We might wish to clarify the term clarification after noticing how loosely it is used, in tens of thousands of discussion threads all over the main board gaming forums, as well as in many rulebooks and other playing material.
Questions about rules are like flies buzzing around our head when we’re trying to learn or play a new game. A nuisance that can become an obstacle. That’s why dedicated rules forums such as Boardgamegeek’s, where hundreds of rules questions are asked and answered by players every day, are so valuable to the community.
You’ll find that clarification mostly designates this cry for help coming from desperate—or exasperated— players. And most of the time, such questions get answered rapidly and precisely. Because most of the time, the answer is already stated somewhere in the rulebook. So more experienced players, or players who have read the rules more attentively, will merely send the original poster back to the relevant passage in the rules.
Come to think of it, nothing got actually clarified in this process—somebody simply got reminded that the answer is on page 4 of the rulebook. But things get even less clarified when the answer cannot be found in the rules but people will still give answers based on their opinion. Because such answers are likely to be contradicted by others—and often are—and the resulting discussion thread gets muddier, sometimes to the point where the original poster doesn’t even understand his own question anymore. This is as far from a clarification as it can get.
An explanation, a reminder, an opinion or an example are not a clarification.
For a clarification to be distinct from all of the above, two elements are required.
Firstly, the missing or ambiguous rule must actually be without an answer. Meaning that nothing in the published rules, or in the course of normal play of the game, can lead to an unequivocal ruling.
Secondly, since a true clarification amends the official rules, then it must come from an official source. Most of the time, of course, such a source will be the designer, but it can sometimes be the game’s publisher or developer, or anybody on the design team.
Board gaming forums are a good thing. Whoever has had an eureka moment, or a game night saved thanks to the enlightening answer of an expert player, a playtester or anybody intimately familiar with the game, will agree. We know all too well how indebted we all are to those erudite St. Bernard dogs who, always carrying a good answer around their neck, tirelessly patrol avalanches of rules questions, to the rescue of buried newbies.
But as highly insightful and valuable such opinion can be, it will remain, as long as it has not been approved by an official source, a mere house rule that can be reversed at any moment and is likely to be banned from tournament play.
In that sense a clarification is an addendum, and a kind of errata, too; in addition to explicitly pointing out a flaw in the published rules, it contains a precision that resolves it. And that will soon find its way to the living rules and any new edition of the game.
Also, just like FAQs, some rulebooks include a section called Clarifications, even if it mostly contains summaries and reminders of important rules and general principles, examples or advice.
References and Further Browsing
- Clarify, on Etymonline.com
- Regarding Board Game Errata, on Analog Game Studies
- St. Bernard Rescue dog