Building the Perfect Miniature Rules Reference

By: Dale Yu

OK, I’ll admit it… Ever since I started in this hobby about 15 years ago, I’ve been making player aids for my games.  Back in that day, the hobby of boardgaming was nothing like it is today.  First of all, the Internet was still getting warmed up, and it simply wasn’t as easy to learn much about all of these German games.  If you can believe it, wasn’t even around yet (founded on 1/22/2000) – and it took a couple of years for the content on there to pick up…   Rules translations were hard to find.  They were scattered around the Internet at various small text-only sites or sometimes being passed along in Xerox form via regular snail mail.

So, I got into the habit of making small rules reference cards to help all the players in my group learn and keep track of all the different new games that we were learning.  These cards turned out to be necessary for almost every game that came out for the simple reason that all the games were in German only at that time.  Even if a summary card was included in the game – no one could read it!  The other main reason why I made so many reference cards was that there just wasn’t a good resource to find and share them yet.  Though I have lost most of those early reference cards due to an untimely hard drive crash in 2005, I’d guess that I had about 200 different games worked up to that point.  Luckily, I still have the hardcopies in the games – so the work isn’t totally lost!  A scant few of them still exist on BGG tagged to my username – Ad Acta, Schrille Stille, and Doge to name a few – though many of them are still floating around the database unattributed due to the huge database merge of 2007.  Almost all of my cards use the text “2″ x 3″ (Business Card) Player Aid for rules and scoring – perfect for lamination” – so they are easily recognizable.  In fact, my most popular reference card (in terms of downloads) isn’t even under my name anymore – as Joe Casadonte fixed up a few typos  on my Age of Steam card and so now he has credit for the new version – though from the caption, you can tell that it was once mine…

My technique for making them has changed somewhat over the years.  Initially I made all of the cards with my trusty pouch laminator.  This machine could make little business card sized laminated cards in a few seconds.   The hard plastic cards were incredibly durable, but they were impossible to modify once made – as the heat sealed pouches could not be opened again once sealed.  The other downside to these cards was the ridiculously small amount of real estate (2” x 3” minus margins) that you had to fit rules on!  I compensated for the lack of room by using miniature fonts, often times 7pt or 8pt Arial Narrow – and I’m sure that some of my older friends needed magnifying glasses to read the dang things.

I later moved on from the miniature business card format to a more manageable 3×5 index card size.  In fact, with my new, trusty HP bubble-jet printer, I could feed the index cards directly into the printer which saved me all sorts of time with the laminator.  Unfortunately, the index cards were pretty flimsy and they ripped often.  Furthermore, bubble jet printing is quite water sensitive, so the ink often ran from sweaty hands or from any water found on the table.  Needless to say, I didn’t stay with this size for long.

Finally, I settled upon the format which I still use to this day: 3.5 inches high by 2.5 inches wide.  This size lets me use a manageable font, usually 9 or 10 point, while still getting all the information on the card that I need.  Why did I choose this size?  Well, it was based on using the materials that I had around at the time – namely, Magic: The Gathering cards and tons of penny sleeves.

I have a simple template set up in Microsoft Word that allows me to quickly get started with a reference card.  I usually start in 9pt Arial, and then change font or size based on the amount of stuff that needs to fit on the card.  Since the penny sleeves are transparent, I am able to include text on both sides of the reference sheet.  I simply print out the reference, trim it to size and then fold it in half down the midline.  I place a Magic card in the middle to give the reference a bit of structural strength (though this isn’t a necessary part of the process) and then slide the folded reference sheet into the penny sleeve.  If needed (or if the game doesn’t provide other references), I’ve also been known to print them up on colored paper so that they also serve as player color identifiers as well.

I usually create the first draft of the rules reference as I first learn the game from the rules – usually before I have even played the game.  Then, after that first game, I will go back and look to se if there’s anything that I’ve missed on the card or anything that I’ve summarized wrong.  Usually, any modifications to the card at this stage are to include reminders for rules that were missed in the first game or two.  Having switched to a penny sleeve format as opposed to a hard laminated card has definitely made this stage easier to accomplish!

Also, I try to make this a rules reference, not a comprehensive set of rules.  I’ll try to include as much as a I can on the card, but I’d rather leave little things out or abbreviate them rather than have to use microscopic fonts.  For me, the key is to remind players of all the major rules, not include every last little thing!

So, I’ve covered the how – but not the why or the what…  First, the “why”.  The main reason why I make the rules reference cards is so that everyone playing a game for the first time will be on level ground.  My group plays a lot of new games (especially after Essen), and it’s nice for people to have an easy way to remember what they should do each turn.  As I’m often explaining the rules to new games, I find that taking the time to condense the rules into such a small space ensures that I read the rules carefully and thoroughly to fit all the necessary information into the reference, and having to process the rules in order to summarize them usually helps me grok them a bit better so that I’m better able to explain the rules as well.  Additionally, when we come back to a game after a hiatus, it is usually easy to quickly get back up to speed with a good reference card.

As far as the “what” – there are four things that I usually include on the card – listed here in order of importance.

1) A summary of a game turn – most of the Eurogames that we play have fairly regimented (and repetitive) game turns.  A simple outline of the choices that a player has on any given turn is the most helpful thing that the rules reference can include.  If there is enough space, I also try to give more detailed instructions on what each different step entails.  In general, the round summary takes up one entire side of the reference card.

2) A review of the scoring – This is the first thing that goes on the second side of the card.  Players often need a quick reminder of the different ways that they can score points, especially the end-game bonuses.  I try to concisely summarize the scoring system so that players can focus on the right goals during play.

3) Important setup notes – If there is space left over after covering scoring, I usually turn towards Setup notes at this point.  While it’s often hard to try to shrink all of the setup conditions into such a small space, it often turns out to be a helpful way to get a game started without much delay.  It also prevents errors in setup when it’s been a long time since the last play of a particular title.

4) Other important rules or definitions – I generally don’t get to this part of the list as there usually isn’t any space left on the card at this point.  But, if I do have any real estate left over at this point, I’ll try to include definitions, explanations or anything else which might be confusing.  Recently, when doing a card for Magnum Sal, I had enough space left over to include short descriptions of each of the seven different types of tool cards.  While this definitely isn’t “necessary” information to play the game, having this information at hand reduces the number of times that players need to refer to the rules.  Another recent example of useful extra information from a recent release is a quick review of the 6 possible end-game scoring bonus cards in Troyes.

So that’s why and how I still make reference cards.  If you’re interested, here are a few examples of some cards that I’ve done for recent games (Essen 2010 and newer):

20th Century quick review

Firenze quick review

Florenza quick review

Grand Cru Quick Review

Magnum Sal Quick Reference

Merkator Quick Review

Norenberc quick review

Toscana Quick Review

Troyes Quick Review

Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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4 Responses to Building the Perfect Miniature Rules Reference

  1. Larry Levy says:

    I am of the opinion that player aids should be provided in games about 10 times as often as they actually are. I kind of suspect that one reason publishers don’t include these very important items in the box particularly often is that they assume that some kind soul will do the work for them and post the result on the Geek. The problem with this, other than the obvious ones like the loss of control and the potential for error, is that these fan-produced aids don’t usually appear in time for the early adopters’ first plays of the design. As we all know, these early reports on a game often have a disproportionate affect on the buzz surrounding a title and can sometimes make or break a game. So I think publishers who don’t bother with player aids are being penny wise and pound foolish.

    One particularly egregious recent example is the Kosmos version of Black Friday. The poor English translation of the rulebook is only one of the reasons this game stumbled badly from the starting gate; the other is that the procedures for actions and, particularly, price adjustments are involved, fiddly, and fairly unintuitive. And yet, they’re really not summarized in any one spot. I’m pretty sure this is one of the reasons why we’ve heard so many people screwing up the rules multiple times when they play Black Friday. The first thing I did after reading the rules was type up a player aid listing all the things that happen for each of the Actions. The second thing was to come up with a checklist of what needs to happen during a price adjustment (this latter list has 9 separate steps and if I hadn’t combined some things it could have been longer!). Armed with these two items, all of my games of Black Friday have been error-free. But it’s astonishing to me that Kosmos didn’t realize how important aids like these would be for the first time of playing the game. Sadly, I think they’ve paid for their short-sightedness through substandard ratings from people reacting to error-filled first games.

  2. Craig Massey says:

    I think it is a bit of stretch to assume that game companies are assuming that someone else will do the work. I think more likely is that the addition of reference cards/player aids is overlooked due to cost. This still ends up causing a similar problem with early plays of the game leading to erroneous assumptions, aborted games, or worse with the end result possibly causing the game to suffer in the “early buzz.”

    Are there examples of games where rules mistakes by the early adopters led to an initial buzz that killed the game before the general audience really had a chance to try it? I’m hard pressed to come up with any and tend to think in these cases the game was probably not destined for great success regardless. But I’d be interested in seeing any examples to the contrary.

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    I think cost is definitely the main factor, and especially with games that have language-independent components, publishers would have to provide rules overviews in several languages (unless they could pull it off with symbols, which is very difficult).

    I think these are great tips for game designers as well. There have been many times where playtesting a game was unnecessarily difficult because the designer did not include an overview card for each player with his prototype material. And when you are presenting a game to a publisher, it’s even more important to get the rules right on the first try!

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