Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly, laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile. - Samuel Longhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tabletop Miniature Rules - Bling vs Functionality vs Cost

I just saw a page from a new miniature rule book for an upcoming Kickstarter that has finally sent me over the edge. Over the last few years I feel like there has been more attention paid to the graphics within the rule book and how it looks than to the rules themselves. Now plenty of good sets of rules out there that have been written in the last five or six years that do include extensive graphics. My issue/question is; do those graphics enhance using the book or just simply increase the final price I have to pay for that book?

I think the use of color and fancy pages are definitely being overused. Plain white pages for me! Using color to make the pages look like parchment or what ever fancy background that has been picked out just add an unnecessary addition to the final cost. My extreme example of this is the SAGA rulebook which costs $40 for 70 pages of rules primarily because of unnecessary graphics that are there for presentation but do not add functionally to the rules. Now a color graphic the clearly shows how to resolve a complex situation is a different story, I'm willing to pay for that type of color usage (Fire and Fury comes to mind, Warhammer Ancients as well). And while I respect the use of color photos (Blitzkrieg Commander) please don't turn it into an expensive catalog with rules wrapped around it (GW, Battlefront are probably the worst offenders).

You know what I really like? A well organized, functional rule book with a good table of contents, a good index, clearly labeled charts and includes everything I need to play. GDW's Command Decision (2nd edition, not the obnoxious 3rd edition with the green printing on a tan paper) or Test of Battle (essentially Command Decision 4th edition), Spearhead, LaSalle, Fire and Fury, Napoleon's Battles (AH edition) and Through the Mud and Blood are all rule sets which don't require me to buy anything else to play, beyond my miniatures, and they include all or most of the features I like. I don't want to be buying "splat" books every couple of months to get the latest and greatest army or that include "updates" or "special" rules that I must have if I'm going to be able to use my army.

Now there are certainly rule sets that use "splat" books that I don't have an objection to. Ambush Ally's Force on Force or Osprey's Field of Glory series come to mind. In these cases the "splat" books are covering different periods, so if I'm not interested in that period I don't need that book. As opposed to the GW style of army books, or Battlefront's army books with all their special rules.

Granted you can't go strictly by page count when you are evaluating a set of rules. So I'm going to use SAGA as an example again. As I said before this is a pricey set of rules $40 for a 70 page rulebook and the four battle boards on heavy card stock. These are good rules, they are fast, fun and they include everything I need to play so they seem to fit all my qualifications. But this is a set that I wouldn't just buy if they showed up on the shelf. Seriously $40 for a thin book like that? So the sticker shot kept me from buying it till I was able to play a game with someone that had sucked it up and bought it. So it took a game to convince me that it was worth the $40. 

On the flip side Test of Battle  (Command Decision 4th edition, WWII) costs $30 is a 240 page tome and contains everything I need to play as well. The biggest difference it is primarily printed in black ink on white paper and includes maybe 8 pages of color photos. Just about the perfect balance as far as I'm concerned.

In the end it boils down to this; I like to play miniatures games but like everyone else I have a budget. That budget has to cover rules, miniatures and painting supplies. I'm going to lean towards rules that provide me a good game for my money, I want value not bling. I don't need fancy page graphics, I don't need a full color catalog of your miniatures line and I don't want to have to continually buy new "splat" books because the rules edition changed! With the advent of tablet type devices I don't even mind using PDF based rules anymore. Too Fat Lardies certainly has the right idea with their PDF rules, Through the Mud and Blood only costs me $12.80!

Ultimately I don't know if removing the extra bling will reduce the cost or not, but it certainly used to be more expensive to print. I can certainly see my preferences as I go down the list of rules that I enjoy playing. While there are certainly exceptions for the most part they pretty much cover my basic requirements for a useful set of rules.

Test of Battle (Command Decision, 4th Edition)

Fire and Fury (1st edition)
Regimental Fire and Fury (this one is pushing the envelope and the scenario books are very expensive)
Napoleon's Battles (AH edition)
Through the Mud and Blood
Force on Force
Spearhead (WWII)
SAGA (had to play it first before I broke down)

And because pictures say things better than I can here are examples of rules with "Bling" and those that are purely functional.

SAGA, I like these rules I don't like the price

And my biggest brief, serious page bling along with examples that could have easily been done in B&W or grayscale.

Spearhead Rule Book and Order of Battle Book

Easy to use organizational charts

Black and white and straight forward charts

The Old West, Another set with way to much page bling

Like this, give me a nice white background.

Blitzkrieg Commander - Essentially Warmaster for WWII

I like the white page, the pictures really do a nice job emphasizing the concept. They could have been in B&W though.
Now there is a page I like!
Command Decision 2nd Edition, plane but functional, gotta like that.

White page, black print, well done illustration

The organization of a Panzer division, again, black print, white paper and easy to use.

Command Decision 3rd Edition

You certainly get a lot of stuff

No idea who thought this was a good idea. Parchment colored paper, with green and gold lettering. Packer Fan I guess. I find this difficult to read in good light.

This pick shows the color of the paper a bit better

Command Decision, Test of Battle (4th Editon), Charts, counters to cut out, fog of war gods.

Unit organization, they have stepped down in size a bit, they don't have the divisional emphasis now. But still all self contained. While the game is completely self contained they do sell Campaign books for specific battles, like Market Garden and the Bulge.

Field of Glory (Renaisance) Small size hardback, lots of pages

Lot's of bling, all of which could have been done in B&W

A splat book for Field of Glory. I only need the book for the period I'm interested in and it contains all the armies involved. So a good value from that perspective

Do I need all this though?

Regimental Fire and Fury. I love these rules, wish it was a paperback instead of hardback the $35 price tag was hard to swallof

Color where black and white would have served quite nicely or even just the brown and dark brown that the chart is printed in

This page has even more bling

Force on Force, I really like these rules. Another smaller sized hardback

Page Bling, white would have been just fine, I don't need to pay for the subtle camo pattern on every page

Nice artwork, I like nice artwork

A splat book for Force on Force

Page Bling again

LaSalle, another hardback. One of my biggest issues with the hardbacks is the bindings are often poor and soon you have a book that is falling apart

Page Bling! No! Nor were all the colors required in the chart

The examples could have been done in B&W. I'm on the fence about this one. Especially since I'm not over fond of the rules.

Warmaster. Despite the rather garrish cover this is a nearly perfect as far as functionality vs bling

All the printing in your classic black & white and gray scale. There are 8 pages of color pictures which is fine.


  1. I've just had a similar post a week ago, from a bit different point of view but we seem to be agreeing on most things. I have Maurice (not surprisingly similar to Lasalle) and have printed it to use in games and as the printer can only do black and white, it was not a great issue. Although it is sold as 'printer friendly' so the pages are not coloured. I also have the FoG books but never touched them. Even when most of my stuff exists in electronic format, I really dislike the ones that are full of pictures, and it's a big 'why' at the end of my post too.

    1. I must have missed your blog posting. I'll have to go back and read it and see what your take on it is. Where a PDF is involved it takes more work to truly make it user/printer friendly for the buyer. I think Two Fat Lardies have pretty much nailed the PDF concept in their rule sets.

  2. I find this very interesting. As a graphic designer (who just designed the Aetherium rulebook) I'm not sure I share your feelings on page layout. I find the plain b&w rulesets so visually uninteresting and uninspiring that I would be put off reading beyond the first page – I have PDF examples on my iPad.

    If designed properly there's no reason why a rulebook can't be visually exciting and easy to read… if designed properly. The only reason it would cost more to produce is if illustrators were commissioned to create nice pics, a photographer brought in to shoot lots of images or if expensive printing finishing techniques (such as matt/gloss lamination, embossing or multi-page folds) are employed. There should be a one-off designers fee, so the only way it would be cheaper is if a non-designer created it at home in Word.

    The bottom line is that the shiny colourful rulebooks will catch the eye more at shows and can cover up (as you say) a multitude of sins, such as poor rules – pure eye candy. Similarly a rulebook that consists of pages and pages of paragraphs of black text and tables with nothing to break it up is equally as poor a piece of communication, even if the rules are pure gold.

    1. Mike, that's an excellent reply and you bring up quite a few really good points. I definitely agree with you on page layout, when you look at any of the Command Decision rule sets you are definitely in the "Wall of Text" realm. However, I'm pretty old school at this point so that really doesn't bother me but that's because I literally grew up with rules that were written like that; AH, SPI, GDW etc.

      I agree that graphically you can do a lot of things to make things visually pleasing but can't you do that using just B&W and grayscale? I think the old Warmaster rule book is an excellent example of a well designed and visually pleasing rule book. I look at SAGA and I see a poorly designed rule book. I feel like I'm paying for empty space and I think that's where my real irritation sits. You certainly don't have that perception with the "Wall of Text" style or the quite well designed Force on Force or Field of Glory books. Those are jam packed with stuff and it is pleasing to the eye (organizationally, well that's a different story).

      The reality is I agree with you. As a publisher I definitely want my rule book to catch your eye because we all know that gamers all have a serious case of the "Oh Shiny" syndrome. But I also want that book to be functionally useful and I think this is the point where those that have gone full eye candy miss out. You have to strike the delicate point between the two extremes and I think that most of these rule books miss the mark in that sense. I could pick two out of this bunch that are probably closer to the ideal rulebook; Warmaster and Regimental Fire and Fury. The Warmaster does have 8 pages of color and it reserves them mostly for the catalog shots that I tend to dislike but those easily could have been used for something else so I'll let it pass. Fire and Fury uses lots of color, but the pages are clean and easy to read yet shy away from the "Wall of Text" format.

      In the end you hit the nail on the hit, rule books are a form of communication and your success as a publisher hinges on that ability to communicate.

  3. The other thing to consider is that the rulebook is often the flagship element in the marketing process of a game and in establishing the brand identity of the game (two things that drive sales). This will often explain why they are so choc-full of eye candy. You are definitely correct in that you can do wonderful things in black and white but, from a purely marketing perspective, full colour will have a bigger impact than a printer friendly b&w version. There is no reason, however, why two versions can't be produced.

    Interestingly, what you call empty space I call 'white space' (a good thing), which is often used to increase the ease of viewing and impact on a given spread. It's also a standard that each new section of the rules begins on a new page (to again aid viewing), often resulting in single pages at the end of a section that have little text on them. This is when filler images are often employed to fill the space (sometimes tinted into the background to not overwhelm the text). I'd love to give examples but don't have anything to hand oat the moment. Rest assured though that the layout of a rulebook (if done properly) is quite a challenge.

    1. I certainly agree with you a laying out a rule book is not a task I would take on. That is a task for people like you! While I understand your point about white space and its usefulness I would say that in the SAGA rule book that it is not used properly. Those big empty spaces exist on almost every page. I actually think they could have made the rule book shorter. That would have certainly cut down on the cost.

      But I agree a rule book is typically the flag ship product and you are going to get a lot of eye candy, Flames of War leaps to mind, but I think there has been a tendency to over do it and that'ts what I really object to.

  4. Another aspect of "eye candy" is the long term use of the product... by this I do not mean that it will be played forever, but rather that someone will keep the volume it long after it has gone on to future editions just to look at. GW books shine in this regard. As someone who plays very infrequently, I want the pretty pictures, the diagrams, the force tables, the miniature spread and all of that as much as I want a new set of rules.

    However, if we are paying the same budget for playtesting, layout, and page art (a dubious suposition at best), then by all means, make the rules work and present them well.

    1. That's a good point. Yet I haven't taken a look at any of my GW 40K or Warhammer books since I gave up on those games. I understand your point though because I do go back and look through my FOW books although that's more because they have painting guides that are easy to get to and are comprehensive. So in that regard they continue to make themselves useful.

      Maybe the proper sequence really should design and make the rules functional first then you can go to page layouts and making them "pretty", Sometimes I think the "pretty" part is coming first.

    2. Yes, by all means make rules that work! Otherwise, just make a painting guide, or a photobook or whatever. Nothing wrong with those products, but if you want to get a flagship book that has all three, the rules need to work...

    3. And sometimes that revolves around the playtesting being to limited in scope. I was involved in a playtest once where the rules change so often that we never really had a chance to play it. Then we were accused of not keeping up our commitment to the project, and then the project folded. Make them work first, then you can design the book to your heart's content.

  5. As a graphic designer 8-), I'll say that I generally find color to be more distracting than useful. But I do understand the marketing utility of color.

    As to cost, 4-color printing is significantly more expensive than 1-color printing and color art is significantly more expensive than line art. But mixing color and B&W tends not to be much less expensive (two press setups and colation is a pain) assuming you're limiting color to a single signature for cost reasons. If you're printing the whole thing on a four-color press and only printing color on some pages, the price really doesn't change from color throughout. And if you're paying for color throughout, putting a parchment texture (or whatever) on pages that don't have anything else is really seductive -- and it might sell more books, too.

    As to white space:

    Critical for ease of understanding, and even more, it's critical for ease of finding that rule you were looking for quickly. By breaking up the text, you can more easily absorb each point in turn. And the shapes of the white spaces and blocks of text help to subliminally mark the positions of rules, so you can do a quicker seek.

    A good index is a sincere pain in the rear to create, but they (along with the ToC) improve ease of use greatly. The problems in creation are that you need to be able to figure out what terms a reader will think to use and include the right markers for each of them, and also that by the time you get to where you can create that useful index, you're probably six weeks behind your original schedule, so it's really hard to take an extra two days on a real index. Plus a good index might push you to another signature on the press, which can be a serious unexpected expense.

    Otherwise I largely agree, though I think a mention of amortizing the cost of development and production over the expected print right might be useful as well. A game about the Selous Scouts in Rhodesia is probably going to have to make up its money on many fewer copies than a game on the Eastern Front in WWII.

    1. I had some of those thoughts on cost in the back of my mind but its been so long since I ran a press that I wasn't certain of the process. I remember the huge increase in costs when we did 8 pages of color in one of the convention books though. Was really shocked. When I see an expensive set of rules like that I figure the addition of the "parchment" page was really adding to the cost but maybe its not in the end.

      I do believe that having a good index is well worth the time to do though no matter how much of a pain it is,

  6. Great post, although I'm biased in that you have recommended some of my favourite rule sets.

    I much prefer a softback booklet like the original Napoleon's Battles that just had the rules, with other booklets, that came as part of the same purchase, as separate volumes. Although there is something to say for a single book that keeps things altogether I guess. However the bad thing about hardbacks (or thick paperbacks) is getting them to lay flat when you open them. Spiral bound books do have an advantage, if they do lack something in aesthetics.

    Another key thing for a rule set is a summary sheet and play aids. A good quick reference sheet (note singular) is much appreciated. Play aids are more interesting. When it first came out Napoleon's Battles with its counters to denote disorder, casualties and routs etc was an advance over separate record keepoing. Then when Fire and Fury came along recommending specific miniatures to denote unit status that was a real improvement - that is where the bling should be. Also a good source of value add for third parties to provide. I'm a FOG player as well, but a bit saddened by being stuck using labelled status markers (I just need to get my act together I guess and make some figure bases).

    As a Wings of Glory and Sails of Glory player (rule books that are basically good, although get problematic when you are using a mix of basic, advanced and optional rules) being able to show plane or ship status is an interesting thing and if done well really makes a game attractive to watch and photograph (very important in this world of blogs).



    1. That basic decision of hardback over paperback is a tough one. I like that a hardback will at least stay open to the page I want. Yet the fact that some of the more expensive hardbacks have binding issues really bothers me. If I spend $70 on a hardback rule book I expect it to last. Paperbacks are certainly cheaper but they are harder to use at the table and sometimes you end up breaking the binding in your attempts to keep it open. There are definitely pluses and minuses each way.

      There are a number of players in my gaming group (LEG) that if there is enough margin will slice off the binding and have them spiral bound. They usually have the front and back cover laminated to extend the life, although some of the splat books go obsolete so quick and extended life is probably not necessary. While I like that spiral bound will lay completely flat , eventually the pages will start to tear out of them so now I'm back to a hardback with a bad binding.

      Good set of reference sheets is a must for any rule set. I'm okay if they are downloads though, they don't have to come with the rule book. I did love the days of the boxed rule set with everything self contained. Adventure Games Johnny Reb (1st Edition), Avalon Hill Napoleon's Battles and GDW's Command Decision (1st Edition) were really nice that way. All of GDW's miniature rules were boxed editions up till Command Decision 3rd Edition.

      I do like using markers of some kind to show status. Fire and Fury really lead the way with that concept.

  7. At the end of the day, Gw set the tone, Bling Sells, period

    1. Now that's not completely true. There are plenty of rule sets out there with lots of bling that don't sell. GW set the tone, but their rule sets weren't always filled with bling either. In fact I would venture to say that most 40K players wouldn't even miss the bling if GW started to step it down. So I disagree, bling does not always sell.