Why rules should be less strict

I’ve been learning, explaining, testing and designing board games for a long while now. You can comfortably call me a real gamer, a “seasoned gamer”, a heavy gamer. I’m one of those people who can’t stand people that say “the rules are more like guidelines, aye?”

So it might be surprising to read this article about how rulebooks should be much shorter and less strict.

It’s something I’ve thought about and—most importantly—experimented with for years now. And I cannot draw any other conclusion.

Our rulebooks, even for extremely light games, are filled with endless pages and walls of text that don’t need to be there. Many of those games would become simpler and more accessible if they just … loosened up.

Let me explain.

The goal is to have fun

It all stems from this simple principle. The goal of the game is to provide the shortest and easiest path possible towards fun.

Any rule, even if it’s just one single sentence, stands in the way.

Any exception that people need to remember, any time there’s this little “but actually, in this specific case, you CAN’T do that action”, it means frustration and annoyance.

A game with too many components, or a rulebook with too many pages, is an immediate “no thank you never bother me with this again” for many people.

It is my experience that it is worth it to sacrifice strictness, correctness and rules to handle little exceptions, to get to the fun part much more easily.

An example: Parks

For example, somebody explained the game Parks to me yesterday. (It’s probably not the best example, but it’s the most recent one in my head.)

There is one special tile that says you can trade two resources for other resources. Simple, right?

Well, it should have been. The rules go out of their way to add these tiny exceptions and extra remarks.

  • Not two of the same type.
  • Can’t exchange both or one of them for the same type.
  • Can’t exchange for a type you already have.

What should be a simple and fun action, turns into “but wait, and but, but no in that case, and wait no you can’t do that, …”

And for what? The one or two times, in a hundred games, that this actually matters?

  • Exchanging a resource for the same resource is obviously a stupid move that nobody will go for.
  • It’s highly unlikely that this challenges somebody in a fun way that propels the game forward.
  • In this game, you (mostly) control where you move. So if you don’t want to do the trade action … you should just strategize and make sure you don’t land there. Move rules out of the rulebook, and into player experience and strategy.

In my view, it should just be “trade two resources for two resources”. Simple, clean, concise, players can strategize around it however they want. You barely lose anything, you gain simplicity and clarity.

An example: Everdell

Another example due to recency bias ;)

Everdell has a strict hand limit (of 8). Many actions, however, allow you to give away cards to other players.

The rules, again, go out of their way to describe all these different possible situations and how you should give away cards then. (Say you need to give away 2 cards. What if nobody can accept both cards? What if multiple players can accept, but some can only accept 1?)

And for what? The rare occasion in which these highly specific resolutions might, perhaps, maybe matter?

In my view, it should just be: “Give away two cards to somebody who can accept them. Discard any leftover cards.”

Simple, concise, one line and you’re done with all that. Players can start playing and having fun, instead of feeling restricted by endless little rules and tweaks.

But wait! There’s vagueness here!

Yes! Indeed!

There are two kinds of “vagueness”, though.

  • Situations handled by the rules, though not explicitly stated or shown through example.
  • Situations simply not handled by the rules.

The first kind

The first case isn’t bad. In fact, it’s the hallmark of a good rulebook, if you ask me.

Each rule simply states itself, as concisely and clearly as possible. All the logical consequences of that, how this answers questions about corner cases, is for the players to realize as they appear.

For example, I might create a game that says “On your turn, play as many cards as you want, then draw 1 card.”

So many rulebooks will then add more explanation like …

  • If you have no cards in your hand, you simply can’t play cards => Useless! It’s already in the rule!
  • Yes, even if you haven’t played a card, you draw 1 card => Useless! The rule already says that!

This bloats the explanation and actually makes players question themselves. (“All these examples and reminders … this must be a hard game / maybe we misunderstood that simple rule?”)

Explicitly state the rules. State or repeat nothing else. It will shrink rulebooks to 10% the size, while giving players more confidence. And, most importantly, a faster path towards the fun!

The second kind

This is where most disagreements will show themselves.

Surely, most gamers will say: “The rules should be exact and answer every question!”

When I was young, I thought so too. I could grow frustrated when somebody “forgot” that one exception or they were like “well let’s just house rule it and say X”.

Older and wiser, I’ve changed my view.

No, rules shouldn’t strive to define and explain everything about the game.

Let’s dive into the reasons why.

Why loose rules are good

1: You can’t be exact anyway

Without knowing it, all rulebooks already leave out loads of details.

When they say “draw a card” … you could interpret that in a million ways!

  • The implication is that you use your hand to draw the top card, and put it with the other cards in your hand. (Without showing it to everyone, or saying what it is, or drawing a random card from the middle of the deck, or doing a flipflop.)
  • None of that is explicitly stated.

Clearly, there’s a balance here. Rules already rely on basic definitions of how games work or what verbs means to be more concise. Genre games heavily rely on gamers already knowing the tropes of that genre by heart, unless they did their best to be gateway games.

I’m not actually advocating for something groundbreaking.

All I’m saying is that the balance leans more towards leaving stuff out than many designers (or, at least, writers of rulebooks!) seem to think.

2: The details only start to matter on your 5th game

If you’re a regular gamer, you probably know quite a few games that have clear rules to prevent “overpowered cards” or “broken combos”. Tiny exceptions or restrictions that are clearly put in place because the designer discovered some part of their game could be abused or lead to unfairness.

If you’re a regular gamer, you also know that absolutely nobody knows what they’re doing the first time they play a game.

Depending on the scope and length of the game, it might take 5 or more games before you get a grasp of everything and form solid strategies. Before that moment, nobody will notice the broken bits or know how to use them, and nobody will care.

Any major advantage is wiped out by cluelessness.

Any remaining advantage is explained away by it being “your first few games”.

All those tiny details do not matter until you’ve played the game so many times that you know the rules by heart and/or are ready for expansions.

You know what those details do accomplish? Friction. A harder path towards the fun. A more difficult first game.

Leave them out. Just … leave them out.

If you know something is an overpowered strategy, you should actually be vague about it as to not draw attention to it. (You can guess why I hate rulebooks giving “strategy tips” to the one reading it …)

If players play your game 10+ times, and some part is broken, they will house rule it themselves. They’ll have the experience and motivation to fill the hole left by your vagueness, in a way that leads their group to have the most fun.

I’ve played many games, heavy and light. I’ve played with many different groups, both new gamers and experienced ones.

Nobody remembers and correctly implements all the rules of a game on their first few tries. Something is forgotten. Something is misunderstood. Something is conveniently swept under the rug because it doesn’t add to the fun.

And these are never the same things. A group of mathematicians (I’ve studied applied mathematics) has no trouble remembering the logical or mathematical structure of a game, but will forget that you can trade or bargain for example. Another group prickles with recognition on the bargaining explanation, but completely disregards the mathematical side of the game.

Thus, you can’t “solve” this just by testing a lot and adding extra reminders/explanations/clarifications for all the little bits of confusion you notice.

3: You don’t know all future players and games played

This leads into the third point. So many times I’ve designed a game and added extra rules just because I thought something would be unclear or abused. Because my mind wandered to a friend of mine who always plays a game like X, and I could already see them doing Y and Z and getting too many points.

But the reality is … I didn’t know if they were a meaningful addition.

I can’t know, because I can’t test (or watch) the game with all possible players, groups, situations, times of day, etcetera.

Maybe I think something is overpowered, but that’s just because I’ve only tested it with the same group of people and/or my brain can’t think of a solution. Put that game in the hands of others, and they might immediately find a strategy to beat the supposedly overpowered mechanic. I don’t know. I’m not omnipotent, I can’t see the billions of ways to play my game.

So, in reality, we have two options.

  • Add loads of rules and restrictions for rare situations, without ever knowing if they truly balance the game or just add noise.
  • Not add all that stuff, with the exact same end result.

Obviously, I’d opt for the second option.

Rules should leave room for the actual players (and their experience, group dynamic, etcetera) to fill in some details.

There should be some headroom, some gaps, a ceiling at an undefined height. One group might never reach that ceiling. Another might bump into it and reveal something about my game that I could’ve never seen on my own.

People just want to have fun. So they’ll fill in those gaps in a way that leads to maximum fun for the group. When in doubt, they’ll interpret rules in a friendly way, or in the way that leads to the coolest actions in their current game.

Most importantly, this can only happen if you don’t seal your rules shut.

If you barricade the doors, seal every window, wrap your rulebook in safety goggles … nobody is able to make those tiny changes for their enjoyment. They’ll probably not even consider it.

How do we achieve this?

As stated, it’s a search for balance.

Designers should identify the core of their game. The thing that must be done correctly, because it’s the unique engine that keeps the game running.

Yes, explain that with unmatched precision, conciseness and skill.

The core should be something so short, attractive, snappy that you can put it in the marketing text. Something I can use as a sort-of-oneliner to get people hooked on a game. But it must be explained and it must be followed in the precise way communicated.

Everything else? Ask yourself if rules or tweaks really matter.

  • Do they add fun? Or am I just balancing an imaginary problem?
  • Do they occur often enough to have a rule about them?
  • Can I see a strategy, however uncertain, that would combat the problem if players found it?
  • Can I change the rule ever so slightly, so it can be explained with 1 sentence instead of 5?

And most of the time … realize that they don’t matter, so loosen up.

That is my approach. It leads to extremely short and simple rulebooks—and it has never led to trouble.

An example

For example, one of my games has a special card that says: “When received, give back a different card.”

There is vagueness here, of both kinds.

  • What is “different”?
  • Any other card? Or a card with a different suit / number?
  • Only when received as part of a player turn (“give away 2 cards” is one possible turn), or also when received as part of some special power?

If I wanted to fix that, the card would need text like this:

“When received for whatever reason, give back any card from your hand showing a different suit than the card you received.”

But why would I do that? It’s very long. Most people will assume my original intent with the card. And even if they don’t … it doesn’t really matter.

All that matters is that the player doesn’t give back the card they just received. That much is clearly stated. Anything else can be filled in however your group interprets it, because all interpretations that I can see are absolutely fine.

Another example

Over the years, I learned one crucial question to constantly ask players: “What would you have wanted to do on your turn?”

Most players know what they want.

  • They want more cards.
  • They want more money.
  • They want to place their little egg on their little bird.
  • They want to claim that cute village when they’re standing next to it.
  • They want to flip more of those facedown cards so they can look at them.
  • They want to be able to steal workers from their opponents.

To give people the most fun, design a game that allows doing all the things they want to do.

Frequently, we finish a test round of one of my games, and I hear players say something like: “Yeah, it was fun, but it felt too slow. Like you didn’t get cards fast enough.”

So I say: “Alright. Let’s play another round, in which you draw two cards instead of one.”

That’s all. We play again, it’s an improvement, this is clearly a good rule that needs to be communicated clearly.

All the rules that nudge players towards having fun, should be in the rulebook and handed out like free candy.

Any other rules should be under more scrutiny. Consider why you’re adding them at all. Just busywork? Because you think you need it for balance? Because another part of your game isn’t working and you’re trying to make up for it?

Because here’s the flipside: there are always things people don’t talk about. There are often rules I explain … and everyone forgets them (even I, sometimes) … and we do not miss them. Or tiny rules that two people interpreted differently, and we only discover halfway through the game, and that also didn’t matter. In fact, it leads to memorable games.


I guess it comes down to the idea of “is a game a highly specific set of rules, components, artwork, etcetera” or “is a game a general framework to have fun together”?

I lean towards the latter approach.

Perhaps it’s because I’m more of an intuitive, loose, improvisational person. Perhaps it’s because I’ve played with so many different groups since I was 9 years old, including non-gamers or very weird combinations of strangers.

Perhaps my experience creating all those games has simply shown me that a very strict rulebook, or any rulebook with more than a few pages, just isn’t going to work out for 95+% of people.

I’m not saying I’m good at this. I’m still learning how to make good games, how to write good rules, how to streamline ideas. As all designers, I will continue learning the nuances my whole life.

But I wanted to write this article to explain this idea of “loose rules” and why I’ve come to prefer them. Why I think rulebooks reaaaally don’t need to be that long and complicated, and why most games will benefit from just entirely removing 90% of reminders, exceptions or tiny restrictions for balance.

I’m more scared of overwhelming people, or seeing the dejected look on their face when I explain the minute details of why they can’t do that specific action they wanted to do for two turns, than any discussion about how to interpret a rule.

I’m more scared of providing a big hurdle between somebody and a new game, than giving them a fun game that could have been slightly better if we added the other 50% of the rulebook.

I will probably always write loose rules. The core of the game is explained very precisely and must be followed, but anything that doesn’t really matter is folded down to its simplest form, even if it adds a little room for interpretation.

And I hope more designers follow this trend.

As always, keep playing,