerse your players

The Crew

The Crew could have been presented as a card game, much like Hearts or Bridge. Instead, when you open the rulebook, it starts as follows:

"Astronauts wanted! Scientists say there is a mysterious ninth planet located at the edge of our solar system. But despite all of their efforts, so far they have been unable to provide substantial evidence of its existence. Join this exciting space adventure to find out if the theories are just science fiction or if you will discover Planet Nine."

This helps immerse players immediately in the game. The rules continue, using phrases like "Your journey spans 50 different missions..." 


Carcassonne addresses the players as players, however still uses language which is exciting and sets the scene:

Carcassonne, the world-famous French city, known for its imposing fortifications erected during the Antiquity
and the Middle Ages. This fortress, surrounded by magnificent walls, still stands today as one of the most
unique French cities. In this game, players must develop the area around Carcassonne. They will place their
followers onto roads and into cities, monasteries, and fields. Only those who make the most judicious
placements will gain the points required to win the game.

The emotionally charged party game - on Kickstarter
Fun party game

Writing the rules

Rules should follow a logical order, typically:

  • Brief introduction - what the object of the game is and perhaps a funny intro to the game for party games.
  • Set-up - how to lay-out the cards and/or board before you start playing.
  • Turn by Turn Instructions - include instructions on what actions to take each turn, with examples of play.
  • Clarifications - most games have situations where 2 instructions might seem to contradict each other, or other complex scenarios. Try to anticipate any such situations that are likely to occur and give instructions on how to resolve them to prevent disputes.
  • Winning the game - you've already mentioned it at the start, but conclude by how to win the game, with more details if need be.
  • Credits - the game designers, publishers, a link to your website, etc.

For very complex games, like board games with a large role-playing element, it can be best to allow players to present a simplified version of rules players can start with so that the task of learning them isn't too daunting!

Images and diagrams in rules help make them far easier to understand and means your rules will appeal to both left-brain and right-brain thinkers. For Funny Feeling, we created the entire rules as an infographic and received far better feedback on this than all the earlier versions we play-tested.

If you'd like us to work with you to create an infographic of the rules for your game, which can including play-testing it, proof-reading the instructions and creating the graphic design for them, then we'd be thrilled to. Read more about our board game design services.

Murder mystery game invite

Instructions for a murder mystery game

If you're hosting a murder mystery game then this requires a completely different set of rules and a specific process to ensure that participants have the maximum fun.

See our guide on how to create a murder mystery game.