Avoid these menacing manuals.
The components might be on the table, but you aren’t ready to play. Not when you have to reckon with these rulebooks. Board gamers are used to grappling with new rules on the regular. But every now and again, we flip open a manual so indecipherable that it feels like solving a cryptic crossword just to learn who goes first. Share in our stupefaction as we take you through four of the worst rulebooks in board games.
The worst board game rulebooks
Kemet: Blood and Sand
Major manual misdeed: Hiding rules
A good re-release should hone and polish the bumpy edges of the original game’s design. Kemet: Blood and Sand certainly ticks all boxes when it comes to artwork and components. And then there’s the rulebook. As wargames go, Kemet is straightforward and a great followup to an entry game like Risk. Learning it for the first time, however, feels anything but.
Sadly, Blood and Sand’s rulebook feels like it’s been slapped together as an afterthought. Critical rules pop up all over the place, even during the game’s components list. The wording doesn’t help much either. Instructions are so confusing or contradictory in some segments that it feels like they were written by an AI before being run through several rounds of Google Translate. Boxout examples only make things worse, somehow making ostensibly simple rules difficult to pass. Fine if you’re upgrading from the original but newcomers shouldn’t have to feel like they’ve solved a Sphinx’s riddle just to get started.
Major manual misdeed: An absent index
Mercifully, Space Base’s rulebook cruises past the learn-the-game hurdle. A quick run through the setup and you’ll know enough to start rolling dice and purchasing spaceships. But it doesn’t take long afterwards for things to go south. There are a glut of ships to buy, and each comes with its own power. Some trigger on your turn and some on your opponents. Plenty will interact with one another, letting you chain them into beautiful combos as your interstellar engine expands.
All those options, though, mean plenty of edge cases. Ones which, ideally, you’d look up in the rulebook. Unfortunately, Space Base’s manual contains no index outside of a list of every card in the game with corresponding (and utterly meaningless) ship classes. Helpful, that. And where individual card interactions are marked, they’re not done so in alphabetical order. That means any time anyone questions anything in the game, you’re subjected to several minutes of page-flipping tedium to find the answer. Well, that or you’ll end up trawling through BoardGameGeek forums. We’re pretty sure which method is likely to be faster, too.
Major manual misdeed: Premium price, budget breakdown
Unlike their digital counterparts, board games don’t usually get patched. You might see the odd update between Kickstarter waves, but outside of that, you’re likely to be waiting more than a decade in the hopes that a reprint will fix any glaring issues. Not so with Coffee Traders. Its original rulebook proved so utterly confounding that publisher Capstone Games decided to have a second crack at writing it just two years after release. They had good reason.
Coffee Traders isn’t a complex game, but navigating the 1.0 manual is an experience more exhausting than playing Twilight Imperium at max player count. Errors are strewn throughout. Worse still, they’re packed in with inconsistent terminology and confusing diagrams. Not a great look for a game priced at more than $100 USD. The 1.5 rulebook thankfully goes a long way to rectifying these issues, but you will need to fork out an extra $7 if you want a physical copy delivered. Not exactly the Fair Trade we were after.
Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
Major manual misdeed: The devil is in the (lack of) details
If you ever find yourself exiled to a remote archipelago, bringing Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island isn’t the worst idea in the world. But that’s only because the original rulebook serves better as kindling than an instructional tool. The English edition of Portal Games’s cooperative island-survival adventure includes perhaps the most infamous manual in the business: a rulebook so unclear that even designer Ignacy Trzewiczek has admitted it includes serious errors.
Major mistakes aside, though, Robinson Crusoe’s rules are notoriously loose as well. Vague descriptions make it a struggle to understand when and how certain actions can be taken. Part of a group that’s willing to regularly implement house rules? Not a problem. But it’s undeniable that the manual is to blame for a copious quantity of baffled -- even unnecessarily aggressive -- internet discussions. The second edition of the game did offer an update, and a third is already on the way. But it’s too late to stop the first edition’s manual from having erected a ramshackle camp of loathing in the long-term memory of anyone who tried to learn from it.
2017 saw the game’s core concepts re-implemented in First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet. It traded ramshackle houses on a cannibal-ridden island for a troubled scientific outpost on Mars. Unfortunately, that rethink didn’t stretch to the game’s rulebook, which remains just as likely to befuddle would-be players and far more likely to bore them. Here’s hoping the next adventure is set on a manual-design course.
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Author bio: When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Frosthaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found scouring the web for the latest and greatest games, then wondering why he never has time to actually play them. Share your love of deck builders with him on Twitter @Fernoface or drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.