Nobody likes a game with more rules than necessary. The more rules there are, the longer it takes to learn a game, especially if there are also a lot of edge cases or exceptions. Too many rules can lead to confusion and slow down the flow of a game and consequently increase playing time. In this article, I want to look at streamlining games and how it can affect the playing experience.
Let me continue with what a game feels like that has way too many rules. That usually means that two or more rules basically say the same thing and each variant might just deal with an edge case or exception. That will be confusing and ensure that players will refer to the rulebook many, many times as they play the game, which means playing time is noticeably increased due to the re-reading of the rules. So that's definitely something that needs to be addressed or the game experience will be painful as the flow of the game and the immersion in the game's world is constantly interrupted.
In fact, edge cases and exceptions should be removed completely, whenever possible. If something can't be covered by a general rule, then it will mean players will either get stumped when they encounter an exception and will have to look it up in the rulebook or they may not even realize that there is an exception and fall back to what they believe is covered by a general rule. If edge cases are missed, players won't be playing the game as it was intended and chances are, they will have a negative experience - even if sometimes, accidentally "house ruling" a game can lead to a better experience of course.
So, let's assume the rules have already been optimized insofar that there is no duplication. However, there can still be way too many rules and by that I mean more rules than most people are likely to be able to remember. That rules complexity will usually make for a bad playing experience, because nobody is quite sure what they should do, which is made worse if players have multiple options on their turn. Games will feel like walking through treacle, except that treacle is at least sweet, while the playing experience will be bitter.
If the rules of a game can be streamlined and cut down to a manageable size, then playing the game will flow a lot better and therefore feel much nicer. If a game has only a handful of rules, then it will be easy to learn and remember. On your turn, you will know what you can and can't do and chances are you will be able to formulate a strategy that will guide you through the game. Players will feel much more in control of the gameplay, as opposed to games with huge rules overheads that feel like they are playing you.
Saying that though, just because a game has very few rules doesn't mean it's not going to be complex, of course. Many games, that seem very simple at face value, turn out to be really thinky, because players have many options on their turn or they have to plan several steps ahead to be successful. Just think of something like draughts, which has very simple rules but will take a while to master and become good at. Go is, of course, another example of a game with relatively few rules but huge complexity that arises from the players' choices.
Let me try and go full circle though, because sometimes it's actually nice to play a game that isn't fully streamlined and requires you to spend a good amount of time learning the rules before you can start playing. Even during the game your brain is not only occupied with deciding what to do on your turn but to some degree also remembering the rules. There is a fine line here between the relatively large number of rules making for an enjoyable experience and a game becoming really painful because the rulebook is more like a badly written novel.
There are more elements to all of this, of course. It's not necessarily just the number of rules that will affect the players' experience of the game. Clarity, just like duplication and edge cases, is very important - rules need to be well formulated so they are easily understood. The order in which rules are presented also matters and is probably one of the hardest things to achieve in rulebooks. Often it is clear which rules should come first, but not always - and making the right decision here can make the difference between a game that will never get played and one that will make your brain burn while you ask for more and just can't stop playing it.
What do you think? Do you prefer games with very few rules or do you quite like reading a large rulebook? What games have you come across that have hardly any rules, but still create a deep and memorable game experience? What games do you think have just too many rules, so that you have house ruled them to make them easier and more fun to play? Please comment below. I'd love to hear from you.