Article: House Rules

My previous article on Dice in Games was only mildly controversial, so this time around, Robin has asked me to write something which could divide people even more, so I chose a topic that I know some people feel strongly about; playing games with house rules.

I certainly have my own opinion on this, and I already know that differs from some others, but let me start by saying something which is obvious to many people. Nobody is right or wrong here, we all just have our own opinions. My opinion is the correct one of course, but we won’t go into that now 🙂

Let me start by saying that I am a fan of house rules, and I’m going to explain why. I’m not intending to change anyones opinions here, although my opinions on this matter have been changed over the years, so who knows. I will also try to describe the reasons some people give for not using house rules, and why those reasons don’t stop me using them 🙂

When the Group Agrees

Picture the situation. You buy a new game for you and your gaming group. You play it once, and you all think the game is great, and you all want to play it again, and everyone is happy. No house rules needed here, move along.   But let’s say that everyone played the game and felt that it was just ok, but seemed to be missing something, or a part of it didn’t really work for them. They discuss it, agree to change a rule here and there, they play it again and everyone enjoys it a lot more.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation, it happens quite a lot. The group who chose to play with a house rule are now enjoying the game more than they did before. So, are they wrong for doing so?   I personally don’t think so. But I know that some people do.

One reason that I’ve heard for people not wanting to use house rules are that they think the designer of the game has been through every single possibility during development, and that they picked the one which worked the best. Anyone who plays the game different is therefore going against the will of the designer.   Well, I just don’t think that is the case. Yes, of course, they will have tested a number of different options, but they can’t have thought of everything, and even if they did, they would have made a decision based on what their target audience they wanted for the game, which may not be the one that suits your group.

Box cover for Ken Follett's The Pillars Of The Earth

I think it’s time for an example. The Pillars of the Earth is one of my favourite games, and I got it when it came out, but the luck factor of the order in which the master builders come out of the bag really bothered me and it put a bit of a downer on an otherwise great game. And I wasn’t alone – some others in my group also felt the same. I used to play the game online at brettspielwelt, and a month or so after the game was released, the online version (which I think was official) had a rule change regarding the master builders. This rule reduced the luck factor of this part of the game.   I loved it, and I adopted this rule when I played the board game.

When the expansion for the game was released, that rule became standard. Now, I don’t actually know where this rule came from originally from. Maybe it was created by the designers after the game came out, or maybe it was just one person’s house rule that just became so popular, it then became the official rule. If so, I’d like to thank that person.

When the Group Disagrees

This is where it gets trickier, and it does really depend on the people involved, the type of game and the extent of the house rule. There are some games for example which I would always prefer to play with a house rule, but would be ok without it (I would just probably enjoy it less personally).

There are other games however which I will refuse to play unless a particular house rule is used. This isn’t to say I will get angry and storm out of the room; I’m lucky that I normally have different games or groups available, so if a group really wants to play a game without house rules, I just leave them to it and play something else.

Nobody should ever have to play a game with a house rule they disagree with. If the group can’t agree, they should play a different game.

When house rules go wrong

Although I am a fan of house rules, I’ve also experienced when it goes too far.   I like using house rules where appropriate; where me and my friends will enjoy the game more. And as long as we all agree the rules beforehand, if the game ends up being totally ruined, we only have ourselves to blame. 🙂

There are some things to be avoided when it comes to house rules. When teaching a game for the first time to new people, house rules should generally not be used. This gives people a false impression of the game, and just because you like it better, not everyone else will. There is also the danger that they go and buy the game, and are then playing it ‘wrong’ themselves, because you taught them how to play. Saying that however, going back to the previous example of Pillars of the Earth. Even when teaching that for the first time, and not using the expansion, I would still use this rule, but I would make it clear to everyone that this rule was not in the base game rulebook, and explain it fully beforehand.

There is also an argument for not introducing house rules until you have played it at least once. And this I agree with most of the time. Just because you’ve read the rules and you think you understand how it works, nothing is better than actually playing it. I have known one group who house ruled a game before actually playing it, and sometimes it is ok, and other times they realise they broke the game!

If you are planning to introduce a house rule, you should also consider the full impact of that change, as much as possible.

Box cover for Power Grid

Power Grid for example.
I have played too many games of this where after a really tight game lasting 2-3 hours, there was a bidding war on the last turn, and then a new power plant gets turned over and boom! It’s a 7, and the one player left in the auction gets to buy it for face value and wins the game.   Now, I know this doesnt happen all the time, it might even be rare, but it happened in our games a few times. In general, I prefer games where you make decisions based on all the information. So, for Power Grid, I want to see what the next plant will be before I decide whether to bid or not.   This house rule suits some people, and others hate it.   But does it impact on the actual game at all? No. Does it slow the game down because people have to think more?   Yes, but I’m ok with that. I’ve spent 2 hours playing the game, I don’t mind an extra few minutes so that people make more informed decisions, rather than the winner being determined by the luck of a card flip at the end of the game.

Box cover for The Settlers Of Catan

I once played Settlers of Catan with a group that didn’t like any conflict in games. They didn’t like the negative aspect of the robber, and that part of the game was stealing something from another player. So they played with a house rule that 7’s are re-rolled. The game went from unplayable to one they could enjoy playing.   Great?   Not for me.

I played in one of their games to try and ‘fit-in’. I asked them if there was a hand limit of cards, and they looked at me puzzled.   I explained that if you remove the 7’s, then there is no penalty to players who save their cards to save up for something big. They said there was no penalty, just don’t hold onto lots of cards.   A number of turns into the game, I was saving up for my first city, whilst also holding onto my wood and brick to save up for another village. I was playing the game by the rules that were told to me, but then there was a complaint that “Paul is holding onto cards”. I was then told “We don’t play like that”.   I was confused.

However, despite the bad experience, I thought about the house rule afterwards, and tried to understand the impact of it. On 2d6, a 7 will be rolled 1 in 6 times, so if you re-roll any 7’s, you are effectively speeding up the resources generated in the game by 17%, making the game shorter. This then has the impact of making the long term strategies less viable than the short-term ones. Assuming that all strategies were balanced before, you’ve effectively broken the game.

Other Examples

Box cover for Keyflower

Keyflower by Richard Breese is an incredible game, one of the best that came out in 2012.   However, a number of people play with a rule that public information stays public. So, if you take back 3 red meeples after the bidding, and everyone sees you take back 3 red meeples, they stay in front of your screen and not behind it.

I am a massive fan of this house rule, because I don’t like memory aspects to games. And like I said earlier, I prefer ones in which I am making an informed decision based on the facts available, and not how good I can remember certain things.

Richard Breese has even acknowledge this rule as an official variant because it was popular.

Box cover for Monopoly

Monopoly. Yes… the one we all love to hate.   One of the reasons Monopoly just doesn’t really work as a game is because we’ve all been playing it wrong! Like many other people in the UK (possibly the world), we were taught how to play Monopoly when we were kids without the auction rules, maybe because they were too complex for our young brains to deal with. But removing the auction rules from Monopoly turns it into the overly long roll and move luckfest that we all know it for.

Box Cover for Merchants Of Venus

Merchant of Venus. One of my all time favourite old-school games. I absolutely love the trading mechanics and the way that supply / demand works. However….. dice for movement? Oh dear. Biggest downside of the game.   So… like a number of others, I introduced a house rule for this giving each player 18 movement chits (6 of each numbered 1-3). If your ship moves 3, then instead of rolling 3 dice, you select 3 move chits. Once a move chit is gone, you don’t get it back until all 18 are spent.

Movement chits
Homemade movement chits for Merchants of Venus

What a difference this made to the game! Not only was the luck factor vastly reduced, but people were able to plan their turns in advance and the game went a lot quicker. This is another example of a game I wont play with the dice – it’s just not worth my time since it is infinitely better without them 🙂

Summary

House rules can be a good thing when used at the right time with the right group. They shouldn’t be frowned upon as much as they are by some people because they allow certain groups of people to enjoy the game more.

But before using any house rules, you should consider the actual impact this will have on the gameplay itself, and make sure everyone is happy with it before the game starts.

Take care,

Paul Grogan
Gaming Rules!

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