James Wallis levels with you

La Règle du Jeu

I finally played Puerto Rico, Andreas Seyfarth’s award-winning boardgame from 2002, over the weekend. I’ve had it sitting on my games shelf for well over a year, but for some reason I’d forgotten I’d never got around to giving it a try.

On Saturday evening I was forcibly reminded of that reason. It wasn’t the long and complex game set-up phase, but the rules or more precisely the rulebook. Puerto Rico has the worst-explained set of rules of any boardgame I’ve ever played.

For those who don’t know Puerto Rico, it is currently the top-ranked game at Boardgamegeek. To give you some idea of the competition, that’s on a list of 3804 names, and chess is #186. It’s a resource-management game of building a mercantile empire in the eponymous 16th-century city, and in terms of complexity it’s on a par with popular German boardgames like Settlers of Catan or Carcasonne.

We sat there reading the rules, four adults educated to degree level and beyond, two of us being people who design games for a living, and after half an hour none of us had even grasped the structure of the game and what you were trying to do in order to win, let alone the minutiae of each part of each turn. Every part of the rule book is bad: the structure, the language, the layout, the terminology, the component descriptions. I defy anyone to work ouit how to play the game from that set of rules as written. It can’t be done.

In despair I turned to the web. The Wikipedia entry gives a three-line summary of the game that summarises its object and structure, which was better than anything in the actual Puerto Rico rules. It also provided a link to a 150-page PowerPoint presentation that not only explained the rules in a clear and systematic way but also gave a thorough example of play that had some good jokes in it. We read through that, everything fell into place, and we played the game. And it totally rocks.

Had my broadband been down, that copy of Puerto Rico would have been on fire. Literally.

I know that it’s an old truism in the computer-game world that nobody reads the instructions. But my design background is tabletop RPGs where the rules are everything, or at least they were. First-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was 512 pages, of which 509 were nothing but rules and games stats. Those other three pages were an example of play, and I maintain that without it the majority of readers would never have understood how the game should be played. When I published Nobilis, the notoriously ‘difficult’ (read: non-combat oriented) RPG, it had a 20-page example of play that walked the reader through all the major features of the game’s rules and showed them how to structure a campaign as well. And I’m intensely proud of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (which I wrote) and De Profundis (which I published and wish I’d written), both of which are genre-bending RPGs in which the description of the rules is also the example of play.

Video games, of course, don’t have examples of play. They used to have attract modes, a pre-recorded snippet of play that gave prospective players a rough idea of what and what not to do, but these seem to be preserved for arcade games these days. Some games do have tutorial levels, and some of these are better than others. Halo‘s first level, which wasn’t just an introduction to the game but many peoples’ first use of the Xbox controller too, is still the best I’ve ever seen.

These days what games do have is downloadable demos. Whether it’s Xbox Live or Manifesto Games, or a cover-disc for the Luddites out there, those gaming Amish whose view of the world has not been allowed to progress beyond 2003, almost any game worth a damn will let you try it for size. And I have lost count of the number of games I’ve played for maybe two minutes, quit and deleted because I couldn’t work out what to do, or how to do what I wanted, or simply because the game didn’t play the way I expected it to. Foomph, gone, and with it any chance of selling me a copy.

What’s the most depressing sight in a video game demo? A diagram of the controller listing fifteen or twenty different functions that the player is supposed to remember. What’s worse than that? Only displaying the diagram for fifteen seconds. What’s worse still? No diagram at all… in which case either your game had better have the most intuitive controls in the world or a tutorial level, or you’re stuffed.

Understand this, demo-makers: my investment in your demo is nil. It has cost me nothing. I have no emotional capital riding on liking your game. I am waiting for you to impress me, or at least to not piss me off. If you can’t structure the first two minutes of your demo to give me a smooth and enjoyable introduction to your creation and how to play it, why should I assume that you can do better with the full retail product? And you will not get a second chance.

I admit I have been wrong before, and famously. Two notable card-games were launched at Gen Con 1993, Magic: the Gathering and Once Upon a Time, and once I grew tired of demoing the latter I went to see what the fuss about the former was. Joanne White (later editor of Scrye magazine) offered to show me how it worked. She cracked a new deck and we played a game in which, due to being dealt a truly sucky hand, I was unable to cast a single spell. I walked away thinking, “It’s a shame about Wizards of the Coast, they’ve done some nice stuff in the past but this Magic thing is going to kill them.” But that experience had everything to do with poor luck and nothing to do with the quality of the demonstrator.

Because, of course, the way that most gamers learn a new set of rules is not from reading the rulebook but from having the game explained by friends. If everyone had to learn to play Puerto Rico from its rulebook it wouldn’t be topping the charts on Boardgamesgeek right now. It was Jonny Nexus who observed that almost nobody plays Monopoly by the proper rules because almost nobody has ever bothered to read them: they just absorb them—along with interesting variants, omissions, errors and house rules—from playing the game with other people.

It’s the same with video games. Anyone can use a demo to play, but to learn to play well you’ve got to watch other players, or at least ask their advice. In the days before Gamefaqs there were tips mags, and in the days before them we used to cluster round arcade machines to witness and take notes. Video games, of course, can’t be changed by house rules but the secrets to beating them are passed on the same way. I defy anyone to work out all the secrets, tricks, hidden areas and easter eggs in any game purely on their own.

Games are social. Not necessarily in their play—though Puerto Rico is pretty dull solo—but they encourage interaction, working with others to map the territory of gamespace and dig up its secrets. Which is why the stereotype of gamers being lonely or loners is such complete tripe. A good game is a treasure hunt, and a good treasure hunt is a party.

And that’s enough about games, treasure hunts and parties for the moment, before I shoot my fat mouth off.

Footnote: my brief moment as a conduit of game wisdom, or at least my best one, concerns Area 51, the 1995 Atari arcade light-gun shooter involving zombies and aliens. 1995 was about the time that John Woo’s movies were breaking big, with Chow Yun Fat’s two-fisted pistol stylings, and Jose Garcia of Daedalus Games showed me that it was possible to emulate this in Area 51, with one person playing both Player 1 and Player 2, a pistol in each hand. Later, in a London arcade, I worked through the game this way and turned away from the machine to find—for the first time in my life—a crowd of onlookers, who all now wanted to try the same thing.

Categorised as: game design | munchausen


  1. Stephane says:

    Two notes about the well done Puerto Rico presentation:

    – Moving colonists around during the Mayor phase (slide 80) is not part of the canonic rules but a very cool idea.
    – Slide 126: You only have to pick a ship that can deliver the highest amount of the chosen type of goods you own, not the largest ship. This adds a tremendous amount of depth to the game, letting you make opponents waste their goods.

  2. Robert Maier says:

    I believe we can take it for granted that you did not pour over the German rules, but a translation?

    I’m not acquainted with ‘Puerto Rico’ myself, but its winning the Deutscher Spielepreis award makes me believe that your criticism probably doesn’t apply equally to the rules booklet of the original publication… at least some of the people who can explain the rules to their friends must have learned them from reading, not from similar word-of-mouth.

    Which means that it’s not actually the text that is bad but its translation.

    Which means that we have another vivid example of what a bad translation can do, without ever letting readers notice that it’s not the authors fault.

    Now video games have gone HUGE, and a massive amount of translation theory, books, approaches on how to do it, etc has been generated over recent years (cf the Wikipedia entry on “Game localisation”). Admittedly this is mostly concerned with translation from English into other languages, but resources are available.
    However, this has all been generated from scratch since video games went, erm, like I said, HUGE.

    There *is* /no/ such thing for “other” games – be they board, pbm, pen-and-paper, whatever. Nobody would let some random guy off the street who just promises to do it for the lowest price create the layout for a game – but the text, aw sure…

    That said, I should continue pointing out how De Profundis surprised me doubly: (1) translated material is of course all over the German non-board games market, but I always feel that it’s quite unusual in English; and (2) given this experience of translated games material, it is a rare pleasure to discover a publication on the rpg fringe that is actually translated with some understanding of the varying characteristics in the source text.) (Of course, I /could/ mention some quibbles… but that’s mere déformation professionelle.) (Was it good translation? good editing? both? – couldn’t say. But certainly good.)

    And since you mention the Monopoly situation – of course it’s similar in Germany, but there is a bit more rules-reading going on. And in my experience, that’s nothing cultural: in at least 3 out of 5 cases, it’s more to do with “Get out jail free” – which, in the German translation, says “Get free from jail”. … 8o

  3. james says:

    Stephane, you’re right about the Puerto Rico PDF/PPT: even with our limited reading of the actual rules, we could tell it wasn’t canonical. It simplifies a few points, it gets at least one number wrong (number of colonists arriving at game-start, I think)… I did mean to mention that in the original post, since it bears out my point on how game-information is usually transmitted, but forgot.

    Robert: yes, I was referring to the English rules, and I’ve no idea how closely they stick to the original German rules. In my experience the old fan-translations of German games rules available at the Games Cabinet were better than the professional ones, but they stopped updating their archive around 2000.

    I can’t take any credit for the quality of the translation of De Profundis. Portal, the original Polish publisher, convinced me to license the game by showing me the translation, and I made only a few small changes to the document before releasing it. I didn’t know there’d been a German edition, though it doesn’t surprise me to learn it was from Krimsus, who did the German edition of my Munchausen game.

    Which reminds me that Munchausen has been translated into several languages, and I’ve never been able to gauge how well the translators have succeeded in making it work. There’s a lot of English idiom in the game, puns and wordplay, jokes based on English sayings… humour is notoriously difficult to translate, and I know my style of humour is idiosyncratic and not always obvious to non-English speakers. I’m sure the game would work in any language, but whether the rulebook would work as well is another matter.

  4. Robert Maier says:

    While professionals typically know all about translation but cannot always be bothered to understand the game (even though they should), things are most likely vice versa among fans – luckily, game translation is hard enough and publicly ignored enough (reviews frequently forget to even mention that they talk about something initially thought out in quite another language) to quickly drive away the guys with more ego than skill.

    And usually, that caters well enough for technical texts where the crucial text function is all about bringing rules knowledge across in a comprehensible way (the Games Cabinet effect).

    Once texts get more variegated, however, they develop other characteristics that need to be translated, or should at the least be considered during translation.

    For one example, high-frequency items that will often be read, read out, or talked about – fields on the board, cards, skill and spell names – call for 100% non-iffy, non-cheesy, to-the-point translations in an enormously restricted space – more like advertising material, in a way.

    In the other extreme, the more elaborate, mood-setting texts and passages which are frequent in just about any kind of rpg material – they call for much more of a literary skill, to make the reading experience in the target language as similar as possible to what it was in the source language.

    But awareness of all that is… not far from sub-zero. I’m always surprised at the widespread readiness to take texts that would fail their writers just about any language exam imaginable, or even only enormously cranky expressions (“why, the best translation that we could find for ‘streetwise’ was ‘gutter lore’…”), and take them for the real thing – and when it all ends up ill-fitting and feeling wrong, the blame is all the author’s and not, say, the translator’s (or the publishers’, who could’ve gone looking for a better translator but didn’t).

    (As for your Münchhausen concerns: German reviews agree that it’s an amusing read… hum, but now I notice that the Münchhausen-translation is by the same guy who did German De Profundis . How intriguing… was that a relay translation? Now I’ll have to try and find out.)

    All that said, a good translation is still one that is absent from the reader’s perception… like a stealthy window-cleaner, the translator’s existence should only come to notice when the job is /not/ done properly.
    To ignore it even then, is a bit… paltry?

  5. Piers says:

    Mmmm, Puerto Rico. One of my favourite games.

    We’re working through a whole bunch of great-rated German board games on Sunday afternoons at the moment – Power Grid, Puerto Rico, and Caylus being the main ones right now – and the one constant among them is how badly written (or translated) the rules are.

  6. Webcowgirl says:

    Just to let you know, three friends and I worked out Puerto Rico from the rules. We cracked open the box, popped out the pieces, then spent well over an hour trying to figure out the rules. It took us a total of one and a half hours before we played one turn each, when we all decided that we’d just try things and see what happened. And we worked it through, and finished our first game about two hours after that. What a marathon!

    On the other hand, I personally have taught about fifty people to play Puerto Rico, at least half of whom have gone out and bought their own copy (frequently within a week). So I concede that this game is very difficult to learn how to play by the rule book, but it is still a great game (though in my evil little heart its place of primacy has been taken by Tigris and Euphrates). What’s funny is that even after playing it for three years I found that there were still rules I’d misread the first time around and never corrected. I think I’ve got them all right now.

  7. Paul Crowley says:

    “Two notes about the well done Puerto Rico presentation”

    Someone want to create ?

  8. nowak says:

    The complexity of demos is annoying but the one thing that video games have, when trying them out, is that you can never really break the *rules* of the game. Strategies and tactics and routes might need figuring out, but unless a game is really broken or obfuscated (see “Space Giraffe”), you can’t ever play it wrong.

    It’s not the case when playing a boardgame because everyone is just *interpreting* the rules. This is doubly the case when there’s no outside “expert” to teach everyone, as in our group, and we learn by doing. Suffice it to say we’ve played many games wrong. Minor things, but things that greatly affect the strategy. There are times, weeks or months after our first play, that one of us might just be reading up on the game on boardgamegeeks or elsewhere and we’d realize “we’ve been doing this all wrong!”

    We only played Carcassone once or twice and it was alright, but when the XBLA version came out and I played that — and was restrained by the rules — I realized that we were completely misinterpreting one rule. It changed the game for the better!

    So while controls and all that might not necessarily be obvious in a video game, you can never play it *wrong*. In an non-optimal way, yes; but never outside of the game’s rules. Some might say that’s a bad thing, though ;)

    (and I agree with webcowgirl. T&E OR GTFO!)

  9. Nothing about Puerto Rico, but the whole John Woo/Area 51 shebang cracked me up. I spent tedious mid-90’s time watching a friend play (with 1 gun) and only now do I find out what I should have been doing!

  10. A friend of mine, Melissa Rogerson, just posted a lengthy article about the process she used to translate the rules of the forthcoming boardgame Agricola over on Gone Gaming, for those interested.

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