Cardboard Children: Life

Hello youse.

There is a real craft to writing a good board game rulebook. A great rulebook gives you the information you need in an elegant and simple way, and excites you about the game you’re about to play. A bad rulebook hides the information within clutter, intimidates the reader, and makes them put the game away and pull out King of Tokyo instead. Rulebooks fascinate me, and so I’d like to take a little step away from our usual coverage this week so that you can read some rules.

The rules for Life itself.


Life is a game for one player. In this challenging game you will try to build an efficient system for coping with the chaos of the universe. While you can’t win this game, your objective is to reach the end of the game with as many personal victory points achieved as possible. While this scoring is ultimately meaningless, it will ease your transition into post-game oblivion.


1. Take the Sperm and the Egg and combine them to create life.
2. Wait.
3. Wait.
4. Wait and hope.
5. Use Medical Ultrasonography to assess the success of the game setup process so far.
6. Wait.
7. Wait.
8. You are ready to play!


Life is played over a terrifyingly uncertain number of game rounds. Each game round consists of four phases.

1. Spring – In this phase, the player prepares for the rest of his round with hope in his heart.
2. Summer – In this phase, the player tries to put some of his plans into action but is horny and distracted.
3. Autumn – In this phase, the player tries to rush into some plans, aware that time is running out in the round. A depression starts to sink in.
4. Winter – In this phase, the player must say “I can’t believe it’s Christmas already” and then fall into a strange mood that alternates between joyful and suicidal.

If at any time during the game the player cannot continue with his round, perhaps because he doesn’t exist anymore, the scores are tallied and then quickly forgotten.


During this phase, the player prepares for the rest of the round by setting some Plans.

The phase consists of these steps.

1. Advance the Life round marker by one step. If the marker reaches 40 on the Age Track, take the Morbid Thoughts deck.
2. Set Plans. (The player will believe he has an unlimited deck of Plans, but in truth there is only seven or eight. When the Plan deck is empty, shuffle discards and re-use.)
3. Resolve Illnesses. (If the player has illnesses from previous rounds, he must resolve their actions now. If he stops existing as a result of one of these actions, wipe all plans off the table with a sweep of an arm and a wail of horror.)


During this phase, the player attempts to put his plans into motion.

The phase consists of these steps.

1. Execute Plans. (If the player has the Resources listed on his Plan, he may execute the plan. Unfortunately, these resources are not included within the components of the base game of Life.)
2. Make Excuses. (If the player has failed to execute a Plan, he must take an Excuse card and add it to those already in his play area. Please ensure you have a big enough table.)
3. Wander Off To Try And Have Sex. (The player must now leave the table to try to find someone to have sex with. It is summer, and it is hot, and have you seen what people are wearing this round?)
4. Suffer Guilt. (Take 9000 Guilt Tokens.)


During this phase, also known as the Panic Phase, the player can try to get his round back in some sort of working shape.

The phase consists of these steps.

1. Set More Plans. (The player can now search through his deck and his discards for a couple of Plans that look easy to execute quickly. Please note that there is actually no further opportunity to Execute a Plan in this game round.)
2. Stare Into Space. (The player may now stare into space for a period of time of his choosing. During the game, this step may also be referred to as “Stare At A TV”, “Stare At A Ceiling”, “Stare At A Neighbour’s Bin” or “Stare At Your Own Reflection”.)
3. Advance The Downer Track. (Move a step further along the Downer Track. If you reach the Total Downer area, repeat the entire Autumn phase forever.)


During this phase there is renewed hope for the player, tinged with a strange sadness.

The phase consists of these steps.

1. Declare Disbelief. (The player must make this statement out loud – “I can’t believe it’s Christmas already!” In the early game rounds, this statement must be made in an excited and joyful tone of voice. In the later rounds, a despairing and frightened tone is essential.)
2. Clear Play Area. (The player might as well now clear the whole fucking play area because they did absolutely fuck all this game round, as per usual.)
3. Give and Receive Gift Cards. (The player can now choose the very best cards from the Gift Deck and award them to other players. Please note that Life is ultimately a solitaire game, and no other players really exist. The player must pretend that they do for this phase. He must also randomly draw some Gift Cards from the deck and be disappointed by them.)


You can’t win this game. Every great person in human history has played this game and not one of them has managed to win.

The game ends when you end.

Try to arrange for someone to tally your Victory Points at the end of the game. Be sure that this person can be trusted to exaggerate your VP total during a eulogy at your funeral.


1. Is there a multi-player variant for this game?
You can pretend there is for a while if it makes you feel better.
2. Do we have to play this game? I hate it.
Unfortunately, if the game Setup has been completed, you are expected to play the game to a finish. Also, there ARE no other games, so you might as well play it. What else are you going to do?
3. Will there be an expansion for Life?
No. But every player’s experience will be forever coloured by the vain hope of one.



  1. Tom Walker says:

    I ran out of Excuse cards. Can I just turn the deck over and go through them again?

    • BenMS says:

      There’s a cooldown on Excuse cards that depends on who you used them on. Check Table 42c in Appendix 9.

      • GepardenK says:

        I too ran out of Excuse cards but have also misplaced the Appendix. How can I know when it’s appropriate to reuse one of my Excuse cards for having lost the Appendix?

        • PoLLeNSKi says:

          If the excuse was ‘I was at my grandmother’s funeral’ You can use it once again effective immediately, and then not again until you change jobs.

  2. sonofsanta says:

    There may not be an expansion but there is a second rules variant that supersedes the initial set up, titled “Spawning A New ‘Un and Living Vicariously Through Them”. It’s similar to the original game but features a more defined cycle of hope & despair in each individual season.

    Impressively it also provides a randomly selected mini-expansion for other Life players who haven’t invested in this variant, one of either “Smug Satisfaction at an Imagined Superior Life Choice” or “Envy of Your Incredible Ability to Procreate”. Other players already on this new variant get the “Competitive Parent” deck added.

  3. Deathmaster says:

    If I die during the Life game, can I start over?

    • Velko says:

      That option is only available in the “Hinduism” expansion, but depending on your actions during your earlier play, the entire ruleset may change on replay.

      • Hyoscine says:

        Wouldn’t that be the Buddhist expansion?

        Rule 1: If you encounter the GM on the road, kill him…

        • eleion says:

          Buddhism is actually an expansion of the Hinduism expansion, so the answer is ‘yes’ for both. This is very confusing, I know.

          • President Weasel says:

            Ah, so it’s not just Arkham Asylum with the Expansion to the Expansion shenanigans?

            Does Christianity count as an expansion to Judaism, or a revised reprinting?

          • Cooper says:

            Christianity is to Judaism as “real-time-with-pause” games that utilise the D&D ruleset are to turn-based games that utilise the D&D ruleset.

            Basically the same mechanics, they just feel quite different and offer different styles of play. Yet people will defend their preference between the two with real zeal.

  4. pedestrian2019 says:

    I don’t know. I’d say the fact that you were born at all could be considered a win (depending on your view of life of course). Consider the odds of that dice roll.

    • GepardenK says:

      Sure, and your reward for winning is that you get to play the game! Now have fun and don’t cheat

  5. Cian says:

    If I proceed along the downer track and enter the Total Downer area do I still have to move my counter along the age track at the start of my next phase?

    A neverending cycle of autumns. Jesus.

  6. Duke of Chutney says:

    i must have lucked out on my setup roll as i wasn’t born in Glasgow

  7. golem09 says:

    So is this a deck building game?

  8. pedestrian2019 says:

    What is the purpose of the “9000 Guilt Tokens”? Are these to represent the guilt you feel for taking advantage of women or guilt for all the internet porn you are forced to digest as a result of your realisation that you probably never will have sex with anybody?

    • NathanH says:

      There’s an expansion that fleshes out the Guilt Token phase more clearly:

      (1) Take a Guilt Token for every time this phase that you nearly achieved something but didn’t.
      (2) Take a Guilt Token for every time this phase someone you know achieved something.
      (3) Discard a Guilt Token for every time this phase that you achieved something.
      (4) Take 100 Guilt Tokens for every token discarded in (3), you despicable liar.

  9. Skipperoo says:

    It’s an FPS.

  10. MOKKA says:

    What if it’s summer and you never find someone to have sex with?

  11. cptgone says:

    I can’t believe it’s Christmas already!

  12. BenMS says:

    So very very British. Some people don’t get your humour, and I say those people are missing out.

    • pedestrian2019 says:

      Ah the fine line between tragedy and comedy.

    • iucounu says:

      I’m sure Rab loves it when you describe his comedy as ‘British’!

      • woodsey says:

        I know I’ve not checked the news in a few days but I’m pretty sure Scotland haven’t jumped ship yet.

    • EPICTHEFAIL says:

      I got it. On a mostly unrelated note, this totally needs to be made into an actual game, preferably a P&P RPG.

  13. FloorBelow says:


  14. S Jay says:

    No fretting over about finding a partner phase?

    I see we will need Life 2.0 – Expanded Version

  15. McDan says:

    Absolutely brilliant.

  16. MadTinkerer says:

    Amusing, but the article would have been more informative if it was about Conway’s Game of Life, which is more commonly played on computers today, but was originally also a board game back when computing meant renting time on mainframes.

    Fun fact: while not directly related in a rules-sense, the general category of cellular automata which was popularized by Life inspired Notch to include cellular automata in Minecraft. The game uses cellular automata algorithms to determine how plants grow, including what shape the trees will take.

    So Go boards -> pixels -> Minecraft trees.

    • Gap Gen says:

      “back when computing meant renting time on mainframes.” I know people for whom this is basically their job.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        Well yes, but now there’s also microcomputers. “What’s a microcomputer?” Get off my lawn you damn kids.

  17. emotionengine says:

    But what if this game gives me lemons??

    • Raiyan 1.0 says:

      Pass ’em on in the name of the Lord.

    • DRoseDARs says:

      Then you turn them into Combustible Lemons and burn someone’s house down with them.

  18. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    Rab, you magnificent bastard.

  19. Mr.Mum says:

    I want to know who produced this game? The rules may be so-so, but the production values are great!

  20. pilouuuu says:

    What I like the most about Life is something that terrifies me at the same time. It is the procedural aspect of it. There are so many options and there are always new unexpected things happening. Do you know if you can win this game or it is just a sandbox?

    Right now I’m trying to level up, but there’s a lot of grinding to do. I guess we have to use our imagination and creativity to make this game better.

    By the way, the graphics are amazing most of the ttime, although the art direction is not always that good and the gameplay can be boring at the times.

    I hate the ever present ads and I don’t want much multiplayer in my game. I prefer to explore the game at my pace, without annoying people messing with it. And I don’t want expansion packs. Unless they give me robotic arms which can shoot lasers… That could be something worth playing!

  21. Lone Gunman says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

  22. DrScuttles says:

    Did anyone crack the DRM for Life? I wouldn’t mind pirating a second copy and doing it right.

    edit: that comes across as rather depressed now that I read it over.

  23. vvimina51 says:

    Did anyone crack the DRM for Life? I wouldn’t mind pirating a second copy and doing it right.

  24. Dozer says:

    What’s this nonsense about Christmas occuring in the Winter phase? Do you live on a hemispherical planet?

  25. tmthesaurus says:

    As a game designer, I can say that the rules are by far the hardest part of making traditional games.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      Maybe we should team up. I am tend to make rather stodgy boring games without personality, but extremely good at rules optimization/refinement. In my gaming circles if the game is sub-par I frequently am asked to perform surgery on the rules and the players tend to think I can extract a lot of fun out of some broken rule sets. In addition I am really good at paring down overly complex rulesets or un-needed game mechanics (particularly common with German games) so that you can play the same game with a rulebook half as thick and in 60 or 80% of the time.

  26. phlebas says:

    Your life is expressed as a percentage score; observe the percentage. Your
    score changes. Imagine if this were nothing but an electronic game.

  27. Rivalus says:

    there’s an alternate game round if you manage to dice role asian. You get 2 season instead of four.