The holy grail of the perfect rulebook is something that most publishers try to find and is something that we all want. It’s no surprise that unboxing videos usually show you what the rulebook of a game looks like and one reason why many publishers allow you to download rulebooks for their games, so you can see for yourself if you’ll be able to learn the game from it. I have read quite a few rulebooks over the years and wanted to share my thoughts about what makes for a good rulebook.

Of course, different types of games need different rulebooks and a different approach to how the information is presented to the reader. The number of rules that need to be conveyed will also shift the importance of the requirements that a good rulebook will need to meet. For example, an A4 sheet of rules probably needs to worry about a good structure less, because everything is there right in front of you, without the need to flick through pages upon pages of rules.

The first requirement that every rulebook needs to meet is that someone reading it will be able to play the game afterwards and the second is that the rulebook is easy to refer back to, unless there is a separate reference guide of course that answers all the questions. However, even with a reference guide, the first one or two plays of a game will usually require players to refer back to the rulebook, at least if there are more than a handful of rules to consider.

To meet the first requirement, a rulebook needs to be complete and describe everything that happens in the game. Of course, obvious concepts such as “roll the dice” or “shuffle the cards” won’t need further explanation, but a rulebook has to be careful and not miss out things that many veteran board game players will know, but a newer audience may not understand. Just think about terms like “thinning your deck” or “drafting cards”.

A rulebook also needs to be consistent in its use of terms. A rulebook that talks about “money” in one section, then refers to it as “gold” and then finally calls it “coins” is going to be confusing. Again, some terms will already be known, such as “dice”, but others will need to be explained further.

Related to this, a rulebook should not introduce too many new terms. Of course, in some games there are so many different things happening that all need to be given a name, and they all need to be called something different, so it’s clear to the reader what the rulebook is talking about. However, too many terms will also be confusing and a reference table at the back of the rulebook can help here.

In fact, the back of the rulebook is too often under utilized. Of course, if a game offers player aids, then the back of the rulebook probably doesn’t need to serve any special function, but if there isn’t one, then the outside back cover is an ideal place to offer some sort of reference sheet.

To meet the second requirement for a rulebook, that it is easy to refer back to, it needs to be well structured. By that, I mean the order in which information is conveyed and the way in which the information is displayed on the page.

Let me start with the order in which information appears in the rulebook. Ideally, you want to ensure that people can start playing the game as they read the rules, but that’s not always possible, depending on the sort of game it is.

Rulebooks need to start with an overview of the game that describes very briefly what the game is about, what you do when you play it, how long it lasts in term of turns or game end triggers and how you win the game. It’s basically a high-level view that allows the reader to prepare for what the rulebook will be talking about on the subsequent pages.

After that, it should describe how the game is set up, including game boards, tokens, cards, player boards and everything else. That is usually quite a large section, depending on the game of course, and is more important for games that require a lot of things to be set up.

Next will be a high-level overview of turn order or if there are no turns in the game, the things that players can do. What follows next will be a detailed description of each phase in a turn or the actions that players can take, and then a section that describes when a round ends and what happens at the end of the current round or the beginning of the next.

After that usually comes a section that describes how the game ends in a bit more detail and what happens when the game has ended, including how points are counted or remaining resources are converted into points, as well as tie-breakers, if necessary. Just bear in mind that tie-breakers should always clearly decide one winner. If after all tie-breakers there could still be a tie, then you may be better off not including any tie-breakers at all.

So that’s the order of information taken care of. What is equally important is how that information is displayed on the page. I will assume that the rulebook follows some standard good practice of page layout and graphic design. Fonts need to be clear and easy to read, so choose a clear font family at a large enough font size. The text colour should be contrasting to the background. It’s very annoying when a rulebook is covered with highly detailed artwork that makes the text almost impossible to read.

Generally, the use of colours is important. By using large blocks of colour, different sections can be separated out. Tips and examples can be in their own box of colour to make them stand out.

Spacing is also important. Don’t try and cram everything together. Don’t be afraid of white space. Line spacing needs to be big enough and text blocks need plenty of space around them. Also, don’t make lines of text too long, but split pages into columns, if necessary.

I’m a very visual person, so for me, illustrations are so very important. The setup section is an ideal place to use an illustration that shows what the game should look like on the table for a given player count. Use call-outs or numbers to tie the illustration to the text.

Icons are also very useful in rulebooks. A flash or a warning triangle can draw attention to important rules or sections that players often forget to do when playing. Of course, if the game itself uses certain icons, then explain those in the rulebook. Iconography has to be intuitive, clear and consistent of course and you don’t want to have too many icons.

Finally, many rulebooks have a list of components, so you can double-check whether there is anything missing in your copy of the game. However, I never have had an issue with missing components, so for me, this list can go at the back of the rulebook or even just be printed on the box. Sometimes the component list shows you what some of the components are called, by which I mean that the brown cubes are “wood resources” for example, but those terms should really be put into the setup steps.

I think that covers the major points that I look for in a good rulebook. Are there things that are important to you that I haven’t mentioned? Have you seen a really good, or a really bad, rulebook? What was it about it that worked well or that made it bad? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (
Music: Snow Day by Pictures of the Floating World (


  1. Excellent post! I agree with all and will add my own thoughts for our rules.

    As you know, our games dictate a certain restriction in rule format. The size of our rules are such that rules need to be further adapted to fit our “boxes”. Use of the same cards as are in the game worked for our first two games. Luckily, both are somewhat easy to understand but having rules on the front and back of four separate cards is awkward to use. A good font, as you mention, is vital.

    In those two games, the font chosen was for legibility and not theme. We researched the easiest small fonts to read and used the same font that U.S. nutrition labels use. Those are found to be highly legible at small size. AND … written material using that font is also more readily retained.

    That last bit is important to me as a former teacher of kids with reading challenges. Font has to be formed in a way that’s easy to comprehend and written material needs to be retained longer. Font strongly affects both.

    Another soap box example, U.S. Supreme Court dockets must be written with a font from the Century family (Rule 33.1(c) ). Century Schoolbook is a font that leads to better retention of whatever is written (to the rate of eight to nine times longer than the same material written in Times New Roman—which is designed to be read quickly). But I digress …

    Oops, I can’t stop myself. Font family is critical and so is leading, kerning, tracking, etc.. Many people have various and undiagnosed mild reading challenges and making rules as easy as possible to read while maintaining a low cognitive load really helps in getting across new and often somewhat abstract rules for your game.

    For our third game, we used the same nutrition font and were severely limited in how “big” our rules could be. Our editor (a point that can’t be stressed enough for any public-facing written communication) spent seven hours just in optimising her already edited rules to fit the form factor for that game. A further technical parameter for those was quality of print. You mention colour as an aid and, in this case, the simplest colour choice of just black on white (actually a dark grey to keep contrast optimal) PLUS … the use of a durable paper that won’t smudge or become unusable from repeated exposure to finger oil was key. That paper, Revlar, is a synthetic paper that further complicated the printing process. It also fit the theme of the game, which we think is important. How many games use the material of their rules paper to further the theme—albeit in a subtle manner.

    All that to say, there can even be further factors affecting the final rule book.

    Our fourth game was partly an experiment in something I’ve seen in a few games (Card Rogue comes to mind)—no rule book!

    The size of the game and variability in the hand-carved skulls made it difficult to guarantee enough space for even the smallest of rule books. Many of the final builds of the games just didn’t leave enough space for tiny folded rules. And trying to cram them in would have resulted in many games popping open (LOL, in our testing, I had a prototype do this in a sushi restaurant with a black floor. The wait staff know us well and despite there efforts, one of the black skulls remained lost until our next visit.

    We did include a quick reference card but it couldn’t fit in the tin and was merely a slight convenience. It was meant to be something you could scan if you had not played ina while as a refresher and not as the entire set of rules.

    Rather, for that game, we went to online-only rules (a la Card Rogue). With smart phones, we hoped this would be a semi-acceptable approach. My personal feelings is that I hate to read rules online for a tabletop game, but this game is so easy that one play of it should be good for most people to understand what’s going on.

    The HUGE issue with this approach is what happens in the future? Will that domain or URL always be available? Even 20 years from now?

    For Card Rogue (which had ample space in the box, even for a small perfect bound book), the original domain was only up for a year or so. Not long enough. This caused players some grief as they had to search for the new domain. I have Kickstarter games that I’ve yet to open that are two years old!

    For our next game, the “box” and the volume of components again make it a real factor for the rule book. Along with all that you mention plus what I’ve added here, we have yet another consideration when creating a rule book.

    Our home manufacturing of our games (for economic and social concerns as well as simply wanting to make them ourselves) also affect what we do. Until now, we used the existing cards or created something we could do ourselves. The tiny folded Revlar rules were printed by us and cut by us (woof, that was such a massive undertaking). We looked at professional printers who could handle this paper but each set of rules would have cost $2 plus the cost of the expensive Revlar! And that was for a quantity of 5,000!

    Luckily, the “box” for our next game allows for a more traditional folded sheet of paper that can be done commercially. Although the size is small and it was difficult finding a domestic printer capable of the folds needed in this small size. We look forward to these rules, both in that we won’t be printing and cutting them (and folding, woof!) but also in being more traditional in presentation. Everyone’s familiar with folded rules and if we can maximise all the excellent guidance you’ve written here, we’ll have rules that helps the player have fun and a form factor that is immediately easy to grasp.

    As always, thank you for the great article. You cause me to be introspective which is always welcomed. =)

    1. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences from a designer’s / publisher’s point of view. I’m glad you liked the article and were able to add a lot of information which will hopefully help others with their projects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *