Non--board-game people keep making up their own rules, without knowing it.

I'm talking about players who are intelligent and literate, but who don't generally play board games.

Is there anything a game designer can do to help them understand how the game is played?

Examples of the Problem

In one game, you move your piece around the board. The rules say you may move your piece up to three steps. There's a pair of dice included in the game for a completely different purpose. This kind of player grabs the dice, rolls them, then moves their token that many spaces.

In another game, there are many different cards. Each card has text on it, saying what it does. This kind of player plays the card and does something completely different than what it says. For example, if it says "When you play this, you must discard all your cards and gain $10.", they might play it and take $10 without discarding anything.

Or, this kind of player looks at a card and announces that they don't understand what it does. But when you ask them what it says on the card, they read it, then say, "Oh, that's what it does.". (Note that I'm not talking about players with low literacy skills.)

Why I Care

I'm a board game designer, involved with the publishing company, so if the rules aren't clear enough, I'm the one at fault. The good news is that, if there's any fix to be done, I'm in a position to do it.

  • I don't know about the second one, but I've always found giving players cards that give you a breakdown of turn order useful. That or a cheat sheet, that can be referred to. Although to be honest if a minority of players are playing the game wrong and still having fun who cares. Barely anyone plays Monopoly right and it's one of the best known games in the world. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 10:12

6 Answers 6


My experience with people such as this is that they're impatient to start playing, and don't want to take the time to read lots of instructions. The best thing you can do, as @beam022 touched on, is improve the instructions. Make them non-threatening and as easily understandable as possible.

Game element formatting

Graphic symbols--used sparsely--can help. Don't go overboard on symbols, but for the most common of your common game elements symbols can be nice. Dominion, for example uses symbols for money and victory points. It could use symbols for +Cards or +Buy, but those are short, clear words so there's no need. Magic uses symbols for tapping and untapping and for mana costs (maybe a couple other things, but I can't think of any), which is very parsimonious given the level of complexity. Again, they could use a symbol for "target", but it's probably better that they don't. A few graphics can help people parse things better and add color, breaking up text and making it look more inviting. But only use symbols if you can be sure that they are unambiguous. 7 Wonders, for example, uses symbols effectively, but so extensively that every time I've taught the game to someone new they've needed to refer to the symbol glossary frequently.

Systematic formatting can help too. You give an example of a card where the player discards all cards to get $10. If you have many cards that could be broken down similarly, the text on the card could be formatted as

Pay: Discard all your cards.

Get: Gain $10.

Essentially separating the condition and result into bullet points, I think, makes it harder to ignore, and if this is a pattern that can be easily learned and applied to other cards, all the better.

Instructions style

If my experience generalizes, the people who can't be be bothered to read the rules just want to start playing, so write instructions that help them do that. Most rule books start with identifying pieces and set-up, as they should. If you can, the next sections should briefly state the goal of the game, then get on to a sample turn. Give section number references to following sections of the rules where you'll give details on each phase/step/whatever, but let them get started. In writing, you'll be hard-pressed to hold these players' attention for very long. The best you can do is to facilitate their "diving in" by making it easy to look things up in the rules (via short, well-labeled sections and subsections, a Table of Contents, an Index, and cross-references).


I don't think you should be overly worrying about this "problem".

Boardgame people, who I assume will make up the majority of your target market, will be game-literate enough not to need patronisingly simple instructions on how to approach the basic mechanics of the game. Once they've bought the game, if they have less game-literate friends that they're in the habit of playing with a lot, they will have their own strategies for getting them to focus and play by the rules.

But what if your boardgame falls into the hands of people who don't care at all, and have no one to set them straight if they go off track? Well, even in this case I'm recommending you don't sweat it. I have a work colleague who recently showed off a Scrabble board he was proud of. "Cool," I said, "what was the score?" "Oh, we weren't playing for points," he replied, "we just took it in turns to make words." As a competitive Scrabble player this idea really got my back up for about 3 seconds, and then I thought, what does it matter? They really enjoyed playing their "game" of Scrabble. Why take that away from them by trying to insist they play it the "correct" way?

This is not to say your ruleset shouldn't be as clear, as colourful, as fun as possible. (In fact, I think fun is the most important of the three. Take a game like Dungeon Lords where the rules are hugely complicated, but the hilariously written rulebook makes it a joy to read and slowly start to understand them.) But, even if not everyone in the group wants to read and assimilate the rules, one of two things will happen. Either (a) someone in the group will take pride in being the master and interpreter of the rules, and they will manage to communicate their findings to the rest of the group. Or (b) the group will find their own way of enjoying the game, and this is fine. I don't think many people buy lots of boardgames without caring about playing by the correct rules, but if there are such people, I think we should let them have whatever kind of fun they find most fun!

  • 1
    +1. Let them play the game they want to play, which may not be your game. Some people, especially non-gamers, play games to socialise, and rules just get in the way of that. Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 22:03
  • 2
    My wife and I play many Carcassonne games where we try to make 'pretty castles' and other very silly things. We usually do this in our second game after she takes over all my fields and castles and we get grumpy with eachother... and the nice game for fun prevents me from sleeping on the couch :-)
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 16:23

Print the most important/easy to miss instructions on the board. I don't mean, actually explaining or listing the rules, but putting in little bits to help. Like in the first example have an arrows with a 1/2/3 printed next to it. Players are much more likely to do the right thing if it is in their face the entire game.

Don't put tiny text on cards. Card text should be brief, super clear, in an easy to read font. Then on the bottom the card should have in a smaller text all the explanations including even repeating game rules

Make the rules concise. The best I have seen is small boxes that explain the important rules with other areas that go into very long details. When important game rules are hidden in paragraphs of text they get overlooked.

Have a summary on the back. Tell people how to set up the game, how many cards to draw, how much money they get. No one wants to hunt rules for that. Then have game phases and any other info that players may need.

Have an area of commonly overlooked rules. This has to come from play testing, not from what the designer thinks

  • 5
    "This has to come from play testing, not from what the designer thinks." +1 for that point alone! Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 18:51
  • The point of this coming out in play testing -is- the answer. You must playtest with all kinds of people: experienced, inexperienced, smart, not-so-smart, and watch for those little things. Maybe those things aren't a bad thing! In Munchkin they wouldn't be. Heck the rules of that game encourage you to cheat!! So maybe someone doing something silly is part of the social aspect of the game. But playtesting helps you identify the things you didn't intend to happen and squash them before you release.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 16:21

I'm afraid there is no one, ultimate solution to this problem, which is completely real - I've had similiar experiences with some players.

What to do right away?

If the situation looks like you described (the part about reading card twice), there are some things you may try when it happens. Of course only if it happens when you're around. Ask questions, but remember to not be aggressive. For example, you might ask the confused player if he had actually read instructions on the card first time. All of this depends on who are you talking to - if it's someone who can be honest with you, or rather wouldn't admit that he didn't give understanding instructions a proper try, because he's ashamed of it. Some of the things that can happen:

  • He didn't really pay that much attention to the instructions, or didn't honestly try to understand them. You're not the one to blame here, not much you can do about it either. Maybe this person is bored with the game already, or wasn't really interested in playing it in the first place?
  • He did try to understand instructions, but didn't get them the first time. I would say there is a good chance, that this happens during playtesting of the game - is this by any chance true in this situation? I'm saying that, because it's been my experience - people playtesting the game would try less to understand some parts of the game mechanics or instructions, because they know that those instructions are an object to change. The reasoning would be something like this: If I didn't get this right away, clearly, it must be too confusing. You should rephrase this. If you ask people close to you to playtest a game, you would actually encourage pointing out confusing things in the game, right? And they would be right at more than one ocassion.

No matter which case this is, you should try to turn this situation to a valuable observation.

How to improve instructions?

Things you can try would be to keep rules as simple as possible, with examples of play, and maybe include a FAQ at the back cover of instructions for easy reference (FAQ of course would be addressing most common misconceptions in this case, or most problematic situations in the game).

Another thing would be to try to minimize situations in which things are done counter-intuitive or different than in most games. I believe this was the case with moving the piece around the board with dice. It wouldn't be confusing for you or me to get that we should move our pieces in different manner, because we are familiar with many games that does this. But many non-gamers would rely on their limited experiences - and those are that dice are for moving. Remember that we are creatures of habit.

Hope it helps, even if only in small part.


Also, use the Principle of Least Astonishment. If you use common elements, make them behave in the common way.
If people (think) they know what to do, they'll do it. If they don't know, they might look it up. So if you use elements that are (relatively) unique, make them look unique, so players won't assume they'll know what to do with them.


  • Don't use pawns as something other than pieces that move around the board. Don't use them as markers or counters. If you want those, make them look different.

  • If you include regular dice, players will see piece + dice = roll + move, even if the rules state differently. Change the dice to look different from regular dice.


It's very simple. All board games are know to have rules attached to them. Many games are complex, and the only way to sift through complex rules are to read through these rules and play-test. If something is inconclusive, most people I know, including myself, search online. If there is no plan for a different version, it would behoove you to create a forum, or to search sites like these to answer any questions out there.

People playing complex games for the first time are simply not going to get it right on the first try. It is their own responsibility to review the rules after. Even those of us that have been playing for a while go back and realize we misinterpreted the rules.

Bottom line: just be as clear as you can. There is going to be misinterpretation no matter what.


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