Friday, 31 October 2014

Rulebook Design – Saga

By way of an intermission to my How To Design A Rulebook posts I thought I would have a look at the Saga rulebook – the ONLY reason I've picked on Saga is that Kris Marquardt (who inspired this series) has real issues with it. I'm not going to be critiquing the rules at all – this is simply a design and layout review, taking into account some of the things I've talked about so far in the Design series.

I'd like to caveat this blog post by saying that these opinions are mine alone, based upon a quick flick through the book and backed up by my graphic design experience.

Here we go then…

The first thing to note is that the Saga rulebook is 76 pages long (a multiple of 4!) and is stitched not perfect bound, which is an odd choice. This appears to have been a cost reason alone as the quality and finish of the cover itself is on the cheap side, as evidenced by cracking in the print along the trimmed edges (which you can see in the photo above). That's not an unreasonable decision if you don't have the funds but the main issue, as you can see below, is that with so many pages in a stitched document the rulebook bows and won't lie flat.

The other knock-on effect is that, the closer you get to the middle of the book, the narrower the pages are – it'll only be a few millimeter's difference but does mean that the absolute position of things like page numbers will drift as you flick through the book.

If you look closely at the photo above you will see that the pages near the centre of the book have been pushed a good few mm away from the spine due to the volume of paper in there. When the book is trimmed, more is chopped off the middle pages than the outer pages so the page numbers will get closer to the edge of the page as you move to the centre of the book.

You may not consider this an issue, but when you're looking for attention to detail, this is the level of detail that professionals will consider and reflects the effort put in.

We haven't covered…er, covers yet, but the front of the Saga rulebook doesn't present anything too unexpected – nice big logo, illustration of sorts and a publisher logo. The black and red creates impact and give you an idea of the carnage that is bubbling within. It's all starting to get the imagination flowing. It doesn't have a one sentence description of the game, which I would like to see, for anyone browsing.

Inside the cover we're greeted by a table of contents (not an index, as the title suggests) and credits/links page. All very standard fayre. Note the game description "Dark Age skirmishes" under the logo – I wanted to see on the cover and perhaps a touch more descriptive.

The background is a cream texture, which is light enough for the text to be legible, so that's ok. You will see a small Saga logo in the top right – this is where we had the navigation in our example. In my opinion having the Saga logo is of little use here, other than to remind you what book you're reading.

The banner in which it sits is a little odd. I'm not a fan of graduations, or feathered edges, on imagery as it always seems to be the go-to solution when you can't think of something else to do – I find it rather lazy design. In addition, graduations don't always print well and rather than being smooth end up being banded and ugly. I like the idea of introducing some of the red and black from the cover, I just don't think this was the way to do it.

How not to do page numbering!

You will remember me banging on about a rulebook being a piece of communication. This is where the only real design 'crime' is to be found – page numbers. The decoration for the page numbers drowns out the numbers themselves to the point of being almost unreadable, definitely a case of style over function. Nice idea, but it doesn't help the reader at all. In addition, the tinted images in the background around the page numbers interferes with text sitting on top of it. This too becomes very difficult to read and is completely unnecessary. Again, not very helpful to the reader.

Flicking further on through the book you can see the established design elements that I talked about in the last post (apologies for the shockingly blurred image!).

The section title is in a large, decorative font set in plenty of space so you know you're into a new section of the book. The titles are in the same all-cap font as the Saga logo, with the sub-headings in a bold italic version of the very clean bodycopy font.

You will noticed pull-out boxes dotted around this particular spread showing various dice-related aspects of the game. They have a rather elaborate scroll background image which is a little on the heavy side, but breaks up the columns of text quite well. Where the text for this particular page has finished short of the end of the column, they've dropped in a filler image – a viking miniature – alas it's kind of floating in the space. I'd be tempted to move it nearer to the text above, or replace with a more subtle image (this second option would probably clash with the page number background though).

You will note how the text columns start about a fifth of the way down the page. Rather than being a waste of space this is a good thing. It keeps everything well clear of the red/black banner at the top and ensures maximum impact for the section header. They should have done something similar at the foot of the page to stay clear of the page number illustrations.

This final image – I've blurred the text considerably so I don't get into trouble for showing the rules – is another interesting layout. I like the half-page image of the tabletop on the left. It injects some colour into the spread and gets the viewer excited at the prospect of playing. Alas, it seems to be in an odd place from the perspective of the copy. In the very left column we have a title, followed by a single line at the bottom of the column. This is not very visually pleasing and not good practice. I would have been tempted to move this title to the top of the next column, or make the image smaller and bring the sub-title and first paragraph of text from column two back to column one.

The 'Ragnar says…' boxes are fun and highlight a more practical perspective to rules, unfortunately when combined with the info panel beneath and the two scroll/dice boxes it's making the page look very broken up. I wonder if they were short of text for this particular spread and needed to pad things out.

Beyond the rules, army lists and missions, at the very back of the book, you will find a reference sheet and tokens to cut out – all useful stuff.

And that's your lot for today!

A bit of a quick insight into how I see rulebooks when I pick them up – I can't count the number of rulesets I've dismissed due to poor layout or execution – and this one is not so bad in my opinion.

There are things I would do differently for sure and I'd like to see the format and finishing of the print improved to justify the price they're asking. Despite getting the Saga boards included with the rulebook, I think £25 for this is too much. For that I'd expect a perfect-bound book with a matt laminated cover and a few more pages.

To Kris, I can see where you're coming from. The bottom third of the page design really niggles me and I'm not a fan of the banner at the top. The middle bit is ok if a little cluttered, but it's not the worst offender I've seen – the second edition of Infinity saw me put the book down 10 pages in and never look at it again as it was so busy it hurt my head to read.

More soon…


  1. I just wanted to say I'm thoroughly enjoying this series. Makes me realise how many mistakes I made in the rule books I designed many moons ago - the cost of being a writer rather than a designer!

    1. Everything has a science behind it somewhere ;)

  2. I like this series about design, but in "other than to remind you what book your reading."
    I think you mean "you are reading"

    1. Good typo spot – the joys of trying to cram a blog post into your lunch hour!

  3. Again another interesting post in his series.
    I think it says a lot about SAGA that the game system is so popular despite these shortcoming (and expense) of the rules and supplements

    1. Of course the flip side of this is 40k, which has a high quality rulebook, charges twice as much and has (let's be honest) pretty grubby rules. That's an exercise in using brand equity (or how to take advantage of your customers).

      Just think how popular Saga could be with a little more thought going into the presentation!

  4. I'm not sure that it says that much about the game system (which I agree is quite good), but rather that the content layout could have been improved. As Mike as said its certainly not the worst offender. I do feel its over priced and I refused to purchase it until I had played a couple of games. In other words the price is such that you would think twice about buying it right off the shelf as an impulse purchase. While it is certainly eye catching, the price made me put it right back down the first time I saw it in a store.

    1. I ordered it online out of curiosity and have to say when it arrived I was a touch underwhelmed given the print quality the likes of Privateer Press and Wyrd are charging less for.

    2. I've always been thoroughly impressed with Privateer Press' quality control in terms of the printed material. Easy to read, easy to use - fantastic communication. Fabulous teaching tools for new players as well.

  5. Brilliant post and article. Rule books are close to my heart, seeing as I've written, designed and created several games, the last of which was my final year project for my graphic design degree.

    One rule book I did have 'modified' was the original Warhammer FRPG rule book, which came in soft cover, so I took it to a book binders and had it turned into hardback. So glad I did.

    Loving the blog, bud - keep up the good work :)



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...