Flash of Steel header image 2

House Rules

November 30th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Board Games, Design, Modding

I think most of us encountered our first house rule without even knowing it was one. We’d be playing Monopoly with friends or families, because we were too young to have good taste in games or friends, and we all used the Free Parking rule – taxes and Chance/Community chest money went into the center of the board and if you landed on Free Parking, all that money went to you. This is not an official Monopoly rule, but then we never auctioned the properties either. Somehow, the game had reached our circle with the assumption that this was how the game was played and even reading the rules didn’t change that.

House rules are relatively common in board games. Small tweaks to make up for imbalances in how sides are chosen or to deal with an odd number of players that doesn’t work quite right with the game. Right now, Bruce and I had to work out some house rules to turn a game that is not designed for PBEM and relies on card play into a game that we can actually do separated by a thousand miles and a few dozen IQ points.

I have house rules when I play video games.

Now some of them are born from the story telling stuff in games. Consistently choosing certain options in random events, or seeing if I can build a city that subsists entirely on agribusiness. These are restrictions we put on ourselves to keep a game interesting, though; challenges we set for ourselves when we are winding down our time with a game or just want to play “What would happen if?” The real rules may permit things you choose not to do.

Mods are a sort of a house rule, of course, and like Free Parking, one that can propagate. Mods that increase or reduce AI bonuses, that change the balance between weapons…all of these sorts of mods are the user deciding that the game would be better and more playable if new rules or conditions were introduced. Then you have the “no rushing” matches in online RTS games, where a widely accepted strategy is just taken off the table because everyone wants a chance to roll out their big guns.

I remember having more house rules in strategy games in the days before widely available and easily found patches. A lot of our favorite classic games had stupid glitches. I think of the first Civilization and the permanently parked enemy phalanx on a mountain by a city – tough to kill, totally free to stay there, and a great way to limit movement of units out of that city once a war was declared. I had a house rule that I couldn’t do that, even if the AI did – which it did. Always. I was hamstringing myself, not using a rule open to me, just in the interests of fairness. I was operating on the assumption that the AI didn’t quite know what it was doing. (In Civ, I had similar rules connected to constantly extoring money from Shaka because there was always one weak nation that had more money than soldiers – a quick war and a demand and there was a full treasury.)

House rules in computer strategy games generally work in this way. They are about limiting options, not expanding them, and that’s entirely because of the medium. Outside of mods and file edits, when we play, we play on the swingset built by the designers. They will only go as high as they allow, so house rules are about restricting ourselves. You see this in online play constantly, with pre-game discussions about how to manage known bugs or exploits. Things are declared off limits and woe betide any who break the pact.

Few things are better evidence that humans are naturally game players than the prevalence of house rules everywhere. And that they are often accepted without question. Play a new game with a friend, he says “We have a house rule that…” and if you want to object, you can’t refer to the letter of the law – games have a spirit too. Rules are necessary and games aren’t Calvinball, but we engage with rules and systems, on our own and with others, and work with them the best we can.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • zipdrive

    Tabletop RPGs are rife with house rules, modifications and unwritten agreements as to how to play the game. So much so, in fact, that often these games include optional rules and you can find tweaks and hacks online to make game X do Y.
    A simple common tweak is playing D&D without the encumberence rules while a full-on mod is the Dungeon World hack for Apocalypse World.

  • D506

    We regularly play Talisman, an old RPG board game. Encounters happen by landing on an appropriate square and drawing one of several hundred cards – but many of them, as well as the general rules and the character abilities, are so ambiguously written we’ve had to write a ‘Talisman Bible’ to keep consistent all the house rules we’ve established over the years.

  • Most Popular Videogames | All Console Downloads

    […] List Value: $ 29.99 Price: [wpramaprice asin="B001U2BMH2"] [wpramareviews asin="B001U2BMH2"] by PopCultureGeek.com Post by Rory Lloyd For these who have an Xbox, you are aware of how Xbox Dwel… […]

  • The Depths Of Modded Xbox 360 Controllers | Maxnds | Max NDS

    […]  Modded 360 controllers come with a broad variety of custom mods available, and choosing the right on…reas of the game you enjoy most. […]