Next month, I’m giving a talk at the University of Kentucky Esports Lounge (yes, really) about rethinking the place of rules in the classroom.
I think there are tons of unexplored possibilities for assignment and syllabus design that trade on just how tricky it is to write and read rules carefully.
For example, when I teach Philosophy of Sports, I’d like to assign a group project where teams of students invent a sport together and write a rulebook for it just as clearly as they can.
Afterwards, each team would get another team’s rulebook and look for the most gamebreaking interpretations and strategies they could come up with.
(Of course, teams would then demonstrate their findings to one another in an outdoor exhibition.)
But now, it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is.
You might remember I’ve spent the last month playtesting The SlamBall Card Game.
After nearly one zillion horrible iterations, I have created a pretty okay 28-page rulebook with 18 illustrated examples.
It’s still not perfect. And a graphic designer would help.
But here are 3 things I learned Writing the Rules.
1) Holy crap it’s hard
You have to capture the flow and rhythm of play, which I simply couldn’t do until I took a series of pictures of myself playing for both sides.
And then you have to come up with clear technical terms:
The 20-second Shot Clock is divided into four…what?
Zones? Stages? Increments?
And how should those be labeled?
And then you have to figure out a smooth path to introduce all these concepts. Before I show you how play begins, I have to explain what an LBR is. (It’s basically a rebound.) So I guess I should show you how shooting works first? And then when the shooter in the example misses, we can flow naturally into grabbing an LBR. Oh yeah, you have to make a bunch of clear examples that show what’s important right now (and no more), generalize cleanly, walk through the weird spots where players might get hung up, and maybe even explain how you might start thinking through some basic strategic considerations. And then you have to do this over and over and over again until it slowly starts to come together and make sense. I tried to write this rulebook for almost two months and I couldn’t, which really confused me because I’m a trained analytic philosopher. If I can’t explain a technical procedure clearly, what gives? The truth was that I didn’t know what the rules were yet. I needed to try and fail to articulate them, to teach them to friends who immediately broke my game over and over or found it unintuitive, and to keep iterating until I found the words and phrases and core concepts that made sense to new players and created fun, memorable moments. If writing the rules is this hard for me, I need to keep that in mind when my students try their hand at it.
2) There are so many weird corner cases
When you’re fouled in SlamBall, you don’t shoot free throws—you earn a Face Off.
When the whistle blows, you basically run at the guy who just fouled you one-on-one and try to dunk the ball on his head.
SlamBall’s so cool.
I made a whole system for simulating this where each team plays a card face-down and dramatically reveals it.
But what if one player’s just run out of cards?
That happened to “The Juggernaut” Justin Holmes during a playtest, and we decided to just reuse the last card he’d played.
It made sense thematically (Justin’s tired, so he’s predictable) and mechanically (it was much simpler than fishing out every card he’d ever played for a reshuffle).
It’s hard to foresee every weird corner case. You can (and should) try, but you should probably also give your players some principles that suggest the spirit of the rules.
That’s why the rules note that if you’re struggling to apply the results of a Chaos card, you should just choose the coolest reading possible.
3) I still don’t know what’s unclear
I’m very grateful for my handful of dedicated playtesters, but I really need to get this rulebook into the hands of new players who don’t already share my assumptions about how the game works so I can see how they’re confused. That’s the only way to figure out what’s still unclear. So here it is: The SlamBall Card Game Rulebook, version 1.0. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s play soon?