The Stonemaier Games Style Guide

30 May 2019 | 33 Comments

In my first post-collegiate job, I worked as a project manager at a medical textbook publishing company. Technically I worked for a variety of publishing companies, and each company–and often different books within each company–used different style guides. Part of my job was ensuring that the authors, copyeditors, and proofreaders were using the correct style.

One of the perks of running my own publishing company now (albeit not a book publisher) is I can mix and match elements of different “official” styles that make the most sense to me. I’ve developed this “Stonemaier style” over the years, and recently I started compiling the various elements into a single guide that I can send to designers, copyeditors, and proofreaders.

Having a printed guide like this can save those people (and myself) quite a bit of time. Each stage of the process may not be perfect, but if the game designer at least tries to follow this guide, it leaves a lot fewer style-level mistakes for the copyeditor to fix, then even fewer for the proofreaders, and even fewer for me at every stage of the process.

So the core recommendation I’m trying to make today is that you have a written style guide. It may be vastly different than the Stonemaier style guide–we can still be friends even if you don’t believe in the serial comma.

If you want to start with our guide as a foundation, I’ve posted it below. It’s a work in progress, so I’m absolutely open to suggestions in the comments.

Rule Example
Use the serial comma


“Each player starts with a cube, a player mat, and a reference card.”
Hyphenate modifiers “Give the first-player token to the person with the longest hair.”
Use numerals whenever possible (but not at the beginning of a sentence) “Two workers on the same territory will harvest a total of 2 resources.”
Use numbered lists for sequential steps; use bulleted lists when order doesn’t matter. Use periods at the end of each step of the list that is a complete sentence; otherwise do not use periods at the end of each listed item.
Talk directly to a single player in active voice “Whenever you gain resources, place them on your player mat.”
If third person is necessary, use “they” as gender-neutral singular, not “he” and “she.”
When referring to a different section of the rulebook, use the format: (see Gameplay)
When proofreading, keep space restrictions in mind when you make additions/revisions. This is a reminder to proofreaders, as sometimes they’ll add a bunch of text in a place where there simply isn’t room.
Use double quotes, not single quotes. Periods and commas go inside quotes; semicolons and colons do not. The term “building” refers to…
Do not mention terms before they are properly introduced (change the order if necessary).
Do not underline words and phrases. Bold is used to highlight words and terms; italics is used for examples and notes.
Remove all instances of “should” and highlight any instances of “except” and “remember.” These are design cues—I try to avoid all rule exceptions, and I try not to require players to remember something that isn’t noted on the game’s interface (or at least a reference card).
When including instructions to the graphic designer, place them in brackets [Insert graphic showing a province card sliding under a player mat.]
Use “gain,” not “take” when referring to a player earning something from the general supply. “At the end of each round, gain $5.”
A “mat” is unique to a player. A “board” is available to all players.
Full sentences that follow a colon should start with a capital letter. “Visiting the castle: If your character ends its movement on the castle, gain 2 VP.”
Spell out acronyms the first time they appear (and only the first time). “There are several non-player characters (NPCs) like this in the game.”
Insert one space after a period or colon, not two.
When providing an example within a sentence, use “e.g.,” within parentheses. “The player on your left can begin their turn while you’re finishing your turn (e.g., if you’re deciding which mech to deploy).”

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Leave a Comment

33 Comments on “The Stonemaier Games Style Guide

  1. How do you feel about the use of the word ‘must’ in rules? Personally I think that its often superfluous, if a rule tells you to do something that means you just do it, must I always think implies that there’s an ‘or what?’ option. So if a game says ‘when the draw stack runs out, shuffle the discards and form a new draw deck’ then I just do it, ‘when the draw stack runs out, players must shuffle the discards and form a new draw deck’ actually seems weaker to me.

  2. I see potential here for Stonemaier Games to launch a subsidiary arm which focuses on editing and compiling rulebooks for publishers and designers that use a common language across all rulebooks, the typical rate is about 12.5 cents per line for about 65 characters plus whatever fees would be charged. A good transcriber would have all the equipment to work from home, they would be paid the rate and the company would collect the fees. The amount of time this would free up in the industry would be substantial. Plus the people who do transcribe work already understand confidentiality.

  3. ‘If third person is necessary, use “their” as gender-neutral singular, not “he” and “she.” ‘

    This part of the guide in addition to gender neutrality, includes a change from using the player as the subject of the sentence to a possessive form of a personal pronoun. ‘Their’ mapping more directly to his and hers. Is this intentionally part of the guide? To avoid possible confusion over the use of singular they? It obviously includes a lot more reworking of the sentences than a simple word replacement.

  4. Jamey, thank you so much for all you continue to do to support the hobby and especially your fellow game designers. Also thanks to Cody and Jason as well for sharing their sections as well.

    I am so happy to be part of such a great hobby and community.

  5. I’m glad to see that many of those are already standard style for me. :) I do recall needing to adjust a few “rule book-specific” stylistic things, but they were intuitive. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen this whole list in one place though, so it’s nice to have it compiled here! :)

  6. Haha–this is what I do for a living. I work for ETS (a testing company) editing their test items, and I have to apply styles from several different guides on a daily basis. I wouldn’t be able to offer a whole lot of feedback unless I saw more of the guide (and looked at a few of your rulebooks at the same time to see consistent style applied), but if you are interested, I can certainly provide my services/more in-depth feedback! I do, however, like your language requirements, but one thing I can say is that I’d probably separate the guide into language and style so that the two aspects can be examined independently.

  7. Here’s a few that I put together with the Rule & Make team.
    – Numbers from one to nine are spelled out when used thematically.
    – – “There were two factions vying for control of the universe.”
    – Numbers are represented numerically for 10+, and any games components.
    – – “The 11 distinct races were all descended from cats.”
    – – “Deal 2 cards to each player.”

    Case, Nouns & Components
    – Unique game components and important thematic elements should have title case. For example, the Anchor, the Warden, Rocket Cat.
    – Victory Points is title case.
    – Mundane elements, things that there are lots of in universe should be referred to in lower case: buildings, cogs, contracts; unless they are a specific, individual titled element: Pigeons, Airships.
    – Where possible phrasing should emphasise the element in universe, not physical component. It is the Anchor, not the Anchor card. It’s 1 Cog, not 1 Cog token. If it hurts clarity, reference the component.

    Game Molecular Structure
    – When players do things as the primary player, it is their turn.
    – A round is made up of one of each players’ turns.
    – If rounds are collected into groups, they will generally be referred to using a time term. Act, Epoch, Year.
    – If there are discrete moments or time groupings that are repeated, they will probably be referred to as phases. Combat Phase, Draw Phase, etc.
    – – Phases can be parts of a player’s turns. E.g. each player’s turn consists of 3 phases: the Refresh phase, the Action phase and the Draw phase.
    – – Phases could also be parts of a round, but not if already used as part of a player’s turn. E.g. each round consists of the Action phase, where each player takes an Action until all players have taken 3 actions each, and then the
    (I feel particularly strongly about this. It hurts my brain when a Round is comprised of players taking multiple turns, i.e. Player 1, Player 2, Player 3, Player 1, Player 2, Player 3 as it breaks the metaphor of a “round” the table. Some people confuse turns and rounds as they are quite similar terms, but one of they earliest things that a young child will learn when playing games is how to wait for their turn and respect other children’s turns.)

  8. Jamey,
    Your posts have always been super helpful and informative. But I just wanted to say that the timing of this is perfect, as I’m about to sit down and right my first rulebook.
    Thanks a bunch for all your helpful content.

  9. GREAT IDEA!!!! I have one to possibly add. SIMPLY – as an editor I despise the use of the word simply. In nearly all cases you do not need it and the text is simpler and clearer w/o. It is a wasted word. I cannot tell you how much this one gets under my skin.

  10. Having spent nearly two decades as a graphic artist in a previous life, I can say this is great stuff, Jamey.
    Like many, I whole-heartedly agree with the use of the Oxford comma and single spacing after punctuation (it’s not 1988 anymore). Panda introduced me to the concept of player mat vs. board and I like that too as a way to distinguish that component from other, more communal boards.
    If publishers started working toward adopting a standard, the way newspapers do, it would make things a lot easier for the players, or at least consistently wrong ;-)

  11. Some good general style guide stuff (e.g. singular they, Oxford commas, single spacing after period and comma) alongside some very specific board game definitions to keep terminology the same across your games (e.g. definition of “mats” vs “boards”).

    Fascinating read.

  12. Oxford comma all the way! Having worked on a number of rulebooks (as a graphic designer, game designer, and copyeditor), I am a fan of all of these suggestions.

    Love the idea of having a list in one place to reference, develop, and share — creating a company style guide will go a long way for publishers. I really like the proactive nature of this suggestion (instead of relying solely on a copyeditor or lead proofreader). Not only will it save time and reduce the number of errors, but it will help create a consistent voice across your products over time. Bookmarked.

  13. As someone working on writing a rulebook, these are some incredibly helpful guidelines! Some of these just general rules of thumb I would have never thought about or come up with myself had I not seen them written out here.

  14. I really wish that more publishers adopted such guides. Inconsistencies caused by not following them not only look sloppy but frequently cause rules questions and huge FAQs and forum threads to answer them.

    Do you ask your localization partners to come up with their own guidelines, as definitely quite a few of these are specific to US English, while other languages have their own “quirks.”

  15. “If third person is necessary, use “their” as gender-neutral singular, not “he” and “she.””

    Thank you. I REALLY wish more publishers would do that.

  16. “If third person is necessary, use “their” as gender-neutral singular, not “he” and “she.””

    Thank you. I REALLY wish more publishers did this.

    1. As Finnish (my native language) is mostly gender-neutral, I’ve always found the whole “his or her” thing a little contrived. Glad to see a shift away from that, also from a readability standpoint. :)

  17. Good stuff. Serial commas and single spaces for all! Out of curiosity, what’s the reason for the rule about “gain” instead of “take”?

    1. For me, “take” insinuates a transfer of possession. You have something, and I take it from you. But the game itself is usually just a general supply or depot, so I prefer the idea of a player “gaining” something from it.

  18. Awesome style guide! I will have to add some of that to mine. Im working through my first rulebook right now so this is a very timely post.

    Here is a link to mine if you are interested in borrowing anything from it. Like you mine is still a work in progress but we have a lot of crossover. I also have a section detailing rulebook order. Still working on the “perfect” order, very open to suggestions

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