This is the fifth post in a series about our upcoming game Paint the Roses, written by the game’s designer, Ben Goldman.

Nothing keeps people from playing games more than having to learn rules. Imagine how many fewer movies we’d watch if we had to read an instruction manual before watching a movie for the first time.

So it’s critical to minimize the frustrations of rules, which is hard, because rulebooks are tricky puzzles of information architecture.

I’ve been working on new ways to understand and shape that architecture. To that end, I present to you a new visualization tool I call the Context Stack.

Imagine a set of rules as a tower of information. The tower’s base contains rules requiring no special knowledge; then up the tower, the rules stack on top of each other such that each rule makes sense if you know the rules below it.

Here are example rules that would appear at different levels in the stack:

  1. Start the game with 7 Coins.
  2. Coins can be spent to upgrade land.
  3. Certain upgrades earn more coins.
  4. One kind of upgrade is a castle, which protects your land.
  5. You can spend 45 coins to purchase a castle.

Most people will understand the first rule without prior information, so it goes at the bottom of the stack. Each subsequent rule is easier to understand, or begs fewer questions, if you already know the rules lower down the stack.

Real rules are more complicated than this example, because they’re non-linear. They branch, each rule interacting with multiple others, sometimes in roundabout ways. That’s why rules are hard to write.

Wouldn’t it be nice, then, if we could visualize that network of rules? It might help us more easily see how to simplify and clarify them. That’s the Context Stack:

The graph above is the Context Stack for all the rules about “Whim Cards” in a cooperative deduction game I’ve designed called the Paint the Roses (you can read all our articles about the game here, and you can read the current rules-draft here). 

In the graph:

  1. Each dot represents a rule pertaining to Whim Cards in the rulebook
  2. Each dot’s position represents where that rule appears in the rulebook. The further apart two dots are, the more stuff there is between them in the rulebook.
  3. The arrows show you which rules you need to know to understand the rules they point to.

The arrows are the meat of the system. If you look at them, you can immediately see you should avoid two things:

  1. Long arrows: the longer an arrow is, the longer a reader must remember a rule before applying it to understand another rule.
  2. Arrows pointing left: A left-pointing arrow means you’ll read a rule before you have all the context you need to understand it.

Most games are complex enough that you can’t completely eliminate these problems. However, you can minimize them. Graphing rules in this way helps you:

  • ...see which rules might need moving.
  • ...understand the consequences of moving them. Moving any rule can change the length and direction of a lot of arrows. The graph makes it easier to avoid inadvertently creating new problems.
  • ...get clear on why you put certain rules in certain places. For example, I have two left-pointing arrows in my rules graph. I need to either eliminate them, or justify their existence. In this case, I arranged the rules this way for the sake of repetition: I mention a central rule multiple times to cement it in the reader’s mind: the two nodes marked “1” are the same rule repeated. The node marked “2” is that rule again but fully explained now that we have all the context to explain it.

Graphing rules this way helps me to “untangle” my rule books. I’ll see long arrows and left-facing arrows, look at those rules, and see if it can be rearranged to be a better-looking graph.

(Note: there are programs allowing you to drag-and-drop objects with arrows attached to them, which makes it easy to visualize ways of reorganizing. Most flowchart programs for example, or Powerpoint.)

Of course, no method is foolproof, If you’d like to help us improve the current rules for Paint the Roses, check out the rules and leave your feedback in the comments.

Paint the Roses will launch on Kickstarter in 2020. To be alerted to new blog posts and the Kickstarter's launch via email, sign up here.

Previous posts in the Paint the Roses series

  1. Why I designed a logic game set in the illogical world of Alice in Wonderland.
  2. How to fix the biggest problem in cooperative games. 
  3. Feedback wanted for a key component in our next game.
  4. What can dictators teach us about game design?


  • Brandon: November 13, 2019

    I LOVE the art within the rulebook! Is there any chance of the rulebook and box cover matching that style of art? The current rendition is much less palatable.

  • badweasel: November 12, 2019

    My (probably wrong) thought on it falling out of fashion is it tends to make the rules more difficult to learn as rules are not always grouped by game flow, but instead by rule type. The flipside is it is much easier to reference.

    My personal preference is towards the wargame style case, subcase, (or if it is Decision: case, subcase, subsubcase, subsubsubcase, optional-subsubsubsubcase) with a comprehensive play example. I think GMT often strikes a very good balance here when at their best.

    I do find it harder to follow rulebooks that bleed the two extremes together like Compass’ Pacific Tide, which mixes the wargame structure with euro-style narrative prose. I would prefer if it either dropped the case structure or further broke up its prose into traditional wargame numbering. Some mixing works out well: D-Day at Omaha Beach is a pretty good rulebook that mixes a more narrative-friendly approach with wargame structure and bold case/subcase headings to break it up.

  • Ben Goldman: November 12, 2019

    Agreed, this is something the reader would never know happened.

    I had no idea that rulebooks used to cross reference like that! I wonder why that fell out of fashion.

  • Sagrilarus: November 12, 2019

    This is a fine idea for the writer (and their proofer) but should be completely transparent to the reader. Minimizing lines and the length of each would be a useful goal.

    I’ll mention that in some wargame rulebooks, particularly older, more complicated ones, the lines appear in the text as cross-references. The writer could consider adding a color to the graph to indicate how tightly bound the two concepts are, how complex the relationship or even the word count in each section to serve as a approximation of the latter.

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