Writing a Rulebook

A rulebook should be a set of clear commands, in a specific order and structure. It should say "Do this, then do this."

A rulebook should not be a general encyclopedia of concepts, that the player must assemble into a larger picture in their head.

I've had a few publishers, despite not publishing my games, compliment me on my rulebooks.


The first part of the rulebook should deal with three things: the story, the objective, and the setup. They can be in any order, depending on what makes the most sense. I'll use a fictional game here, and we'll go through the entire rulebook.

Here's the entire structure. I'll break it down.

  1. Story

  2. Objective

  3. Setup

  4. Master statement

  5. Turn structure

  6. Extra stuff

  7. Game end

  8. "Start playing now"

  9. "Refer to the reminder card"

  10. Strategic tip

  11. FAQ

The story

At least a brief statement is necessary, so the players know what they're doing, and why they're doing it.

In Cow Stampede, the players are farmers, attempting to raise enough cows to storm the other players' barns, and demolish them.

The objective

In Cow Stampede, you win when you are the last player with a barn standing.

The setup

This explains the initial state of the game. A picture is essential here, for all but the simplest of games.

Setting up the game:
- Each player takes two barn pieces, and puts them in front of them.
- Each player puts a cow on each of their barns, and draws three Moovement cards.
- Shuffle the remainder of the Moovement cards into a deck.
- Choose a player to go first.

The master statement

The master statement defines the style of gameplay. This statement sits at the top of the hierarchy of explanation, and encompasses the entire game. Most games have turns, so we'll define a turn-based game here.

The players take turns, going around the table.

The turn structure

Having defined that the game is comprised of turns, we now detail the structure of the turn. This is an explicit list of steps the player must carry out, in order. I start this section with a big "Your turn" heading.

Your turn:
- On your turn, do the following, in order:
- Draw a Moovement card. (See "Moovement cards", below.)
- Either build a barn, or add a cow to one of your existing barns.
- You may attack another player's barn. (See "attacking", below.)
- Your turn ends.

Note here, that this is a description of the entirety of the game, using the turn structure as a framework. Other than the setup and game end condition, there is no gameplay outside the turn structure (and the rules the turn structure refers to.)

Extra stuff

If the game is super-simple, you might be able to get the whole rules into the turn structure. Generally, however, you should break out any complex concepts, into their own paragraphs, below. The turn structure should specifically tell the reader to refer to the explanatory paragraph. In this example, both Moovement Cards and Attacking are broken out into their own sections.

Attacking: Choose a barn. Roll a die. If you roll 6, discard that barn and all cows in it. Otherwise, nothing happens.

Moovement Cards: (description of Moovement cards)

Game end

This section breaks out of the main game loop. It declares how the game ends.

End of the game:

At the end of any player's turn, if they are the last person with any cows left, and they do not have the Mad Cow Disease card, they win the game.

Get people playing

You can start playing now.

You don't want players reading any of the extra information, so tell them to start playing.

Hand off to the reminder card

To see what the icons mean, refer to the reminder card.

If the game has a variety of actions, icons, or other data, I don't actually put that in the rules. I just tell the players to refer to the reminder card. This lets them start playing, without having to memorise data. Any extra information, and clarifications, can go in the FAQ.

Strategy tip

In games with a lot of choices, it can be good to give a very basic paragraph of advice, at the end of the rules. This should suggest a first turn or two, and maybe a very simple piece of strategy. This also allows you to explicitly re-explain the rules of that turn, in case the players hadn't understood it properly.

My gangster game's rules end with "A good first turn is to move your figure to the Bank, to roll the green die, and get some money. This stops other players going to the Bank." This neatly recaps the entire game rules, in case it wasn't absolutely clear.


If your game is complicated, and you have the space, feel free to add examples of the complicated bits, in amongst the previous steps. Even if you're technically correct, people might still fail to understand things.


In games with cards (or other complex pieces), I usually include an FAQ section, after the rules. It starts with a sentence telling people not to read it — only to refer to it. I don't want them reading all this complex information before the game.

After that, this section should be an alphabetical listing of every single card a player could possibly misunderstand. Every possible interaction or question should be in here. A player should never have to search online for an answer to their question. Publishers will be impressed by your attention to detail, and players will avoid frustration. As far as I am concerned, failure to include a FAQ is shoddy workmanship.

Do not read this. Just refer to it if you have any questions.
Aardvark Assault
The cows you choose must all be in one barn. This cannot be used on cows in multiple barns.
Extra Barn
The Extra Barn is treated like any other barn. If you play the Barn Extension card, it can extend the Extra Barn. The Extra Barn can be destroyed by the Flaming Cowbell card.
(lots more cards)


The General section should be at the absolute end of the FAQ. It should restate commonly misunderstood rules, and deal with fringe cases, like what happens when a component runs out.

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