13 December 2023
An unforgivable in rulebooks is the absence of an index, says Chris Lowry.
If there’s one thing that I think is basically unforgiveable, in this day and age, it is this: a rulebook without an index.
I mean, there’s lots of things worse, obviously. I’d settle for us resolving worldwide economic inequality, the entrenched racism in our society and the violent degradation of our ecosystem (that as a print journalist covering mostly physical goods produced in China and shipped worldwide, I’m aware I’m partly culpable for). But, if we move away from real, actual problems and myopically stare into the void of my soul and what really annoys me about board games? Indexes are top of the list.
Look, I don’t ask for much in my rulebooks. I’ll accept typos, pixelated images and a counterintuitive flow of content that makes little to no sense. I can bear that, with a grimace. Rulebooks are an Achilles heel, and as variable in quality as games themselves. There’s more than one brilliant title that moves from a ‘Must-Play’ to a ‘Maybe’ on the grounds of badly laid out rules. But still, even then, when I turn to the back pages, hoping, desperately, to find that elusive guide to our cognitive co-ordination? Finding nothing tears at my heart.
An index is fundamental to presenting complex information in printed form, and it’s frankly unacceptable to omit one. Our earliest historical reference to indexes (or ‘indices’) was back in 1575, and yet — in 2022 — less than half the games we review have one. Why?
Is it laziness? Is it too much effort to go through the booklet once and think ‘I suspect players will want to know how turn order works, let’s put a clear list at the back, and add ‘turn order’ to it?’. Yet our hobby is one of love. People don’t enter the board games industry to get rich, they follow their love for gaming, for playing with friends, and they try to create something exciting, accessible and entertaining to share with the world. They will labour for years on game mechanics, on artwork, on curating a delicious gaming experience to delight and surprise anyone who dares to play. They just don’t seem to want to write an index to go with it.
If the omission wasn’t bad enough already, it also seems that the most complex games are the ones most commonly left bereft of an index. I can think of many challenging games with many moving parts and specific rules; 1880: China, Mantic’s Armada, The 7th Continent, Car Wars 6th Edition and Twilight Inscription all come to mind. None of those titles have an option, on the final page, to hunt down ‘dividends’, ‘cannons’ or ‘planets’ — or anything!. Now, I don’t think these games share all those concepts with each other anyway, but without an index it’s impossible for me to check!
A quick scan through Board Game Geek reveals a plethora of ‘rules summary documents’, ‘quick reference rules’ and other such workarounds to the shocking oversight from our beloved games. No joke, there have even been some games that I’ve written my own index for, flicking through the rulebook and noting down common words and page references. Yes, I’m an utter nerd — but no one is making you listen to me rage on my soapbox, are they? You are still here and still listening, because deep down? You know that I’m right.
Our hobby struggles to bring new people on board. I’ve played with many non-gamers who have the knee-jerk reaction — immediately — of “this all seems very complicated…” Often the answer to that is the well described concept of ‘gateway games’, easy to pick-up games that are friendly to beginners. But I wonder if we would do well to target the easy wins in our rulebooks too, the marginal gains that spending 30 minutes writing a list of words could achieve.
So, what is to be done? Sadly, the realistic answer is probably ‘not much’. I can’t make publishers listen to me, and I’m not going to go as far as boycotting games just because they don’t have an unexcitingly drab list of words and numbers on the back page. My suggestion to our
overlord editor that games with an index automatically get a ‘Must-Play’ rating fell on stony ground. All I can do is continue to point out in my reviews the egregious lack of informational organisation that could so easily be remedied with a simple index, and hope for a better world. Thanks for reading. I’m off now to read the phonebook and breathe out a sigh of quiet satisfaction.