Joshua Yearsley, Editor of Root - What Does it Take to be a Rulebook Editor?
No matter how great the cover art, the insert, or the beautiful components, a bad rulebook can sour the best of first impressions. On the flip side, a good rulebook fills you with anticipation as you imagine how the plays will unfold in your group. Well, little did I know when I first got into the hobby that much of this magic happens through the hands of rulebook editors. That is why today, I'm interviewing Joshua Yearsley, editor extraordinaire who has worked alongside Leder Games and many other notable publishers.
Hey Josh, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Totally! I’m thirty-one and I live in western Massachusetts. (Most people’s follow-up question is whether I live in Boston. Nope! Other side of the state.) I live with six people in a cooperative house—we share responsibilities equitably and cook house dinners daily, allocate rental profits democratically, and give an equity share of the house mortgage to people who live in the house for five years. (And we play a lot of games together!) Besides games, I really enjoy reading, drumming, and generally being active with biking and weightlifting and such.
Before we dive in, what are the three games you'd choose to describe your gaming preferences?
Whew…can I include games I’ve worked on? I’ll assume not. Twilight Struggle, Eclipse, and Spirit Island.
So how did you end up entering the board game industry? Was it something that was lingering for a while or did it happen on a whim?
I didn’t plan on it! After spending a couple years in a doctoral program in materials science, I decided that going into academia was a fool’s game since the job prospects were so dry. So I told my graduate adviser that I wanted to stop with my master’s degree, and she asked me what I wanted to do. Over the years, I’d had great experiences working with my fellow grad students on refining their dissertations—everyone but me seemed to hate the writing process with a passion, so people started coming to me for help—so I said, “publishing.” She immediately offered me some basic copy-editing work at a science journal where she was editor-in-chief.
Around that time, Kickstarter was really taking off, including the games scene there. I reached out to one designer who was making a hard sci-fi roleplaying game—extra points if anyone figures out which one—and asked if he needed an editor. Funnily enough, my materials science background made me an appealing candidate, so I got the job. (There actually were a few points in the book where I caught some absurdities with how materials worked, so I guess the designer’s intuition worked out.)
That was my first job in games, so I earned very little from it—nowhere near a reasonable amount, but what did I know? The science work paid better, so at the start I did 90% science editing and 10% games editing. Now, I work totally in games.
That's awesome, I love how supportive your adviser was in the process. So, for those who aren't aware, could you give a quick rundown of your job description?
Basically, the editor is the advocate for the audience. The designer makes a compelling game, and the editor makes sure that it’s learnable and usable. (In reality, the relationship is more complicated, but that’s a good enough description for now.) I work to ensure that the game is clear, concise, and consistent, whether that means tightening up sentences and fixing typos, restructuring chapters, writing examples, improving the graphic design, creating iconography, prototyping walkthroughs and player aids, or even getting involved in deeper development work to make the rules themselves more streamlined. Depending on the project, I might touch a lot.
What's the most stressful part of working as a rulebook editor? Most rewarding?
It’s stressful to know that, no matter how hard you work, there’ll always be a mistake lurking somewhere, and that someone is going to have a worse time because of it. Games are complex systems, especially the ones that I like working on, and making a watertight system on the first try that accounts for the vagueness of language, the differing experience levels of players, and many permutations of possible interactions—that’s impossible.
But it’s rewarding to try. Every game is a puzzle, and intricate puzzles are fun to work on—or at least for me (and I think for much of your audience). And it’s doubly rewarding to watch as people have easier and easier times learning as you blind test better and better iterations of the rules. Of course, it can be frustrating to watch people stumble over things that should seem obvious, but that frustration contains all the lessons needed to solve the puzzle.
It's clear that you're wired for this. Are there any unique/strange habits you've developed as a result of your work?
What a neat question! I’ve started thinking much more in terms of a “rule of tens” or orders of magnitude. (Though I’m sure my science background plays a role there too.) For example, when I finish an edit and see that I made a thousand edits, I assume that there are still a hundred or more mistakes sitting around. Same deal the second time—if I fix a hundred things, then I can assume there’s at least ten left. So, I’ve become more aware of, and comfortable with, the idea that even though I don’t see the mistakes yet in something, I will inevitably see them if I give myself some time and then look again. This is all just based on my experience, but some limited research does suggest that the limit of human ability to recognize even simple mistakes caps out at about ninety-something percent per pass, so maybe my rule of tens holds water.
What are some common headaches for rulebook editors that most people don't expect?
Making sure your interpretation of the game actually matches the designer’s! There might be old rules hanging around, or you might misinterpret something that seems clear but isn’t. Often this is a good thing, because it means you found a place to make the rules clearer, but you actually have to recognize it and confirm it first. You can’t just assume that your interpretations are the correct ones.
But on the flip side, if you ask the designer “Is this actually how this works?” too many times, you’ll waste time and annoy people, so one of the best ways to get around this is to actually play the game with the designer a number of times or watch plenty of videos of the designer playing the game.
This issue is doubly headache-y if the rules change while I’m working on them. The more that the rules change, the tighter I need to be integrated into the development process.
Do you typically have publishers getting in contact with you or do you reach out to them with a portfolio of your works? Are there any busy seasons?
At this point, all of my work comes from publishers contacting me. That definitely wasn’t true for the first couple years of doing this—I have an old Excel doc listing all my cold calls (well, emails) from 2013, the first full year that I did this in earnest. The numbers are pretty stunning: I sent out 231 emails—each tailored to the recipient—and 51 responded with some possibility of work, but ultimately only 6 produced any work. So that’s a bit under 3%. But it was a start, and it grew from there.
As far as busy seasons go, I haven’t personally noticed any, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the busiest time was November through maybe April, basically outside of the big con season.
Do you happen to have a preference on the type of games you like to work on or avoid?
If it looks challenging because it’s doing something new, I’m in. I’d rather work on something hard and fail than work on something easy and succeed. Learning and growing is what keeps me interested in my work.
What is the ideal scenario for you to perform at 100% in helping the publisher? What are the most common "bad practices" among publishers that get in the way of this?
The most common bad practice I’ve noticed among publishers is not clearly defining roles, responsibilities, scope of work, and power structures to match the comfort level of the team members. In tightly knit teams that I’ve worked with a lot, we have the rapport necessary to navigate strong disagreements smoothly. But often, freelancers get thrown into teams with lots of people they haven’t worked with before, and they have to navigate those relationships on the fly: Who’s doing what? Who has say? Will other new people be added? When?
It’s certainly not necessary to create strict hierarchies and processes—those can slow everything down and kill morale and agency—but it’s important to create a feeling of safety for new people on teams. And setting out transparent expectations and roles will foster that feeling.
When you first get your hands on a rulebook, what are some immediate red flags that make you suspect that it will need a lot of work?
To be brutally honest, almost all rulebooks that go to an editor need a lot of work. That’s not an indictment of designers—because after all, they’re designers, not writers. Well, a few are writers, but not many.
While the state of the rulebook is less telling of whether it will need a lot of work, the state of the project is more telling. Is the designer actively engaged with the team and answering questions in a timely manner? Am I filling in for another editor that left? Are the expectations of my work and the deadline aligned with the actual state of the project? If the project manager thinks the rulebook should be done in a few weeks but development is still ongoing, that’s a red flag, for example.
What is the extent of your work? As in, how much creative freedom do you exercise to shape the final design of the rulebook, from the overall look, the general layout and structure of the rules, etc?
It depends! Some companies have a very strict process where your scope of work is limited and you have just a few days to work. Once, a publisher instructed me that I was only to ask questions and point out problems, but suggest no solutions unless it was a very straightforward typo or grammar error. This seemed like an odd way for me to help, but it seemed to work fine for them.
In other cases, I have significant creative freedom, and not just when it comes to the rulebook. A game that has many unintuitive mechanics and generates lots of edge cases will defeat even the best editor, so sometimes my work blends development and editing. On Oath, the next big game from Leder Games, I have extreme creative freedom in rulebook, aid, and component design, layout, and systems development. I think I do my best work when thinking about the game experience holistically—when my work gets closer to user experience (UX) than editing alone.
You mentioned earlier how important it is to be in sync with the designer's intent. How much of your own interpretations and intuition do you rely on vs. closely following the designer's direction? How do you balance this and how do you deal with any pushback?
Usually, the designer won’t give me all that much direction. They know they’re too close to the project and that generally the person with fresh eyes will be better at advocating for the average reader, and sometimes they’re burned out and just want to hand off the game to the next person. That’s totally understandable.
That said, there are some notable exceptions. One true standout is Steven Medway, the designer of Blood on the Clocktower. Sometimes, while working on that rulebook, Steven would reply to suggested changes with paragraphs-long, very well thought-out analyses of why he preferred a different wording or structure. And very often I’d agree with him!
It quickly became clear to me why he was so astute—their crew has taught Blood on the Clocktower all around the world at So. Many. Conventions. I swear, every time I go to a con, they’re somewhere, teaching a new group of people, again and again and again. They’ve developed a worldwide network of teachers, who have all added their own takes and twists on the teaching process, debating about the best way, so they’ve identified many stumbling blocks and best practices alike. It’s a testament to not only the drive he has as the designer, but also to the wisdom of crowds and engaged fanbases.
Have there been times when you've regretted not sticking to your intuition?
Most of the time, I regret when I stick to an intuition and end up being wrong rather than the other way round, so I’ll tell you one of those stories. In Root, the icon for the mouse suit used to be different. And an odd thing about the old mouse was that it looked quite a bit like things that weren’t mice. People would call it a teapot or a ghost or a monkey. So I pushed for a change and got a more traditional-looking mouse—what Kyle, the artist, would call “a Mickey Mouse mouse,” since he wasn’t happy about the change—and this icon people definitely, clearly, consistently identified as a mouse.
So this was a good change, right? Wrong. When viewed as the card suit up close, the mouse icon is definitely distinct from the rabbit icon, but when you set it on the forest background of the Woodland on the game board, the mouse and rabbit icons start looking pretty similar, since the whiskers on the mouse—the feature that distinguishes it most from the rabbit—are quite small at that distance. So people could tell it was a mouse when the features were clearly present, but couldn’t reliably tell it apart from the rabbit in that context of the board. Unfortunately, we made the change too close to production to catch and fix the problem. It’s not a huge problem, but I regret it nonetheless.
Interesting, I've never had trouble with this myself since the suits are also color-coordinated on the board. Since we're on this topic, what was the worst disaster that you had to deal with on a project?
Haha, well, I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus. Most of the time, people are working really hard and are just human, so I wouldn’t characterize most of the hard days I’ve had as “disaster” but just the normal experience of working with other people. With that in mind, it’s disastrous to submit a final rulebook only for the graphic designer to send it back with all the text completely changed, with no notice that the text was going to change so drastically, and with very little time to fix anything. (Or worse, to receive the game in print and see that those changes were made.) This goes back to the “bad practices” question—everyone on the team should have at least a decent idea of what everyone else is doing.
That sounds so stressful! Let's move onto happier thoughts haha.
Could you share with us a portfolio of your works? As in, what are some of the most notable works or publishers you've worked with? Which was the most memorable and why?
Root is certainly the most notable and the most memorable game I’ve worked on. Cole Wehrle, the designer, is basically a dream collaborator for me. I’d played Pax Pamir—his first published game—and loved it. Any game that combines a serious argument about a subject, and a deep attempt to understand the world, with fun gameplay is a gem, in my eyes. When I learned that he was coming on as a designer for Leder Games, I was so excited. And thankfully, in this case the saying “never meet your heroes” didn’t apply.
Some other notables include Marvel Champions: The Card Game, Kingsburg Second Edition, and Sabotage from Tim Fowers. On the roleplaying game side, I’ve edited tons of material for the Fate system—including almost the entire Fate Worlds line, Fate of Cthulhu, Uprising, and Shadow of the Century—as well as Strongholds & Followers for D&D 5th Edition.
Root is my favorite game! How did you get in touch with Leder Games and did you anticipate the game becoming so popular?
I got in contact with Leder Games through a designer I met at a playtesting convention. Basically, after playtesting his game and providing some feedback, he ended up going on my website and reading my post about Chaos in the Old World, a game I truly love but whose rulebook I had some problems with. In that post, I provided some recommendations for fixing some of its problems. Turns out, he’d worked on the game, and he sent me an email saying he agreed with my critiques and mentioning that Patrick Leder needed an editor. That’s basically how it started.
We really had no idea that it would get as big as it did. I personally thought the design was a gem, but it’s such a weird one—Furry animals and political cultures? Cute graphics and cutthroat gameplay? So much about it runs counter to expectations, and it rides the line between two different gaming audiences, but it turns out that people saw what we saw in it. Honestly, when it came out and we started to see the response, I worried that I’d already hit the peak of my games career and that I’d never get to work on anything as cool again.
Who did you work most closely with and how was the overall experience? Any significant challenges or highlights?
I worked with Cole Wehrle, the designer, almost exclusively. Leder Games was a very small company at the time, about half the size that it is now. We didn’t even have a graphic designer, for example, so Cole did much of that work, and I did some of it too. (Though he likes to do that work anyway.) It was the most challenging project I’d worked on to date, not just because it’s an intricate game but also because I was learning so many skills—InDesign and Illustrator, in-depth usability testing, guided walkthrough design, and so on. The hours were intense too—I’m surprised we shipped that game on time, since we had to learn so many things on the fly.
Root has a rep for being a very difficult game to teach due to its asymmetry, but I was surprised by the clarity of the rulebook. How many iterations did it take to get to that point and could you use this as an example to highlight some of your "best practices" that all editors should follow?
According to my time-tracking tool (essential for any freelancer!) I worked on Root for more than 150 hours, which doesn’t count all the time—in the shower, in bed, practically everywhere—that I was thinking through thorny problems. The Law reference book went through countless iterations, but most of them were incremental since the structure of the book is pretty simple and didn’t change that much over time. The Learn to Play guide went through about five major iterations, completely changing the presentation of material.
As far as best practices go, I actually wrote an entire article about exactly this thing after my experiences with Root. Check it out here.
Did you notice any significant changes in the number of email inquiries from publishers after working on Root?
Hard to say, really. Probably! What stands out more in my mind are the pictures on Twitter of kids excitedly delving into the Root rulebook and the people who would come up at cons and say they appreciated my work. That stuff warms my heart.
In your opinion, is the quality of rulebooks getting progressively better or worse?
Over the last ten years? Definitely better. Over the last few years? Harder to say. Probably, considering that the games industry is continuing to grow and become more competitive. That said, the harms of bad rulebooks tend to concentrate the game’s teacher—there’s a stat from Hasbro that says something like half or less of people who have played Monopoly have ever read any of the rulebook at all—so only a fraction of players get exposed. So that concentration of negatives may reduce the pressure to improve rulebooks further. I hope that’s not the case, though.
What would be your #1 advice for those who may feel like this is also their calling?
If you’re not already teaching a bunch of games in your game group, you should be. You can only learn how to teach a game well in text if you understand how to teach at the table. They’re definitely not the same thing, but you can’t learn how to make a good rulebook until you step into the shoes of the teacher, who is your main audience.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project? (whether board game related or not?)
Machine learning is the next frontier for me. I’m extremely interested in how language works, and there’s so much we don’t know about what makes for clear, well-structured instructions. I have many intuitions from my years of work, but in terms of truly empirical, measurable knowledge about good practices for language use, we’re in the dark.
I admit it, I’m an academic at heart—and in this case a true believer. Deep learning, a specific kind of machine learning, has made so much progress on so many problems in the past four or five years, and I think we’re just starting to see all it can do. I’ve put together some basic models that can do image recognition and tell Risk apart from Catan and Monopoly, for example, but my real interest is not in images but in natural language processing and in reinforcement learning, which is used in AIs that play games, such as AlphaGo. I’d encourage anyone out there who’s interested in how people think to read up on deep learning—it’s really not as complicated as it seems.
Thanks again Josh! It was really neat when I interviewed the artists of Wingspan because it gave me a whole new appreciation for the artwork while playing the game. Looks like I'll go through the same whenever I dive into Root's rulebook. I'll definitely be checking the credits section whenever I crack open a new game from Leder Games now!
Thanks for the read everyone and here are some links for you to stay up to date with Josh:
Plus, you can find more of my interviews here: BGA Interviews