I Am Spartax

This blog contains some musings on philosophy, games, and the philosophy of games. Feel free to comment; I'd like to provoke thoughtful discussion.
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On house rules

Sam C
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I recently posted in a geeklist about game-related annoyances, saying that I don't like it when people try to house-rule a game after the first play. That got me thinking about the topic of house rules, so I thought I'd post a reflection here.

Consider the following situation: First play of a new game. One player spends the whole game trying an extreme strategy. Said player gets smacked down and finishes last. Said player then complains that the game doesn't work and needs a house rule or rules to make the zombie-tribble strategy work better.

When is it appropriate to create house rules?

I think making house-rules after only a little bit of play (one or two plays for a long game, a few plays for a short game) is disrespectful to the designer and playtesters. You really ought to give the game as published a bit more of a chance.

I make an exception for obvious typos. One example from a few decades ago: as a child, I was playing a friend's copy of Boggle, or maybe it was Boggle Jr. Anyway, the rules said that a word only counted if someone else got it. If you played that way, both players would always end with the exact same score, so the actual playing of the game would not matter for the scoring. We decided this was an error, and that a word should only count if no one else got it.

So my answer is: wait until you've played enough to have a solid understanding of the game. What that entails depends on the game, and is ultimately a question for your own judgement. One guideline is that you should certainly be thinking about tactical and strategic considerations rather than what you can and can't do according to the rules.

What kinds of games are susceptible to house rules?
In general, the higher the luck aspect, the less impact house rules will have, so the less careful you have to be with them. The impact of a house rule in Fortress America (+1 to defenders in Seattle, because they're hyped up on espresso drinks, for example) will not be that great. However, try changing one of the buildings in Caylus and you risk breaking the game.

This means that Ameritrash games and wargames tend to be particularly susceptible to house rules, Euros somewhat less so, and abstracts hardly at all.

What kinds of house rules work best?
To quote E. B. White, "Prefer the specific to the general." There was a discussion in the Asia Engulfed forums a while back about a very specific situation. Since there's a special rule that the Allies cannot enter the Sea of Japan, this guy and his opponent had taken to massing the Japanese fleet in these ports, so that they were immune to Allied air-attack. All of their games were coming down to this tactic, and they were getting tired of it, so they were going to stop playing Asia Engulfed. This seemed to me a great opportunity for a house rule, along the lines of: the Sea of Japan may not be entered by Allied fleets, but the Allies may conduct port/airbase attacks on the adjacent ports, using their land-based aircraft. Now as it turned out, the designer posted that air units are not affected by the no-entry rule, so it was moot.

But the point is that the rule applies only to a very specific situation, to combat a very specific tactic. It will have no repercussions in the rest of the game. House rules like this will not change the feeling of a particular game; the Agricolicity of Agricola, if you will.

I also think that house rules should not favor extreme strategies; if anything, they should combat them, for the same reason.

What do you think? Feel free to post stories of successful or unsuccessful house rules!
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