How not to write the rules of a card game

Describing the rules of any game is difficult.

People who write the rules of board games, and of physical sports, are generally aware of this, and make an effort to write clearly, so that readers who have never played the game or sport before will be able to understand and learn from their description. However people who write the rules of card games often do so in ways which seem to be deliberately incomprehensible.

I have therefore collected some of the techniques that can be used to make it difficult to understand the rules of a card game, and listed them below. If you are writing up the rules of a card game, you can use these techniques, or avoid them, as you prefer.

Do not say what pack is used for the game

Your readers will need to know what pack to use. If you don't tell them, they will have to guess. Therefore, many writers omit any mention of what pack is used.

If you feel you must describe the pack, do so with reference to some other pack that may be unfamiliar to your readers. For instance, write "take a standard pack and remove the sevens", without saying whether the standard in your part of the world has 32 cards, 48, 52, 54, or some other number.

Mix rules with advice on skilful play

This is the most effective of all methods of causing confusion, and is widely used.

To make it more effective, you should ensure that you not only mix rules and advice, but do not distinguish between them. Here are some examples:

"If an opponent leads a trump, you should play a higher trump." Note the effect of "should" here. The subjunctive is often useful for leaving it unclear whether a rule or advice is being given. I say more below on the use of the subjunctive.

"Usually, when I play, the two of clubs is the first card played after all bidding is done." Does the writer play the two of clubs because she thinks it is skilful to play it, or because there is a rule requiring her to?

"The declarer determines .. whether to be in game (25 or more points) or to go for a partscore (fewer than 25 points)." The parenthetical remarks are probably advice, but their appearance in the same sentence as a rule makes this doubtful.

If advice on skilful play is given before any mention of the rule which makes it skilful, it can be particularly effective. This makes the advice completely incomprehensible, and may also cause confusion about the relevant rule when it is eventually given.

Mix rules with irrelevant information

The basic rules of a card game can often be given in a couple of pages. But they can easily be padded out to several chapters if they are interspersed among other material. Almost any material can be used for this: the history of the game, the reasons why the author enjoys it, what size of table ought to be used, what you might drink while playing, anecdotes about the game and about the author's experiences. If these anecdotes are unbelievable, they will also serve to reduce the author's credibility, so that when rules are given, the reader will not believe them.

Compare the game you are describing with some other game

The other game may be one from which the game you are describing was derived. Or it may be an unrelated game having a few features in common. It does not really matter. This technique is useful because it allows you to state a rule from the other game without making it clear that it is from the other game.

Mix basic rules with treatment of irregularities

The rules of card games would be much simpler if they were played by perfect beings who always obeyed them and were never incompetent, clumsy, or dishonest. However, in the real world, deviations from legal play, know as irregularities, occur; and the rules may specify how these are to be handled.

If the basic rules are given first, and the rules covering irregularities are given later in a separate chapter or appendix, a beginner can usefully ignore the latter. This makes it far too easy for the beginner to understand the basic rules. Therefore, you should cause confusion by interspersing the basic rules with the rules that cover irregularities.

Two methods can be used to increase the confusion from describing the treatment of an irregularity. One is to omit any indication that you are giving the treatment of an irregularity rather than a normal rule of play. The other is to deal with the consequences of breaking a rule before you state the rule itself.

For example, if there are rules covering what happens when a player accidentally exposes part of his hand, these should be stated before the basic rule that a player should keep his hand concealed. Then the reader is left wondering what the benefits are in exposing part of his hand.

Mix basic rules with variant rules

Many card games have variants. Instead of describing these separately, you can cause confusion by giving the variant rules along with the basic ones. If you do this carefully, you can leave your readers unsure whether subsequent text is about the basic game or the variant.

Mix rules with examples

For example, having presented a hand, write "You are unable to follow suit with a heart, so you may play a spade, or a club." Does this mean that it is for some reason illegal to play a diamond? or just that it is a poor play so the author would not consider it?

Omit the basic rules

Some writers feel that while their account of the rules of a game can be extremely confusing, it must at least include all the basic rules. But there are others who claim to present the rules of games while omitting all the basic rules, perhaps on the assumption that their readers know them already. It is up to you whether you are willing to use this technique. A disadvantage is that readers may realise that it is a waste of time even trying to make sense of what you have written. Here is an excellent example of this technique.TK

Instead of omitting all the basic rules, it is more effective to omit one or two, and to leave no evidence that you have done so. For example, you might explain the following-suit rule of Jass like this: "You must either play a card of the suit led, or play a trump." This is correct if you hold a card of the suit led. If you omit the fact that this only applies when you do hold a card in the suit led, your readers will wrongly assume that they are forced to ruff when they are void in the suit led.

Miscellaneous tips on writing obscurely

"At that time" is an effective phrase for causing ambiguity. "You cannot expose your meld at that time." Does this imply that you can expose your meld at some unspecified later time? Or does it mean that you cannot expose a meld made in the circumstances described?

If a sentence describing a rule turns out to be loose and woolly, you can enhance the effect by appending another loose and woolly sentence that contradicts it tangentially, in a purported attempt to clear up possible confusion. ST

Repeat the previous rule in a exactly equivalent form as if it were a new rule, so the reader spends their time trying to work out the non-existent subtle difference. NL

State a general rule and then repeat it whenever it applies except for one place, to give the impression this is an exception. NL

Use two different words to describe the same concept, and use them at random.
     A more advanced form is to have three words, two with specific meanings and one that may mean either, depending on context. NL

If you use a word in a technical sense that is different from its everyday sense, make sure that you first use it before revealing that you are doing so in a technical sense.
     You can also reverse this technique, by using a word in its everyday sense, but printing it in a different typeface. This will give the impression that it is being used in a technical sense to be defined later in the book.

The suffix "-ed" is usefully ambiguous in English. It is used to form both adjectives and past participles. Thus you can write about an "extended sequence", and leave your readers unsure whether you mean a particularly long sequence, or one which has been lengthened after it was created.

I have already mentioned the use of the subjunctive to leave the reader unsure whether a rule or a recommendation is being given. Here is a different way of using the subjunctive to cause ambiguity: "since there are no 8s 9s or 10s in the pack, the card in sequence above the 7 would be the Jack". Does this mean that it is the Jack, or that it is not the Jack?

If you can't be bothered to write an incoherent account of the rules for yourself, you can just find an account (coherent or not, it doesn't matter) in some foreign language, and have it machine-translated. The result can be amusing, as in an "account of Skat" which called the highest trump is the "servant of nipples". MT


This page was written by Nick Wedd, whose home page is here. It was inspired by many examples of obscurely-written rules.

Much the most productive of these was the book Pan (Panguingue), by Murray M. Sheldon, 1969, Pan books. Anyone aspiring to write obscure accounts of rules is urged to study a copy.

Some other contributors of ideas are
Taerim Kim
Noel Leaver
Steve Thomas
Mike Tobias

I am sure that there are many more techniques that can be used to make rules difficult to understand, and I will be interested to hear of examples. If you have any suggestions, please email them to me.

Here is an excellent page on "How To Write Unmaintainable [computer] Code" – a far richer field for obfuscation than the rules of card games.

Page last updated 2016-10-07