What Makes a Good Rulebook?

What Makes a Good Rulebook

This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

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Rulebooks are one of the first things that players turn to after they’ve decided to play your game.  Players turn to this as the guide; the rules; and the structure that will shape their experience.

Often designers think about rulebooks at the very end of their design process. However the ability to write clear, concise, and actionable rules is more challenging than you may think.

This article will review game rulebooks in depth. It will cover the purpose of your rulebook; striking a balance in your structure; and the process of writing and revising the rulebook. The structure of the rulebook will be covered from different sections including statistical information, components, theme, overview, setup, core loop, and game end.

The way that you organize the contents of this rulebook is important for shaping the player experience. Your voice in how you write your rulebook is as important as testing it out with your players. Finally, edge cases; applications of rule books in games based learning; and action steps for writing your rulebook will be covered in detail.

Purpose of the rulebook

Rulebooks are where your players begin. Someone has decided to play your game. So they turn to your rulebook as their starting point.  It’s important to remember that your player wants to play your game; they are not interested in reading your rulebook.  The rulebook is just a necessary step in order for them to achieve their end goal.

Unfortunately, this means that often your rulebook has to serve different purposes. For new players it has to explain everything about your game and how to begin playing it. For advanced players it needs to remind them how to play your game or at least how your game plays similar to others in its genre.

Game designers can be notorious for writing less than stellar rulebooks; particularly if when they get completely engrossed in the project. This means that they can no longer look at the game objectively as the project that has changed and evolved over time.

However, the rulebook is important. It’s perhaps the most important in getting players over the hurdle of playing their first game.  A badly written; incorrectly worded; or poorly organized rulebook might force some players to put the game right back on the shelf.

This is all the more important when a game hasn’t even been published yet. Your rulebook should walk even the most seasoned gamer through the steps necessary to setup and begin playing your game. This is especially critical when pitching your game to publishers. That’s because your rulebook represents how your game works in your absence.

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Balance in the rulebook

Creating a great rulebook is a true balancing act. You have to provide all of the information that is necessary for a player to pickup and begin playing your game. Yet, you also can’t throw everything about the game in any order.

This is the point where designers will often get caught up. They are unsure when or if to provide information in a particular order for the player. Usually valuable time is spent nitpicking the details of just a few examples in the rulebook. Instead, designers should spend their time addressing larger systemic issues regarding the rulebook contents and organization.

Designers must also approach the rulebook as a work in progress – even after it has been published. Getting feedback from consumers, players, publishers, and other designers is critical. This feedback helps you re-write and recreate the structure of the rulebook to best serve the end user: the players.

While your rulebook may already be in the hands of players, it’s still possible to publish digital addendums, edits, and updates that originate from your gaming community.

Writing and revising the rulebook

Writing a rulebook is hard. You’ll never get it right the first time. Because of that, it’s important that you keep writing, changing, revising, and re-organizing your rulebook throughout your design process.

A good starting point is assuming the player knows nothing about your game. However, it is good to assume that players have played OTHER games before; just not necessarily your game.

This reinforces the fact that your players will need to be able to easily pickup and begin setting up and playing your game. Your rules therefore need to be understandable and organized. However, you don’t want your rulebook to be too long as it could provide the player with too much information without the correct context. Likewise, you also want to avoid a rulebook that is too short and doesn’t address the most common player questions.

Writing the rulebook also means organizing as you go. This requires you to chunk and compartmentalize information for players when they need to know it – and in the recommended dose.  For instance, it’s good to have a section in a rulebook for different actions a player can take during a turn. A sub-section could address movement and then the types of movement that a player can perform.

Additionally, you want to include consistent and defined language throughout your rulebook. If you identify goods as commodities in the game; don’t call them “products” later on. Developing a vocabulary for game terms is important for rulebooks because each time you pick one up it’s like learning a language for the first time. You may already know the difference between nouns and verbs from another language; but you need to learn how to recognize nouns and verbs in THIS language.

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Rulebook Structure Overview

Rulebooks are important for conveying the most relevant information to your player in the correct order, quantity, and context. In order to do this the following areas of rulebook organization are presented in the order in which they should be provided to players: statistical information, components, theme, brief overview, setup, core loop, and game end.

These individual sections will be provided in order with descriptions for what should be included.

Structure – Statistical Information

Statistical information is some of the most basic but often missing information from the first few pages of a rulebook.  Sure, the information is often printed on the side of the box. However, it’s best to also list this info on the inside of the rulebook as some of the first information that a player will see.

The most important information to list here are the title, designer, number of players, suggest age, and average length of a game. It’s important to list this information here, because players may review a rulebook without the rest of the game components present. So, it’s useful to provide information redundancy here.

In addition, potential publishers may request a review of your rulebook prior to seeing your game. Providing this statistical information here is important in that context.

Structure – Components

Components are the physical assets included in table top games. They can include decks of cards, tokens, pawns, boards, and dice. Components should be listed next, ideally with pictures of what the finished components look like in the game as well as the quantity provided in the box.

This list is important for setting the vocabulary and terms for your game. If you call a piece a “meeple” in the rulebook but the game calls them “soldiers” then you already have a disconnect between the components the players see and how they will be referenced later on.

One my favorite games that makes mention of all of this and more at the very beginning is Montana.

Structure – Theme

Next you should dive very briefly into the theme of your game. Are we medieval knights? Are we pirates of the Caribbean? Are we searching for lost treasures under the ocean or perhaps exploring planets in outer space? Answering these questions provides very brief insight into what the game is about and who the players are from a thematic standpoint.

While not known for its theme, Azul does provide some insight in the very first paragraph of the rulebook. This informs players who they are and what they are accomplishing through game play.

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Azul is available on Amazon

Structure – Brief Overview

The rulebook should then include a brief overview of what the game play is and what players do to succeed and win. This could be different if you are playing a competitive orthogame versus a cooperative idiogame. Regardless of the type of game, this section provides great insight and connection between the theme and the setup for the game.

For competitive games: the designer should identify what is necessary to end the game and win. This could be the first to reach a certain number of points, the first to finish a specific track, being the last player left standing, or having the most number of resources after a set amount of time. No Thanks is a game that provides this information right at the beginning.

No Thanks is available on Amazon

For cooperative games: the designer should identify what players need to do in order to succeed against the game. Whether that is to achieve a specific objective in a set amount of time, reduce the hit points of a non-player character (NPC) to zero, or resolve a scenario. Pandemic provides this information in its’ brief overview.

Pandemic is available on Amazon

Structure – Setup

The setup of the game should be covered next in the rulebook. This includes identifying which components need to come out first and in what order. Many rulebooks already include identifying the game board and placing it in the center of the table so that all players can see it.

It’s also important to note which components need to go where and in which order. Specific resources that aren’t used later in the game can be left until later. Other, components (like money or player pieces) should be identified first if they will be used throughout the duration of the game.

Ideally designers should include a visual reminder and layout of the setup of the game with references to specific steps and text in your description. Doing this provides an overall complete picture of what a setup game should look like for players. It also provides a quick visual reference that everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Gùgōng provides an excellent example of this visual setup process and accounting of common and player components throughout the setup.

Structure – Core Loop

The core loop of the game is what gives provides players feedback during game play. The core loop is what players will do repeatedly and concurrently as they play your game.

These are the different actions that players can do or take each turn, round, phase, or stage of your game. The core loop is the main formal structure of your game and what players do at each one of those stages.

It’s helpful to demonstrate and show players how these structures are formatted. For example, many games include a “turn” structure in which each player take turns in clockwise order. Once all players have taken their turn a new “round” begins. Once three rounds have been completed then a stage is over. Once you have played two stages one phase is over. Once you have completed two phases then the game is over and you score everyone’s points.

Assuming that your players will understand how these structures work is a simple mistake that can be avoided by explaining how these are nested and formatted in your game.

Endeavor: Age of Sail does a great job at describing and breaking down what players do on each one of their turns and identifies what happens at the completion of a phase.

Structure – Game End

All games must come to an end. This is the section that includes how your game ends. This could be after a set number of turns, rounds, stages, or phases. It could also end with one player left alive. It could be a race to a certain number of points. Games could also end when one or several players achieve a particular objective.

Identifying HOW your game ends is one part of this section. Another part is identifying how players score or tally their points, objectives, money, resources etc… at the end. Explaining how different achievements translate into points is important for determining a winner of the game.

Kingdomino takes this scoring into account at the appropriate section of its rulebook.

In addition, explaining how particular scenarios are decided is important. The most common scenario is how ties are broken and resolved. Make sure those procedures are outlined in this section.

Kingdomino is available on Amazon

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Organizing your rulebook’s contents

Rulebooks must serve many different purposes. In addition, they must be accessible, searchable, and readable by players. That’s why it’s important to organize, divide, and categorize your content accordingly. This will help your players better understand and play your game.

This can be most easily achieved with the table of contents. A table of contents provides a quick overview of the game and keeps the most important content organized for easy reference.

Additionally, it is important to bold and identify key terms and phrases within your rulebook. If this game identifies “money” as gold then you should indicate that in the section when you talk about game resources. If your game’s scoring rubric exchanges money at a 1:1 ratio at the end of the game for victory points, then you should identify that information as well.

Providing these insightful reminders throughout your rulebook in “callout” boxes helps to highlight specific information for your players. This is particularly important for returning players who need a quick reference for the game in order to remember how to play.

In the Year of the Dragon does this well by providing a quick summaries through each stage of the rules explanation.

In the Year of the Dragon is available on Amazon

This is also important for cross-referencing information about your game. If players’ movement around the board is influenced by how much money or victory points they currently have, then it’s important to point players towards the information on “Player Movement” when talking about money or victory points.

Finally, new games are beginning to part out sections of the rulebook for players in order to get them playing quickly.  Root does a great job at this by including a “quick start” guide in addition to their full rulebook for the game. The quick start guide includes basic information in order to begin playing the game immediately. Whereas rules questions for specific cases with more robust descriptions are left to the full rulebook.

Root is available on Amazon

Player experience

Ultimately a rulebook is supposed to serve as an agent of the player experience. Players will come to your game to play it. Not to read the rules. Of course there are a subset of players that will come to games and happily dive into rulebooks for their description and structure.

However, most players will pick up the rulebook to learn how to play the game and nothing more. Whereas other players will skim the rulebook for reminders and refreshers if a significant amount of time has passed since their last session.

The goal as the designer is to find a style that works for the majority of your players and stick to that style. This is mostly informed by the type of game that you have. Is it a light party game? You want your rulebook to be clean, simple, and straight forward. Heavy euro? Then you can afford to dive into the nuances of the player roles, abilities, and actions. Many games will find a home in between those two extremes.  Because of this, it helps to know that there are generally three “player” types who will read your rules.

First time players may be first time board gamers or first time players of your game. In either case you want your rules to be thorough, clean, and approachable. These players need to learn from the ground up how to play your game (even if they may not have played other games like it before).

The intermediate player on the other hand wants to read your rules as a reference point for how your game plays and operates. These are players who may have already played your game (or others like it) before and need a summary for how your game is similar and how it is different from what they remember or expect.

Lastly, there are the expert players. These are players with a very diversified pallet of games. They have read and played a wide swath of different games and may even be designers themselves. These players will carefully review the rulebook looking for typos, loopholes, or otherwise edge cases that the previous two kinds of players may have missed.

Voice when writing the rulebook

Regardless of the type of player you are writing for; it’s helpful to always write your rules in the most simple, clear, and concise way you can. You can always expand on certain rules and specific cases in other parts of your rulebook. However, remember that ultimately your rules are there to serve the player.

To do this it helps to write with simple descriptions in active voice. This method conveys information easily and quickly. For example, instead saying “the player takes the board out of the box” say “take the board out of the box.”

In addition, write in short sentences with straightforward language. This especially helps if the instructions are read aloud to a group of players. It is also useful to define how terms are used within your rulebook.

“May” and “must” have different meanings in rules compared to everyday language. “May” provides the option for players to take an action whereas “must” requires players to do something. Innocent words can have different interpretations depending on your readers. Likewise phrase like “either or” should be more properly defined in order to avoid confusion. One of the easiest ways to do this is to state “player MUST take only ONE of the following two actions.” This is a more straightforward way of conveying an “either or statement” using simpler language.

Following these steps provides you with a rulebook that is easy to use for new players while answering the questions decisively for intermediate and advanced players.

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Testing your rulebook

Just like your game, your rulebook should be tested. Often this is done at the latest stages of playtesting when players are given rulebooks and allowed to teach and play the game without any help from the designer.

In addition, you may also ask someone else to read your rules and explain them back to you in order to confirm that the correct outcome has been achieved.  Observing how other readers and players interpret and take action based on your words is irreplaceable. The more input that you can get from others the better.

Ideally your players should be able to play your game right after reading the rulebook. A quick and clean start from the end of the rules demonstrates that players were able to interpret and act on your instructions.

Edge cases in the rulebook

The rulebook is supposed to serve the widest possible audience. A consequence of that means that you’ll often have to overlook certain “edge cases” that may not come about too often through game play.

A common mistake with taking into account these edge cases is “bikeshedding” or spending an inordinate amount of time to wrestle with small details that won’t affect the majority of players’ game play.

This doesn’t mean that you should ignore edge cases. Rather, these should be collected in the appendix or other area at the end of your rulebook for reference if they are needed. Taking game testing notes accommodates for these edge cases that might come up during game play.

For example, a rulebook could include information on how players can move their player pieces in your game. There could be many ways that a player can LEGALLY move their piece. As such, you should spend time explaining how that can be done and leave other “edge cases” or infrequent occurrences to your appendix.

Some game designers try to create rules with the minimal amount of these edge cases or scenarios. This is a challenging design practice. However, many game rules are often written in tension. This means that they may contradict each other or require a specific state in the game in order for those rules to apply.

If these rules come up often, then it’s okay to include them in your basic rulebook. However, if there are only certain situations that arise on a regular basis, then you should list these in the appendix of your rules.

In the occurrence that a rule is so specific to an uncommon scenario that it requires its own dedicated section then consider getting rid of it. The requirement of dedicating so much of your precious rulebook space to accommodating this very infrequent scenario means that eliminating the circumstances in which it may arise may be the best move to make.

Games-based learning and rulebooks

We often think of rulebooks for just table top games. But, rulebooks also serve a wider purpose of educating our players for how to play our game to the best of their abilities.

Games-based learning is using existing games to help students achieve their educational goals.  Rulebooks have the educational goal of bringing players up to speed on how to play the game as quickly, easily, and painlessly as possible.

Because of this, it’s best to turn to other educators, teachers, instructors, and professors for the best way to lay out your rulebook content. They often have incisive advice on how to provide information with the right context, brevity, and scope to help your readers.

Remember: rule books are instructional materials first and foremost. They are there to serve and instruct your players. Do them service by using your rulebook as a gateway to learning.

Action steps

Here are some specific action steps that you can take in order to make sure that your rulebook is the best it can be to serve your players.

Use board game specific terminology whenever possible. This includes commonly understood phrases like “boards” and “cards.” You can also include more industry specific terms like “meeples” or “chits.” However, when identifying these terms, make sure that you clearly associate the component with what they look like in the game.

Avoid using unspecific pronouns when referring to players. Past rulebooks commonly referred to players in the masculine third person (i.e. he/him/his). Rulebooks should strive to use more inclusive pronouns as well as more gender neutral pronouns. It’s best to use the terms (they/them) when identifying players in the game in order to satisfy the widest possible audience.

Make sure that you adhere to appropriate tone during your rules explanation. Third person active voice is the best form to use. This means that you should use explanations that begin with “Each player takes their individual player boards.” Instead of: “The starting player will take one player board for all players playing the game. The starting player will then distribute all player boards to all players.”

Make sure that your rulebook is formatted consistently. Using appropriate headings sizes, fonts, bold, italics, underline, and color goes a long way towards making a block of text more easily readable.

For quality assurance make sure that you print out your rulebook and read it aloud. I’ve spent years writing and often think that I can complete all of my edits on my computer screen. However, nothing really beats a final edit on printed paper being read aloud. Typos, voice, and punctuation mistakes often come to light when reviewing your work this way. For a more sustainable approach to editing, consider formatting your document as a PDF and using an app like Goodnotes to review your rulebook on a tablet to replicate that paper feel.

Its best practice to list critical information redundantly throughout your rulebook. If your game has phases or stages that are broken down even further with individual turns, then identify the phase names, stage names throughout your rules explanation. This is especially important if scenarios in your game have to be resolved in a particular order.

Finally, take into account the reader’s experience reviewing you rulebook. Paragraphs in the middle of your rules are more likely to be skimmed over compared to paragraphs’ at the beginning or end. That means that the most critical information should be stated at the beginning and end of your rules. Striving to get the most vital rules into these locations is the practice.

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This article reviewed game rulebooks in depth. It covered the purpose of your rulebook; striking a balance; and the process of writing and revising. The structure of the rulebook was covered from different sections including statistical information, components, theme, overview, setup, core loop, and game end.

Remember: the way that you organize the contents of your rulebook is important for informing the player experience. Your voice in how you write your rulebook is as important as testing it out with your players. Finally, edge cases; applications of rule books for games-based learning; and action steps for writing your rulebook were covered in detail.

I hope that you found this article helpful. If you’d like a sample template for your rulebook in addition to information on how to explain theme; glossary of terms; and an anatomy of game components then click here.

This article was about what makes a great rulebook.  To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to Dave’s Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

Readers of Ludogogy can get a $50 discount on this valuable resource by using this link.

References and further reading:

Carmichael, K. (2016, June 14). Top 7 Tips When Editing Your Rulebook. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.dancinggiantgames.com/blog/top-7-tips-when-editing-your-rulebook

Carmichael, K. (2016, June 7). Rulebook Writing: The Good and The Bad. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.dancinggiantgames.com/blog/rulebook-writing-the-good-and-the-bad

Carmichael, K. (2016, May 10). Intro to Rulebook Writing. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.dancinggiantgames.com/blog/intro-to-rulebook-writing

Chair of Indefinite Studies. Microsoft Word – Board Game Template. https://chairofindefinitestudies.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/packet.pdf

Chuon, T. (2020, May 11). How to Write a Good Board Game Rulebook. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://medium.com/@tim.chuon/how-to-write-a-good-board-game-rulebook-5e66cd9f7e40

Designerjay. (2010, October 19). Step 15: Rules for making Rules. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://inspirationtopublication.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/step-15-rules-for-making-rules/

Dr.Wictz. (2014, May 15). Rule Writing Tip: Cross Referencing. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://dr.wictz.com/2014/05/rule-writing-tip-cross-referencing.html

Ekted. (2010, April 23). Gamer’s Mind. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from http://ekted.blogspot.com/2010/04/rules-2-underover-specification.html

Ekted. (2010, April 8). Gamer’s Mind. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from http://ekted.blogspot.com/2010/04/rules-1-induction.html

Ekted. (2010, May 10). Gamer’s Mind. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from  http://ekted.blogspot.com/2010/05/rules-3-terminology.html

Ekted. (2010, May 19). Gamer’s Mind. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from  http://ekted.blogspot.com/2010/05/rules-4-use-your-words.html

Eng, D. (2017, February 22). Rule Books and Learning. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2017/2/22/game-rule-books-a-guide-for-sa-work

Eng, D. (2019, December 03). Core Loops. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/12/3/core-loops

Eng, D. (2019, June 04). Formal Game Structures. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/6/04/formal-game-structures

Eng, D. (2019, September 10). The Player Experience. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/9/10/the-player-experience

Eng, D. (2020, February 20). Game Components. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/2/20/game-components

Eng, D. (2020, January 16). How do I win? Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/1/16/how-do-i-win

Eng, D. (2020, January 24). Decisions for Us. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/1/24/decisions-for-us

Eng, D. (2020, March 05). Play Testing for Success. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/3/5/play-testing-for-success

Eng, D. (2020, March 26). What is Games-Based Learning? Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/3/26/what-is-games-based-learning

Greg. (2014, January 28). Writing for Skim Readers. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.3dtotalgames.com/writing-skim-readers/

Greg.( 2016, October 11) Expressing Rules.  Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.3dtotalgames.com/expressing-rules/

Jaffee, S. (2015, March 1). Tips for Rules Writing. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from http://sedjtroll.blogspot.com/2015/03/tips-for-rules-writing.html

Jolly, T. (2015, July 1). FAQs, Fiddliness, Redundancy, and Hierarchy; Musings on Writing Game Rules. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/faqs-fiddliness-redundancy-and-hierarchy-musings-on-writing-game-rules/

Rollins, B. (2018, January 29). How to Make the Perfect Board Game Rule Book. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://brandonthegamedev.com/how-to-make-the-perfect-board-game-rule-book/

Sears, J. (2016, June 4). How to Write a Board Game Rule Book. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://pixygamesuk.blogspot.com/2016/06/how-to-write-board-game-rule-book.html

Slack, J. (2012, September 23). Write your own rules. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://boardgamedesigncourse.com/write-your-own-rules/

  1. (2014, January 27). Theory: Writing Rules Early. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://lawofgamedesign.com/2014/01/27/17/
  2. (2014, October 29). Theory: Include “How to Start” In Your Rules (and a Lines of Questioning Update). Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://lawofgamedesign.com/2014/10/29/theory-include-how-to-start-in-your-rules-and-a-lines-of-questioning-update/
  3. (2015, September 02). Theory: The Limitations on the Rules. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://lawofgamedesign.com/2015/09/02/theory/

What is Bikeshedding? | CSS-Tricks https://css-tricks.com/what-is-bikeshedding/

WikiHow. (2020, April 15). How to Write Game Instructions. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.wikihow.com/Write-Game-Instructions

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (https://www.sps.nyu.edu/professional-pathways/faculty/20495-dave-eng.html).

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points (https://www.buzzsprout.com/855127) and consults at University XP (https://www.universityxp.com/community) on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming (https://www.banditosgaming.com/): a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

Find out more at www.davengdesign.com

Fun Fact: He has been seasick in every time zone.
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