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The Rules and How to Play by Them

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Not sure what it is exactly, about me and rules; rulebooks, to be precise, but we've been battling for years. You'd think since we have similar goals - I want to learn a game and the rulebook wants to teach it to me - that we could agree on a few things.

Like the English language, for example. I'm all for having the rules printed up in every language possible, but personally, I need English, and for the most part, grammatically sensible English. Not "on the board, forward, to space move the piece" but "move the piece one space forward." This happens with assembly instructions for all sorts of things from bicycles to tree houses, but when it happens in a game's rulebook, you end up with a confused customer who puts the book down, and the game away for (maybe) next time. I'm sure people do that with tree house instructions, too.

Got thinking about this, shortly after I'd had my first sit-down with Mayfair's Global Mogul game, which prompted memories of a Rio Grande Game, called A Fool's Fortune, which got me thinking of quite a few others; games that, for one reason or another, I just couldn't learn from the pages of a rulebook. Granted, the situation is unique to each individual who opens a rulebook, and I will readily admit that I know, personally, plenty of gamers who can figure things out from a rulebook that I've been pulling my hair out over for weeks. I have them on Speed Dial.

That said, the rulebook to A Fool's Fortune just baffles me. I know there's a basic game of Rummy in there somewhere, because the publisher says so right at the top of the game's BoardGameGeek page.

"Come play a game of mischief, magic, mirth and lore (did they run out of "m" words?). Delve into the Book of Fate to reveal mysterious fortunes; realms near and far, resources wonderous and wild (not to mention, wacky). Cast your lot with a crew of assorted (and sordid) (That's the publisher's parenthesis) characters. If you pay your dues, and play your hand right, you may just win a fool's fortune (which makes me wonder what kind of a fortune a fool might amass, and whether I'd want it in the first place).

Publisher goes on to say in Paragraph 2 that it's a "two-or-three player card game in the tradition of Rummy. . ."

Ah hah!! There it is. . . rummy. Do I get it now?

No.

I mentioned this disconnect between me and this game's rulebook to a regular Cafe Jay visitor during the World Boardgaming Championships this year; someone who assisted me in teaching a few of the games, and helped me to clarify a few confusing rules that I found among them. He offered to take a look at A Fool's Fortune, sat down with the book for about 30 minutes, got up and said, "This is insane."

The central problem here, and it's one that has precedent in the rulebooks of many a game, is that the writer(s) delay the introduction of a few basic concepts, and launch immediately into explanations of things that in the early stages of learning, are meaningless without context.

You need to know why you're making certain decisions, before you start making moves. If you want me to learn a process, any process. . I don't care if it's dice rolling, an auction, the mechanics of worker placement, or resource management, you'd better give me a goal.

A real simple one, like "Acquire the most Victory Points, conquer Europe, or build a tribe of cavemen capable of inventing fire." Whatever it is, just tell me. It's nice that there's a mythical back story to the whole thing, with stunning art work to back it up, and I don't begrudge any authors the release of their inner poet, but could we get on with this?

The object of the game, please. . .

Then tell me about some basic mechanics . . . how do you physically go about playing this game, any game? Do I roll dice, do I pick a role, do I plow a field? What? Just tell me.

The graphic art of the box cover (pictured here) was stamped into a fabric billboard that adorned Cafe Jay at the World Boardgaming Championships last month. It was not officially among those I was teaching, but when I saw it up on the billboard (the art is really well done), I asked the distribution vendor about it, and he was kind enough to provide me with a copy.

A month later, and I'm still trying to figure it out. In that time, I've come to realize that the basic, turn by turn set of instructions about how to play this game, are somewhere near the back of the book. It doesn't help that there are three levels of play, each with its own set of rules, and the ways in which each utilize increasing modifications to the basic idea(s). I haven't even begun to examine the refinements. I'm still trying to figure out how to play the thing.

I have learned over the years that there are some games that lend themselves to a hands-on, start-playing-the-game approach to learning them. It took me quite a while to adjust to the very idea of role selection as a gaming process. When I encountered it in Puerto Rico, and later, in other games, I became aware that I was going through the motions quite easily, even though I had very little idea what the hell I was doing. Some would argue that even now, 10 years later, I still don't know what the hell I'm doing when I play that game.

I suspect strongly that once I get over the hump of learning to play A Fool's Fortune, I'll find a good game. I think I caught a glimpse of this one as I started to take a look. Seems to have a good thematic base, rummy isn't all that difficult, and I always enjoy playing Wyatt Earp. And it's got these levels of play, where you keep adding refinements, and I could almost see its shape; unfortunately, so far off in the distance that I couldn't see it clearly, at all. And for a while at least, I gave up.

I'll get back to you, but in the meantime, can we start a discussion with the writers of rulebooks? Can we find some common ground upon which to build a Rulebook Manifesto? We may have to acknowledge that all games cannot be taught the same way, and since there are multiple ways, maybe we'll have to devise specialized means of distinguishing one from another.

Let us also acknowledge that it's not an easy thing, the writing of a rulebook. As an author (or set of them), you approach the ignorance of your audience, armed with intimate knowledge of your subject. It is human nature, I suspect, to occasionally assume audience awareness of what are, to you, obvious things. Like explaining how to engage in a board game battle, assuming your audience knows what the fighting's all about. I'm sure, too, that I'm guilty of the same kinds of assumptions when I teach any of these games, so I don't mean to ride rulebook writers too hard on this.

However, A Fool's Fortune, and, though it's still a little early for me to call this, Global Mogul are, to me, clear signs that something needs to be done about codifying rulebooks; to, in some way, standardize a format, even if it's a loose one, that works.

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