I learned The Settlers of Catan from a college friend of mine, who explained it without glancing at the rules. We had a ball and played most of my senior year. It was only after I’d played some 25-30 games that I bothered to check the rules for myself, and discovered that he had taught us wrong on a couple points. For one thing, he didn’t use the alphabetical order for placing the numbers on the board. We just put out the numbers and tried to break up any adjacent red spots. But the rule that had a much stronger effect was how he taught us to trade: you could trade anything at any time, even when it wasn’t your turn. As you can imagine, this was completely bonkers, especially when we’d get six loud players around the table. Rather than the casual German game that it was, it transformed Catan into Pit with a board.
The interesting thing is that neither of these changes did much to alter our opinion of the game. We loved it instantly, and we immediately understood the main strategies. Sure it was a little chaotic, and sure I preferred the game with the trading rules as written, but I still remember those insane first games fondly. I don’t know why my friend taught it like he did. Maybe he read the rules himself and decided it was better his way. But I think it’s more likely that HE was taught that way, and even if he found out the “official” rule he preferred it the way he learned. It’s a testament to Teuber’s original design that it didn’t break the game at all. We altered the experience, but it was still basically Catan.
Of course most games throughout history work this way. I think of all the Euchre I played at my Ohio college. Whenever I play with people from Indiana or Michigan I notice little conventions and variants that creep into the game. Maybe they use different cards to keep score. Maybe they offer a cut to the guy on the right of the dealer. I’m told that some people use the Joker as the highest trump. There’s no “official” rule, you simply learn as part of your shared culture. Really, it’s only been in the last 50 years or so that the concept of a “designed” game has existed at all. Even now, outside of the hobby the designer rarely gets credit on the front of the box.
Such folk games, like Spades and Poker, are what most people think of when they think on games. To the general populace, a game isn’t an engineered experience so much as a cultural artifact. This association is so strong that it bleeds into commercial games. Think about Risk and Monopoly. Almost no one plays either one exactly as written. They may include alliances in Risk, or Free Parking money in Monopoly. Such changes are so widespread that it’s hard to find people who DON’T play with them. A lot of party games, like Balderdash and Telestrations, are actually packaged versions of old parlor games, aping games that already existed to varying effect.
Compare this to most hobby games, where the design is king. Rules questions are immediately posted on BGG, where playtesters or even the designer will make clear their intent and rule so that there will be no more confusion. And as games become more complex and heavily-designed, they respond less well to tweaks and noodling. In Power Grid, have you ever forgotten to remove a plant at the right time or neglected to refill the fuel market with the right numbers? It can make the whole game go off-kilter. I remember playing a little rule wrong in Puerto Rico for an entire year, and it completely killed one of the most popular strategies of the game. You may always find room for variants in modern games, but these are usually highly individual, and rarely are adapted on a wide scale.
I wonder if this tendency to keep things “official” is one of the key gaps between the hobby market and the mainstream market. The majority of consumers expect games that can be experienced without ever having to read the rules. Rulebooks are intimidating to normal people, so rules are only ever verbalized, making it an enormous game of Telephone. When inaccuracies are introduced, the game needs to hold up in the face of such vagaries, just like my open-trading version of Catan. And yet we continue to expect people to adapt our games that are far less forgiving and far more rules-intense, all the while wondering why “these games” of ours aren’t more successful.
To be clear, I don’t think such “folk-a-bility” is inherantly better. If I did, I wouldn’t bother to play about 90% of the games I like. Mage Knight, Power Grid, and Arkham Horror are all intricate games that are lots of fun. Nor is this malleability absent from the hobby market. There are several games that can be poked and stretched endlessly before they become something different. The Settlers of Catan, Talisman, Wiz-War, and the D&D Advenutre series all can withstand little variations and inaccuracies, and all are simple enough to be passed on rather than taught. Some more complex games, like Cosmic Encounter, have a little more going on but still manage to present so many possibilities that they take on a life of their own. And then there’s the games that have thrived more than all others in their ability to shift, mutate, and become whatever a group needs: Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, and many of their offspring.
But even if it’s not inherently better, I do think that we will have more success in the mainstream if we understand that the authorial reverence of game design is incomplete. Designing a game is a cool accomplishment, but the totality of a game is achieved away from the designer. Games begin and end with the groups who play them, even if they aren’t totally playing it right. The ability to adjust the experience on the fly is something unique to table games, and something that needs to be embraced more fully.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.