Theory: Include “How to Start” In Your Rules (and a Lines of Questioning Update)

I’ve done a thorough revision of Lines of Questioning’s rules based on current feedback. (you can find the new version here). The full changelog is below, but there’s one I feel is especially important: the rules now explicitly state how to start the game. Few “modern” board games (or whatever term one wants to use) do that, but I think it’s important. Saying “here’s what to do to kick things off” really helps people who have less experience with board games as a whole.

I learned this the hard way years ago, when some friends and I were just getting into board games and decided to try Shadows Over Camelot. Shadows’ rulebook does what many games do: it explains the steps one takes during a turn, and assumes it will be clear that to start playing one just launches into those steps.

For my friends and I, that assumption did not hold true.

Let me set the stage for you. In the room are two law students (both of whom are now lawyers), a Ph.D. student (now a scientist), and an engineer. All of these people have at least a passing acquaintance with board and role-playing games. Every single page of the rulebook has been read out loud. The engineer says “OK . . . how do we start?”

There’s a pause.

Rulebook pages flip.

A cricket starts chirping.

In retrospect, this was completely hilarious. A cricket chirped during an uncomfortable silence! It was a perfect sitcom moment, in real life! The whole thing was worth it, just as a story!

However, from a rulebook design perspective this was a disaster. After thoroughly perusing the rules, the players didn’t know how to start playing. Shadows Over Camelot almost went back in the box without so much as being tried. (Which would have been a shame–my friends and I went on to have many hours of fun with the game.)

Among the skills board gamers learn is reading board game rulebooks. We gain the ability to take rules and translate them into what the game looks like during play. In the process, we learn to make certain leaps: if the game proceeds in turns, and every turn begins with X, we should start the game by doing X.

New board gamers don’t have that rule-processing skill. Help them out by spending a line or two explaining how to start playing. They’ll appreciate it, and their positive experiences will come back to you in repeat customers and positive reviews.

– – –

Other changes:

– The numbered tiles have been removed; they added some complexity without a concomitant improvement in gameplay. With that change, the goal is now to proceed around the board clockwise, building a stack of tiles four-high (with an answer tile on top) in each of the four corners in sequence.

– The rules were changed to clarify that when an answer tile is played on top of the last tile in the line of questioning, that does not cause an answer tile to be added to the question hand.

– Being unable to play a tile when you need to do so is now a loss condition (this fixes a bug with the Something to Hide variant, in which it was possible to need to start a new line of answers but be unable to do so).

– Many rules have been rewritten and reorganized to make the game easier to learn.


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