The Case for Digital Adaptation

It is the year 2019, and the way players are learning to play board games is evolving, moving beyond physical rulebooks and into the digital space. I believe that publishers need to move to meet players in the digital space and I’m making the case that a living digital adaptation of a rulebook is one of the best ways to enter that space.

To start with, I’m going to define what a living digital adaptation is, and why it’s a great solution to my perceived problem. The digital portion of the term establishes that this exists in the digital space, either easily accessible through the open internet, or via an application. The adaptation portion of the term describes what the product or service would be, that is, a physical rulebook that is adapted (changed) to better serve players in this digital space. Finally, the living portion of the term is the exciting part. This adaptation would be linked to the original file of the rulebook and would be updated by the process of updating the original. This is a fantastic solution, and an innovation over the existing model, as it allows publishers to maintain both a physical and digital rulebook through a single process. Publishers can easily support their players by providing an accessible and searchable rules reference.

In my next post, I describe how I’ve implemented this system for Hand of Fate: Ordeals but, before you skip ahead, I’d like you to understand why I believe that is a necessary innovation for the industry. To help you understand, I’d like to share two of my recent experiences of learning how to play some games.

Frustration in the Forge

I sit down to play Keyforge in September 2018, a game released by industry-giant Fantasy Flight Games. I’m at a local store as part of a pre-launch event. I read over the rules first and then play a game with a friend who has a couple of games under their belt. It flows pretty well, we have a nice sized table to ourselves and are able to keep the rules sheet next to us and pick it up to check keywords when necessary, but we happen to be playing with very similar decks, and only encounter a few of the game’s many intricacies.

Next, I go to the actual launch event. It’s pretty packed, and I’m running late. I buy myself a single deck, forgoing the more expensive Starter Set, and sit down to play a game with a stranger. We don’t have any tokens but there’s a nice person who’s sharing the table with us, and they offer us free use of theirs. We start playing and it flows reasonably well. We’re both aware of the basic turn structure, but we quickly encounter some rules we need to be clarified, which means we need to read the rules in some form. The individual decks, which we both purchased don’t come with a rulebook, and the starter set comes with a rule sheet (which provides a good overview, but a comprehensive represensive), but not a rulebook. It’s a packed store, and we look around and can’t see anybody with a starter set or rule sheet, so we do what we must. We take out our magical internet devices, that we have because it is the year 2018, and find the PDF of the rules on the internet, because it is the year 2018. We pinch, we zoom, we squint, and we eventually are able to puzzle out that the word Archives means that you place a card in an additional pool of cards that can be conditionally accessed. Note: I learn a few decks later that ‘Archiving a card’ means ‘Archiving a card from hand, unless otherwise specified.’

This slight frustration is not enough to turn me off the game, and I excitedly buy a few extra decks and take them away to play with friends. Again, we find ourselves with little table space, but I printed out the actual rules this time. I discover that the rulebook PDF available for download is actually more complete than the rules sheet included in the Starter Set, and much more complete than the complete absence of rules found in each deck box. However, I don’t have a colour printer and my stapling is a little poor and the rules aren’t really sized for A4 (the standard-sized paper of exotic Australia), so the rules document I construct ends up looking quite unofficial. We’re playing in pairs with two games going at once, and one of my non-opponent friends asks how something works, and I end up doing that very familiar rules reading posture. You know the one. Since there’s no room on the table, you can’t put the rulebook down, so you lean back in your seat and hold the rulebook hovering between your chest and face, opening up the pages so they’re almost brushing your nose. I’m able to provide an answer to their question, but I look across later and find them in the other increasingly-more-familiar posture: phone held in front of their face, fingers pinching and rolling across the screen in search for answers.

Lost in the Forest

It is a few months earlier, and ROOT fever is at its height, and I have just received my Kickstarter edition of the game. I am wary of learning the game, as I found the the teaching-while-learning experience of VAST, its predecessor, quite traumatic. I decide to play a solo game first, so I can learn the rules and be confident teaching it to other players. The game comes with two rulebooks, a Learn to Play booklet and a rules reference called the Law of Root. For my first solo-learning experience, I set up the game and go through the Learn to Play booklet, and then discover that I actually need the rulebook in the expansion to play the solo version. I get this out as well and start to play.

Some time after trying to start the game, I find myself a couple turns in, with my computer on my desk behind me, the game laid out in front of me on my 1.5 metre table, flanked by three different rulebooks. While the rulebooks are written in a very concise matter and are well-supported by the components of the game, I find myself confused about how to interpret a few simple rules. I soon develop a process: start with trying to understand the relevant rule in the relevant Learn to Play book, then check to the Law of Root if I need additional clarity, and then sometimes back to the Learn to Play to see if that helps me understand the intention of a rule (which seems necessary because of the concise wording), and finally if I am still confused between the three rule booklets, that I head to the Board Game Geek (BGG) website for help. The forums of BGG never fail to help me find the way through the dark forest of ROOT’s rules.

After finding my way clear of my first solo adventure, I take the next step and play with actual people. After my initial stumble through the forest of rules, I find that I have a very solid understanding of what the rules actually mean. It is the second time playing for most of my fellow players, and we go back-and-forth on a few rules that either they or I played wrong in their first game. We check the rule books to see who’s right, and then if we’re still confused, again into the deeps of the BGG forums. By the end of the game, we come to a complete understanding together, but the rulebooks and the internet forums had a heavy presence on the table.

After the second game, I felt that I have achieved complete mastery of the rules of rules of ROOT, but every now and then as I continued to play, would come across an edge case that sent me back to the forums. Eventually, I find a very fantastic FAQ on the forums of BGG from the game’s rules editor, Joshua Yeardsely, which helped clarify some ideas behind how the rules are written and should be interpreted, with a few example edge cases.

A new path

In both of these games, the learning experience didn’t prevent me from playing or enjoying the game, but it did make it just that little bit harder and more frustrating. Both these games have been stand-out successes, and I believe my learning experience and the support provided by the publisher is above the standard for the industry.

With Keyforge, the publisher is attempting to innovate, but it is frustrating to me that one of their key innovation is providing an up-to-date PDF rulebook in lieu of a physical rulebook. All my interactions with the rules of Keyforge, after the initial learning experience, have had the purpose of clarification. After learning the game, I didn’t need to re-learn it, but I did need to easily access a keyword reference and clarify what happened with some complex interaction. While a PDF rulebook did help me, I didn’t actually need a laid-out rulebook, I needed the content that was delivered through that rulebook. The Keyforge rulebook is still only readily accessible to me in two forms: some stapled, greyscale pages or a page-size PDF viewed through a viewpoint of ⅛ the intended size. Until the rules are released in a more accessible format this frustration and tension will follow me, since I will never have a real rulebook.

Overall, learning ROOT and clarifying rules after successive plays was much less frustrating than the experience of Keyforge, because of the support that I was able to find online. While the rules were well-written and well-formatted, every now and then I would still find something that wasn’t quite clear enough in the printed rules, and returned, once again, to the BGG forums for clarification. The forums were great, and I found people who were working on the game, and passionate players helping others to understand it, but my experience with ROOT highlighted how much support unofficial forums provide and how reliant I am on Board Game Geek for overcoming hurdles learning games. While I’m quite able to navigate the depths of BGG, I’m concerned that supporting players primarily through unofficial channels means that many players (especially players new to the hobby) won’t find that support. It also doesn’t remove my frustration when using a mobile device as BGG still isn’t properly responsive in the forum section of the website. With ROOT, I was satisfied with the support provided, but frustrated by the length I had to go to find it.

Update 29th January: When I first wrote this article, there was no rules support available on the publisher’s website, but the publisher added a link to a FAQ Google document sometime between the 18th and 25th January, 2019 (verified via the Wayback Machine). This is progress to be praised, but it is worth noting that as a logged-in BGG user I still have access to much more support. The forum post by the editor goes beyond the simple FAQ provided on the publisher’s website, and there are updated rules available for download, provided by the game’s designer, Cole Wehrle. The updates and clarifications made for the 2nd printing don’t seem to be available on the publisher’s website, although they do provide the balance adjustments made for the 3rd printing.

Update 29th March: I reached out to the Leder Games team in the lead up to their Kickstarter for the Underworld expansion for Root to see if they were interested in pursuing a living digital adaptation. I love the game, and it was a good fit for the system, so I was delighted when they agreed. The project is now online in it’s temporary home at I hope that players find the implementation as helpful as I dreamed it would be.

I believe that for these games, and for many others, that there is a clear and obvious path forward. As a person living in the year 2019, I’m quite adept at searching information on the internet, and that is how I was successfully able to learn these games, but the publisher didn’t make that process easy. I believe it is inevitable that players are going to demand more digital support, as they are increasingly frustrated with the technology that is out-of-sync with the rest of their life. To answer that demand, publishers need to have a resource-efficient way to deliver rules digitally. In my next post, I’ll show you how this can be done.