One of my favourite moments in the seminal British comedy Blackadder comes in the third series. Edmund Blackadder, conniving servant to the idiot Prince Regent, must hurriedly learn to work a canon in a duel. His fearsome opponent, the bellowing Duke of Wellington, wastes no time setting up to fire: “Stoke. Muzzle. Wrench. Crank the storm barrel. Pull tee bar…”
Blackadder meanwhile is reading an accompanying pamphlet: “Congratulations on choosing the Armstrong Whitworth four-pounder cannonnette…” he begins, “…please read the instructions carefully and it should give years of trouble-free maiming…” Scarcely past this pompous introduction, Blackadder is almost immediately shot by the overbearing Duke. But what’s this got to do with your rules? The answer is everything…
When people buy board games, they don’t do so planning to go through a miserable admin process before getting to the fun. In fact, I often wonder about this: if people knew the frustration they were about to experience, would they even take the lid off the box? It’s quotes like this on amazon that make me think perhaps not…
“Even the “fast-start” rules were largely incomprehensible.
It’s going straight to the car boot pile.”
“So hard and slow to get going. I wish I could give no stars.
What a load of rubbish. Just awful.”
Almost everyone I speak to on the subject tells me that they hate learning new games. Often, they admit to feeling embarrassed that they don’t understand a lot of rules. They dislike the dreadful writing. They don’t like doing unfamiliar things… They hate the ensuing confusion, they don’t want a flaming row and they’re reluctant to go first for fear of looking foolish.
For these reasons, I remain passionate about writing better game instructions. In my opinion, well-written rules are a touchstone of a better game. They lead to more fun and greater word-of-mouth marketing. That’s because – unlike the logical nature of rules – reading them can have a subtle impact on emotion. I’ll give you an example of why I say that…
Bad Rules Spoil the Fun
Have you ever found yourself in a bad mood and taken ages to bring yourself out of it? Most people know exactly how that feels. Similarly, most people know how it feels to be annoyed with a person over one little thing, and be quite unable to let it go…
What do you think happens, then, when people play a good game that starts with bad rules? In my experience, people are often unable to separate the two. That means even those that eventually enjoy playing a game that starts badly are slow to say it was good. And while that may not sound like a problem, it really is. Bad rules detract from good games.
Clear Rules Help Word of Mouth
Imagine you’re giving serious thought to buying one of two games. You ask your friend which they prefer. They tell you they’re both good but, in one of them, the rules took ages to understand. Which way would you go?
Obviously, word-of-mouth sales depend on other people recommending games. If you have a great game and bad rules, I believe your game will sell – if you’re lucky – like an okay game. So, if you believe your game is great, then you need great rules… Simple as that.
By the way: If you’re a new inventor, you might be thinking, “But no one’s selling my game yet…” Well, there’s bad news: when a person to whom you pitch your game shows it to a colleague, they do have to sell your game! So the better your instructions, the easier the sell. In any case, it’s no longer literally “word-of-mouth” that sells…
Decent Rules Prevent One Star Reviews
Closely related to not selling more of your game through word of mouth is its terrible, logical end: the amazon one-star review. This is the curse of many products’ online reputation. Just look at the scathing reviews I’ve strewn through the article:
“It caused a LOT of arguments and angry
rule-checking! Cannot recommend.”
“Way too confusing with badly written set of rules.”
While I’ve paraphrased all the quotes here to spare people’s blushes, their tone is identical to the original. These one-star product reviews must be absolutely crippling sales.
Get to the Fun Quickly
The more simple and concise rules are, the quicker people can get on with your game. This is something about which I feel strongly: when people buy games, fun is what they’re spending money on. And at the point when people go to play, they’ve already paid for the fun. The longer it takes them to experience it, the worse it is for your game, for your brand… And for them.
At the other end of the process are those still pitching ideas to publishers. While publishers don’t pay for the fun, they nevertheless still want to get to it pretty-damn quickly… You DON’T want decision-makers realising the wisdom of that quote from business guru Tom Peters: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention!”
Stress? Sounds like namby-pamby nonsense, right? Well, it might sound that way, but according to an online survey by RealNetworks, Inc., 64% of respondents say they play board games to unwind and relax. 53% of them specifically say they play to relieve stress… Can you imagine, then, how those people regard and review games with poor instructions?
Sadly, I can’t find a significant survey on how often board games are abandoned before completion. Perhaps you’ve had the experience, though, of seeing people embarrassedly give up on a game before they’ve even got going? If you don’t think it happens, here’s a wake-up call… Another paraphrased quote from an online review:
“Gave up. You need a diploma to work out how to play it…”
Let’s assume, though, that this isn’t the most-common problem. Let’s assume that many people who struggle with instructions do, at least, take a swing, stab or shot at playing the game. To what extent do you think slapdash grammar enhances a brand? My god, the money some companies spend on launching and marketing new products. And yet…
Ever had an email from a Nigerian Prince? One that offers you a tremendous sum of money for a simple favour? If not, perhaps you first need warning about phishing scams! These aim to extract financial information from trusting, everyday rubes… Hard for me though it is to believe that you’ve not experienced such a thing, let me say this: if you ever get an email from a Nigerian Prince, you have not, in fact, got an email from a Nigerian Prince… Delete it immediately.
The reason I mention it is that many scam emails are absolutely rife with terrible grammar and spelling mistakes. Some people assume it’s because scammers are either stupid or lazy. In fact, though, the mistakes are likely to be deliberate. As securitymetrics.com puts it, that’s because scam artists and hackers “…prey on the uneducated believing them to be less observant and thus, easier targets.”
In other words, if you’re too stupid to realise all that terrible grammar makes no sense at all, you’re probably stupid enough to fall for the rest of their shenanigans. To everyone else, it looks dodgy, lacks credibility, and gets incredibly short shrift. This doesn’t just apply to scammers, though. The internet-service comparison site, Website Planet, tells us that businesses with bad grammar and spelling mistakes “…lose almost double the number of potential customers than those with typo-free sites.”
So while your instructions being riddled with spelling errors and bad grammar doesn’t necessarily mean customers think you’re a scam artist, there’s not much doubt they’ll think less of you, your brand and your game. And if you’re an inventor hoping to sell your game to a publisher, of course, then grammar and clarity are as important in your communications as they would be on a C.V.
Why would this help? A couple of reasons… If your instructions are hard to read because the font size is too small, then you’re contributing to a poor play experience. But, for publishers, there’s also a more commercial reason: if you want to include advertising in the rules, then – of course – it’s much easier to do if there’s a significant amount of white space available. That may not sound like the be all and end all, but I have here a rules pamphlet that demonstrates the point. It’s a long strip of paper with seven folds in it. That means it has eight double-sided portions. In other words, 16 panels…
There are absolutely no advertisements for the other games in the brand’s range – and it’s quite clear they couldn’t fit them on. I can see, though, several ways to edit the rules and free up at least one panel – probably two. Why wouldn’t a brand do that? Why would anyone say: “Keep the long sentences, difficult words and repetition! Just drop the adverts…”
In conclusion, I’ll call to service a trite-but-true analogy… No chain is stronger than its weakest link. And in many games, the instructions are the weakest link by far. If you think they don’t matter, I’ll sign off with the best one-star review I’ve seen:
“This game is the worst thing I’ve ever experienced
– and I’ve had gastroenteritis.”
Deej Johnson is a writer, and co-author of The Snakes & Ladders of Creative Thinking: How to Have More Ideas for Board Games, Improve Them & Get Them Ready to Pitch. Contact Deej directly via email@example.com
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