How to Read a Rulebook
Some years ago, before I really got into board gaming, a friend of mine handed me a game and asked if I could figure it out. He and his spouse had gone to a game store looking to buy their first hobby game, and the store associate recommended Arkham Horror. These days, I could go on for lengths on why this was an awful recommendation for them as new gamers and how this associate was out to lunch, but I’ll save that rant for later. So they get the game home, crack the shrink, open the box, and are greeted by the biggest game board they’ve ever seen, enormous stacks of big and small cards, a ton of cardboard tokens and bits, and, most daunting of all, a 22-page glossy color rulebook. It’s got 12-point text and three columns each page; not exactly what they signed up for. So, needless to say, Arkham Horror was a non-starter for them.
I took a gander. At the time, it was the most intimidating board game rulebook I’ve ever seen. I’ve read and digested RPG rulebooks before, but this was different; with more structure and flow than I was used to, though some would say this book’s flow leaves something to be desired. Arkham Horror is a highly thematic game with a lot of stuff going on. It’s not a huge strategic game, it just has a lot of options for the players to learn and be aware of when jumping in, so trepidation is an entirely reasonable response. I was determined to learn the darn game, however, and I poured over it in an entire Saturday afternoon, laying the game out on my kitchen table, until it all clicked. I felt I had accomplished something.
Today, I enjoy reading rulebooks. I read rulebooks to relax before I go to bed. I even read rulebooks to games I don’t own, just because I like reading rulebooks. They are sometimes a mini-puzzle all by themselves; to work out the nuances of the game and to get in the head of the designer, much like exploring architecture or a work of art. And, no, I don’t think this is normal behavior for most people.
The thing is, I still hear stories of people being excited about getting a shiny new modern game for the first time, only to experience disappointment when they find a seemingly incomprehensible rulebook under the box cover. If that is you, here’s my advice on how to break down a rulebook to make your learning as efficient as possible and help everyone have a fun and positive experience at the table.
1. READ BEFORE YOU GATHER TO PLAY
Unless it’s a simple card, party, or escape room game or something like that, or you are at a convention, don’t bust it open for the first time when everyone is around the table ready to play. I’ll talk more in the future on how to teach a game, but one of my principles is that you want people playing the game as soon as possible. They just need enough information to get started; you can coach and fill in details as they play. That’s not going to happen if you don’t know what is going on before you sit down. Reading a thick rulebook at the table out loud is no fun, and everyone (including you) will instantly forget what you are saying after 10 minutes anyway.
2. SKIM BEFORE READING
Before you get cozy with the rulebook, skim the pages to find a few things. First, you need to know how to win the game, as everything you learn should be put in the context of the end goal. Good rulebooks have this on the first or second page, or maybe after a components list or a setup guide. Problematic rulebooks hide this somewhere, or it’s on the last page. You could sit down and start reading from the top, but nothing will actually click unless you can mentally connect everything to winning. Next, make mental notes on the general outline of the book. As you do a deeper dive, you’ll likely want to cross reference certain concepts and having an idea how things are laid out will speed up your read. Some games these days provide you with two books; one “how to play” book for learning and one reference book to serve as a resource when rules questions arise during the game.
3. READ THE BOOK
Now the main course of the endeavor; dive in. Often times, rulebooks are written by the designer or a developer who has spent countless hours working on the game with plenty of mental attachment, so what is obvious to them may not be to a first-time player, and vice-versa. Jump around if you need to. Pay close attention to words indicating player decision points: “may” vs. “must.” If things get confusing, I will lay out the game on a table and actually go through some sample turns to get the feel and that “a-ha” moment when I get it. If it’s a cooperative game, you can pretty much play the whole game by yourself like I did with Arkham Horror.
4. CONSULT OTHER RESOURCES IF NEEDED
Even after reading the rulebook, and possibly laying the game out for a quick run-through, things still may not click. My next suggestion is to get online and find a video of someone showing you how it plays. I’ve seen a deluge of content around board games pop up the last five years, and it’s a solid bet that someone has made a tutorial on your game. A good place to start is Rodney Smith's YouTube channel Watch It Played. Rodney is a virtuoso on visually showing and summarizing a rulebook professionally and engagingly. His content is so good, it may be tempting to send his video to your prospective players. But, realistically, they won’t watch it; few folks enjoy getting a homework assignment to play a board game. I say feel free to steal Rodney’s explanations when you are all at the table ready to play. I’m sure he won’t mind.
This may also be a good time to future-proof your new found game knowledge, and that’s why the beautifully designed rules summaries from Universal Head are indispensable. They contain all the necessary setup instructions and rules; often on a single sheet of paper. Print it out in color, trim it, and throw it in the box. The next time you pull the game off the shelf, the one-sheet will jog your memory and hopefully save you the hassle of re-reading the rulebook.
5. KEEP THE RULEBOOK HANDY WHEN YOU FIRST PLAY
Now you should have a pretty good idea on how the game is played, but you are not going to remember everything. There will always be a rules question that will arise early during play that you just won’t know the answer off the top of your head. The skimming you did earlier should help you to quickly resolve the question and keep the game moving.
While certainly, this guide won’t make you a rules addict; my hope you can approach a rulebook with some semblance of confidence and spend more of your energy actually enjoying the game.