So we’re beginning to do blind play testing on Gloomhaven in earnest this week, and it really is that “blind” part that makes the process so exasperating and rewarding at the same time. Because blind testing means that you as a designer are not present. You give people the materials and rules and then walk away and let them have at it.
Imagine sitting down and playing your favorite Euro game with your game group. None of them have ever played it before, so you have to explain the rules. Maybe that takes 10-15 minutes and then you start playing. Naturally, you forgot to mention some of the more nuanced rules, so as you play out the game, your friends keep asking questions and you answer, apologizing for not mentioning it earlier.
Okay, now imagine having to explain the rules to them in a written format. You have to hand them a piece of paper that has everything they need to know to play the game on it. Everything. Every nuanced rule and edge case imaginable. What would you write? How would you organize it? What if you can only demonstrate what you’re trying to say with a visual example? Welcome to writing rule books!
Of course, I’ve written rule books before. The Forge War rule book was an absolute beast. I took my time writing it, and I still had editors rip it to shreds. Over time it got better, went through many, many iterations and was finally ready to present to the public in a semi-tenuous way.
Of course, graphic designers are also necessary. No matter how perfectly worded my rules for Forge War, the file looked like crap until a graphic designer came along and put everything in the right place with the right graphics. After many, many, many hours, it finally looks professional.
So I came into writing a rule book for Gloomhaven thinking it would be much simpler. The core mechanics of the game are much simpler than Forge War, so, having tackled that beast, surely I could easily take on the Gloomhaven rules.
Yeah, no. Writing rule books is hard, no matter what the case. The thing is, while Gloomhaven is simpler mechanically than Forge War and easier to explain, it is also more open than Forge War – your options are less rigid, which leads to a lot more exceptions and edge cases. Then you’ve got the automated monster movement, which, in theory, is simple, but it’s a complex world, so weird things keep popping up. How would a monster behave in this situation?
And it’s not just about a specific rule for every specific situation. It’s about condensing those rules into a core set that accounts for every situation but is also as small as possible. The more info you try and dump on a person, the more likely they are to give up on figuring out what you’re saying all together.
So, yeah, it’s a challenge. I got a first draft up and sent out to a handful of people and I’ve been fielding tons of questions about it ever since. I have a list of 25 major things I needed to change in the rules that I just went through and finished.
But the other side is that this is great. One person sitting down and dumping out everything that is in his head is never going to achieve the perfect rule book. Every time you look at it, you’re coming from the perspective of already knowing everything. The only way you’re going to know what other people will be confused about is to show it to other people. Most of that list of 25 things is stuff I wouldn’t have caught on my own. It’s a lot of work, but it’s necessary work and work that would have been a lot harder without the help of play testers.
Plus, once we can craft a functional rule book that leaves no question unanswered (or at least something close to that), the play testing opportunities are unlimited. With a few PDF files, you can share your game with someone across the globe. You can share your game with 100 people across the globe and they can accomplish more play testing than you could ever dream of accomplishing on your own.
Yeah, writing a rule book is difficult, but it is invaluable to the process. Play testers are awesome, and they make good games great. That’s what it’s all about.
(Also if you want to help play test Gloomhaven, just sign up for my newsletter.)