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Housey, Housey Housey, Housey Hot

house-rulesWhen I was a little boy, I loved playing Monopoly. It’s quite clear from the stories and memories that you hear from a lot of board gamers (and pretty much anyone for that matter) that a lot of people hated the game as children. It’s also pretty clear if you look at the mechanics that a lot of this hate is due to misguided but extremely common house rules like pooling fine money on Free Parking and allowing anyone that lands there to collect it. We didn’t use any of those house rules, and that certainly is a big reason why I thought fondly of the game.

But we did have one house rule which I’ve never come across before or since. When the last property on the board got purchased, active play would pause and we’d have a phase of intense negotiation which only ended when every player had at least one coloured set of properties they could build houses on. I can look at the game now, with a reviewer's eye and see that it’s a good rule: it marginally increases the amount of skill needed to play the game, puts players on a more even footing and reduces the chance someone will get lucky by landing on and buying a whole set and then go on to win.

But as an adult, when I suggested to my gaming friends that we play this way, they were aghast. While they understood the point about Free Parking and similar rules, they thought that forcing players to negotiate was against the spirit of the game, made it needlessly longer and reduced the fun chaos-factor in the game. This is the trouble with house rules: I have always found it tremendously difficult to get all the players round a table to agree to using a house rule or variant and we almost always play by the rules as written. 

I was inspired to write this piece by some of the discussion that’s gone on in regards to the clear stipulation in Rex: Final Days of an Empire that players are not allowed secret negotiation or to write things down, both activities that were absolutely key in its predecessor Dune. It looks to me pretty clear why those changes are there: they exist purely to speed up play and reduce downtime. So any gamer will understand that they can certainly house rule for these things to be allowed and the only major logistical and mechanical knock-on effects will be that play time increases. So from that point of view it should be an easy choice for a group to make. But it does shift the focus of the play fairly drastically, away from mechanical and psychological appreciation of the bidding and combat elements and toward deal-making and diplomacy. It’ll be far harder to convince all the players that that’s a good thing, even if many might think so.

This example from Rex: Final Days of an Empire has direct, transparent implications. When it comes to more mechanically obtuse games, there may be a large number of mechanical knock-on effects from a house rule that are not so easy to understand or appreciate. I once suggested that you could balance Twilight Struggle a bit better as well as adding a bit of tactical interest if you made the starting player each turn dependent on the value of the headline card which is played simultaneously by each player at the beginning of every turn. I got to try this particular variant and it turned out there were a number of negative unintended consequences: some low value cards that were clearly intended for use during the headline became useless, there was more randomness, controlling nuclear war became less important and all sorts of other small things. If that relatively inoffensive change can have such a profound impact on the game, what hope something more ambitious on a more complex game?

In fact I was very lucky to even get to try this one. For the most part, variants and house rules that I’ve considered rather more deeply and written about at length at best tend to spark a bit of discussion and then get ignored. The reason is simple. Games take time and effort to organise and play and usually work pretty well as the designer intended them. Unless you’ve got a criminally large amount of spare time at your disposal, playing a game using a variant or house rule that’s untried and which, as we’ve seen, may spoil the game all sorts of unforeseen ways, is not going to be high up your list of things to do with your precious gaming time. I came up with a variant for the original GW edition of Fury of Dracula which I’m fairly certain stands to push what’s already an excellent game into an outstanding one. Have I ever tried it? No. I love playing Fury of Dracula and on the rare occasions that I get to game and get that particular game to the table, my desire to simply kick back and enjoy outweighs my curiosity about whether my variant will work without fail every single time.

Even for games that have an obsessive dedicated fan base, getting wide agreement on a worthwhile variant or house rule seems difficult. Witness the protracted discussions and testing regarding balance on the first edition of War of the Ring before the expansion, or A Few Acres of Snow before the designer was forced to admit that ongoing fixes may well be necessary. With all that effort, was there wide agreement? No. The best the War of the Ring community could do was post a list of effective variants with some of the side-effects of each. A Few Acres of Snow fared a bit better but ultimately got torpedoed by the fact that no one variant may actually solve all the problems. It illustrates the problem of understanding the effects of and getting agreement on a particular house rule to a tee. Best just play by the rules as written: if you really want to, use a designer approved variant and leave it at that.

The point of all of this, aside from grumbling about the inability of gaming groups to collectively decide on the worth of any given variant, is to demonstrate why it’s so vital that designers, developers and publishers get things right in the first place and, if they don’t manage that, that they fix, clarify and confirm as rapidly as possible. It’s not like this is a particularly tough task in the age of the internet, where publishing and rapidly disseminating errata and FAQs is incredibly easy. Games Workshops’ unwillingness to do this in spite of clear, obvious and widely accepted problems with Warhammer 6th edition was a big driver in pushing me away from that hobby and into board games. They lost my custom, permanently, which they’re big enough not to care about but it illustrates how big an issue this can be. We’re reliant on all publishers to make the grade, and some of the smaller ones might not be so able to weather the fallout.

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Comments (8)
  • avatarKingPut

    The main house rules we use doesn't change the game very much. In Ti3, Arkham, M&M, Cosmic Encounter or any game with variable powers the rules may say select a race randomly. We'll usually let players pick 3 and select the race or character they want. Everyone usually agrees to this rule change because players get some control which character they will be playing. The unintended consequences is that some characters or races will rarely or never get played. The benefits are far better than sitting through a game with somebody complaining about the crappy character they received randomly.

    Malloc has one or two minor house rules for Ti3 that we play and Uba has a couple of minor house rules for Arkham Horror that we play. Since they spent all the time setting up the game and putting the game away, I've never heard anyone complain aobut the house rules.

  • avatarscissors

    "It’s also pretty clear if you look at the mechanics that a lot of this hate is due to misguided but extremely common house rules like pooling fine money on Free Parking and allowing anyone that lands there to collect it."

    Bobby 'Bacala' Baccalieri on the Free Parking house rule in Season 6 of The Sopranos: "This is bullshit, you take a game of skill and make it just about luck!"

    The Sopranos play Monopoly

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myjCkIZbXw0

  • avatarsgosaric

    The older designs are sturdy and clunky enough that a few house rules won't ruin the game. Like for instance we play TOTAN with Uba's variant to make it shorter (15 combined points for victory, day phases change on 6 and 11 points). Or the most popular traditional card game in our country (Slovenian tarock) where you have to negotiate on the rules if you play with new people as each group plays some rules differently (Mostly about what contracts are allowed and how much are they worth - the game by itself is very modular so you can change some building blocks without messing anything up). This is also the case of players having in essence co-ownership of the gameplay in the similar way the old tractors were designed to be fixed by their owners - sturdy and simple. Nowadays with gameplay being all about balance, we need designer approved repairs - houseruling falls back on the hands of designers and playtesters and matures in the variant or (god forbid) another expansion.

    I actually enjoy modularity of gaming experience so you can adopt the game to the group playing it. Offical variants (now replacing homerules) are thus very welcome in my house. It's interesting when a homebrew variant becomes adopted by the publisher - as far as I can tell this happened with You're Bluffing 2005 edition adopting 2004 bgg variant (auctioning two cards at once to shorten the game).

  • avatarMattDP
    Quote:
    I actually enjoy modularity of gaming experience so you can adopt the game to the group playing it. Offical variants (now replacing homerules) are thus very welcome in my house

    Yep, official variants are a great way of extending the play life of your game. It's a bonus that FFG have taken to doing this of late in addition to tweaking the rules of re-prints. It'd be nice to see some other publishers doing the same.

  • JJJJS  - re:
    KingPut wrote:
    The main house rules we use doesn't change the game very much. In Ti3, Arkham, M&M, Cosmic Encounter or any game with variable powers the rules may say select a race randomly. We'll usually let players pick 3 and select the race or character they want. Everyone usually agrees to this rule change because players get some control which character they will be playing. The unintended consequences is that some characters or races will rarely or never get played. The benefits are far better than sitting through a game with somebody complaining about the crappy character they received randomly.


    I tend to play CE with about the same group--not perfectly same, but close. We say pick from two races at the start. In the past, I've had your issue where some races in 50+ plays just haven't been picked. So I'm trying to change that. The past few months, I'm having the race that gets picked go face up under the deck after the game. The other race gets shuffled back into the rest. What it means is eventually all the races will be played. It's curiosity on my part more than anything. I want to see all the races played just to see how they interact.

  • avatarShellhead

    When I was a teenager first getting into AT-style games, we often used house rules. Looking back, these house rules usually served one of a few basic roles:

    1. Patching mechanics
    2. Re-balancing the game
    3. Increasing theme with chrome rules

    As time went on and our group expanded, our style of play shifted towards increased competitiveness and more debate over the rules. So we gradually ditched the chrome house rules and focused more heavily on the actual rules. We also lost interest in re-balancing the game, because most of our favorite games were multi-player conflicts anyway, and canny players could re-balance individual games through negotiations, temporary alliances, bribery, or accusations. And if a game seemed really broken, we just didn't bother playing it anymore.

  • avatarJackwraith

    This must be where Dad got the whole "my house, my rules!" thing from...

    I can't think of any major house rules that we use for most games. When I still had my 2nd Ed. Talisman, I outlawed the Prophetess for cycling through the deck too fast and we eventually outlawed the Chaos Warrior for being ridiculous, but that was about it. When we play CE, we still just deal two flares and have people pick from those, but if we play multiple games, I do put the flares of the played races aside and deal the subsequent rounds from the rest of the flares so that, like JJ, we're always playing with new sets of aliens.

    We play a few "house rules" with Runebound, if that category extends to variants that other people have designed (like for the Market, plus the Cities of Adventure variant) and I've also weeded out the Market deck so that there's less dead weight. But those are more variants than changing what people perceive to be a broken rule being ignored or altered.

    Secret discussions are as much a part of Rex for us as they were with Dune, so I guess that's one.

  • avatarInfinityMax

    The only real house rule I've ever applied was one my dad and I invented for Thunderstone, where you could spend a turn preparing, just discard some cards and redraw, then your turn was over. We liked it, and thought it drastically improved the game.

    Now that rule is actually in Thunderstone Advance, so we don't have to persuade people to go along with our house rules any more.

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