The rules of attraction

Creative consultant and Little Book of Bananagrams author Deej Johnson explores to the dos, don’ts and potential pitfalls when it comes to writing those all important game instructions.
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The packaging's off, the container’s open, the instructions are out and the misery begins.

That vision of fun promised by a game’s marketing guru often seems a long way off as family and friends start fidgeting through a litany of poorly-written rules.

But since fun is what the shopper is really buying when they pick up your game, my question is this: shouldn’t you consider every unnecessary word in the instructions an unwelcome obstacle between your promise of entertainment and the delivery of it?

In my experience, many people - from Kickstarter-funded first timers to established brand giants - create instructions that make three critical mistakes: talking at people, sounding stuffy, and confusing readers.

Here’s how to avoid them:

Talking at people: Think how rules are usually used. Whether it’s a game for two or 22, only one person actually sits there and reads them - mostly doing one of three things.

Either they go through the instructions quietly before paraphrasing; they read out loud verbatim or they combine these approaches.

In any case it helps your writing if you picture an individual doing the job, and address that person directly.

Where possible, say you, not ‘players’, and write directions that are easy to read out loud. Use the present tense, short sentences and contractions.

Sounding stuffy: For some inexplicable reason, the tone of many rules seems to address a group of Victorian socialites gathering in a parlour hoping to be amused.

Who imagines game players readily using words like ‘playing board’, ‘disassembly’ and ‘centre of the playing area’?

We call it a board. We take things apart. We say “where everyone can reach it.” Drop the jargon. Write conversationally and use good punctuation - with casual language.

Confusing readers: Here’s a genuine ‘Object of the Game’: “Be first to get all your pieces to their current numbered circles in the centre of the board after moving them once round the track.” Would you be any the wiser for reading that twice?

Not only is it unclear, it’s also about three times the length it needs to be. It could be written: “Be first to race your pieces round the track.” That’s the object of the game. Everything else becomes apparent later.

One way to see how clear your own instructions are is to have strangers play your game, but don’t explain it to them. Don’t even let them know it’s yours. Just watch them go through the process.

If they can’t quickly get on with the game, your writing needs more work.

My advice is to aggressively rewrite your instructions with these three points in mind. You should find your game makes more sense, looks easier to play, and feels more fun.


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