Friday, April 23, 2010

Rules 2: Under/Over Specification

As we see from the previous post, induction leads to elegance. However, games often require special cases beyond a simple set of base rules. This can provide a certain amount of texture or theme.

State the general rules first. Then enumerate the exceptions using an amount of detail so as not to imply anything more or less than intended.

A player may choose one the following actions: A, B, or C. A player may never take action B followed by action A.

Huh? What is the meaning of the second sentence? Is it extraneous? Is it an example? Is it implying that a player may take action A followed by action B? Even though it isn't technically in conflict with the first sentence, its presence makes the reader wonder what they are missing. Exceptions imply things. At a minimum, players will make logical inferences.

Roll a die and move that many spaces. However, if you roll a 3, you must move exactly 3 spaces.

Again, huh? Does the second sentence imply that you may move other than your roll when you don't roll a 3? This is another example of a rules writer perhaps thinking they are being specific, but only confusing the reader.

4 Comments:

At 2:22 PM, Blogger GreedyAlgorithm said...

I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at. Rather, I think I understand perfectly until I read your examples and reactions to the examples.

Example 1: my intuition is that the second sentence is an exception and does just what it says and implies nothing more. The rules text could make this more clear by adding "However, " to the beginning of the exception sentence.

Example 2: my intuition is that the author screwed up and wrote "however" instead of "for example", or forgot to write "up to" in the first sentence. We can't tell which, but in either case it's not a matter of bad rules writing, it's a matter of bad writing.

 
At 4:07 AM, Blogger Seth Jaffee said...

I've run into a similar problem with rules writing recently, and I wonder what you have to say about it...

I recently solicited print-n-play playtesters for my latest deck building civ game Eminent Domain. I admit that I could have done a better job with the rules before sending them out to playtesters, but that's not too relevant to the story... the main point is that at least 2 separate people made the same mistake, and that's what I'd like to talk about now:

In the game there is a supply of victory point tokens, just like there is in Race for the Galaxy. Certain actions specifically tell you to take VP tokens from the supply (Trade action). Nothing else in the rules instructs players to touch the VP token supply. There are also victory points printed on certain cards in the game, indicating the score value that card will be worth at the end of the game.

The mistake players made was taking VP tokens from supply when one of those cards with VP values printed on it came into play. This was not what the rules said to do, but the rules did not say explicitly not to do so. This is a really beg deal because exhaustion of the VP token supply ends the game. Taking them when you shouldn't would really screw up the game!

This is actually exactly the same as in Race for the Galaxy, suppose a player took VP tokens out of the supply when a Development came into play. That's what they were doing.

I don't know how RftG's rules are worded (maybe I should go take a look!), but I was surprised when these players made this mistake. I've talked to some people about this and have heard things like "it's good to clarify something like that when it's easy for people to make a mistake." What do you think of that?

My philosophy sounds like your blog post - you say what players CAN do, and that's it. You don't list every possible thing that players may NOT do. Based on my experience in this however I'm wondering if I should rethink my philosophy!

 
At 8:50 AM, OpenID linnaeus said...

Seth,

I think playtest experience has to trump and philosophical point in this case. If there is a mistake that is being made by playtesters regularly (how often that is depends on how many playtest groups you have, I guess), then the rules need to take that mistake into account.

I would say omit other possibilities, generally, unless you see well-intentioned groups regularly making that mistake frequently, even without playtest confirmation.

 
At 7:12 PM, Blogger ekted said...

I'm firmly in the "whatever it takes to be clear" camp. For example, some tout AoS rules as being a "minimum spanning tree", meaning they say exactly as much as needed to impart the rules, and no more. I think the rules are poor. There is more than one instance of ambiguity, and it isn't rectified by further statements or even examples.

So, if it takes an additional sentence to make the VP chit usage clear, no harm done.

 

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