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  • Essays
  • Overruled - Board Game House Rules

Overruled - Board Game House Rules

O Updated
(Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

The old topic of "house rules" keeps cropping up. Some of us are purists and feel that you have to play games with the rules they came with, because otherwise you won't get the experience that the designer intended. Others feel that tweaking a few rules here and there can make a game more fun for you and the people you play with and that designers want us to enjoy their games. In this article, I want to speak for the latter group and show that house rules aren't a sacrilege.

Let me start by saying that you have to do what you feel is right for yourself, of course. If you really don't want to use house rules, then that's absolutely fine. It's your game and your experience. If introducing house rules ruins the enjoyment of a game for you, then definitely don't do it.

However, for myself, I found that tweaking rules here and there can improve a game, and not only increase the enjoyment for myself, but also the people I play with. In fact, depending on the group of people I play with, I sometimes use different house rules.

Carcassonne is one of those games for me. Many people feel that playing with farmers is an absolute must, and I completely understand the strategic element they introduce to the gameplay. Yet, for my family, farmers tend to be a distraction and create an unnecessary competitive element that makes the game less fun. So we always play without farmers, because we get enough direct player interaction from trying to control cities, or sometimes roads.

When I play Carcassonne with my games group, we do play with farmers, because we want that extra way of gaining potentially large points and the push and pull farmers can create. However, for a very long time, we had our own house rule. We played that you couldn't place a meeple, and therefore couldn't score a city, road or monastery when placing the last tile that completes that feature. The idea was, that if you didn't add to a feature, you weren't allowed to get points for it.

Now, that is actually not a house rule, of course, but us misreading the rules. We only learned about our mistake when we played Carcassonne online and the app gave us the option to place meeples while completing a feature. After playing it wrong for years, we had to relearn it a bit and adapt to the way the correct rules change the gameplay.

That's an important point, actually. Whenever you add a house rule, bear in mind that you'll change the gameplay. Of course, you hope to make the gameplay better for yourself and the people you play with, whatever "better" means in this context, but you still affect how the game plays. Pretty much every game has been playtested a lot before being released, so usually, the rules create the perfect experience or at least the experience the designer intended. So your own house rule has the potential to break the game.

So do be a bit careful when making changes to rules and don't just introduce house rules for the sake of it. Some games may seem to be imbalanced or wrong and it won't be until you've played them a good few times before you realize that the original rules actually work really well and are there for a reason, and that your house rules actually make the game worse. However, your house rules may be perfect for people who haven't played the game before, so you can introduce them at the beginning and then drop them later.

In any case, make sure your house rules do actually work and create the experience that you and your group want from the game, but be ready to run into a situation where your rules may just not work or make the game worse.

Saying that, some rulebooks are awful and you have to interpret them yourself, effectively creating house rules, simply because it isn't clear how to play the game from the rulebook alone. You have to try and work out what the designer meant and make decisions based on what "feels right" for the game. For me, Boss Monster is one of those games. It's not always clear in what order spells fire and who gets precedence, but you can usually make a decision within the group and take it on a case by case basis.

Some games also have edge cases which aren't covered by the rules and again, you have to make a decision during the game, thereby creating a house rule. Just make sure you check the publisher's website for FAQs or addendums that might explain those bits that the rulebook doesn't cover.

At the end of the day though, it's your game and it's up to you what you do with it. No designer I have come across has ever said that they are absolutely against house rules. They want you to have fun with the game they created. The experience they want you to have while playing it, isn't necessarily the experience you or the people you play with want to have - and sometimes you want to play without house rules and sometimes you do, depending on your mood or how tired you are.

Whenever you introduce your own rules and find that they work really well for you and your group, even after a number of plays, then why not share them with others or maybe even send them to the publisher or designer of the game. Many games have variants published for them, so that they work for a wider audience of people. Some games can only be played with certain player counts, if you go just by the rules, but sometimes you can make changes so you can play them with the number of players you want.

So, have fun with the games you play and make them your own, so that you will still enjoy them even after many plays.

Now, what I want to know, is whether you have ever introduced house rules yourself? Are there any you want to share here, because they really changed a game around for you and turned something that wasn't right or boring into an experience that was exciting and fun? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear what house rules you have come up with.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Bixby's Avatar
Bixby replied the topic: #316924 08 Dec 2020 12:17
We have created a number of house rules for games that we have played a lot.

Some examples include:
- Railways of the World (Combined East & West USA Map)
- MEGA-Carcassonne (Carcassonne with lots of tiles / expansions in a cut throat team-game (3 teams of 2).
- XIA: Legends of a Drift System (Sandbox games encourage fanspansion rules and play).
- Formula De (12 years of running a 10 player league had us augmenting some rules to add to the meta game of league play).

In essence, games are meant o be fun. Part of that fun for our group is exploring improvements and variants to suit our style of play).

Thanks for the article.
Matt "Bixby" Robertson
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #316928 08 Dec 2020 13:38
When I was a teenager, we often used house rules. We had a lot more free time back then, and not many games, so house rules were often a way to expand the replayability of the games we had. Also, the hobby games (early AmeriTrash) often needed a bit of tinkering, due to insufficient rules or typos or even just game balance issues that were fixed with sufficient playtesting. Or sometimes the rulebook was long and not well-indexed, so we would make up a rule on the fly.

A lot of the the tinkering was a reflex from running early RPGs, where the intent was to simulate a full-fledged world but maybe you only had a 32-page rule book defining that world. One of my favorite early RPGs was Villains and Vigilantes, a game about super-powered crimefighters and their opponents. The basic structure of the game was okay, but there was a lot of hand-waving when it came to more specific rules for common comicbook elements like magic or cybernetics. Over time, I wrote up an additional 20 pages of rules for my V&V campaign.

Barnes made a remark here several years ago that left a lasting impression on me. There are so many games now that it isn't worth the effort to patch up a flawed game with house rules when you can just box-sweep it off the table and play something better. I generally agree, but sometimes a minor house rule can totally address a flaw in an otherwise good game.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #316930 08 Dec 2020 14:42
We have a House Rule for Wings of Glory where, when you draw a damage card, you have to describe what everyone sees from the event. The desire is for you to be creative, to keep the game a little more interesting.

If you take big damage you might say "you see wood fly from one of my wings" or "smoke starts coming out from the front of the plane."

Minor damage might be "you see a tear in the canvass" or even "you don't see anything."

We had one guy that got caught in a spot where not one but TWO artillery shells went off. Artillery shells either blow you to smithereens or do nothing. He pulled his two damage cards, apparently both 0s, and replied, "you see a thin stream of yellow liquid coming out the bottom of the cockpit." It took a few seconds, but everyone started laughing their fool heads off. We have yet to hear a better response than that one!

At times, house rules can be more about the narrative than the mechanics.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #316932 08 Dec 2020 15:35
I do house rules when I/we don't think a game is working quite right or when we think we need more (or just some) fun out of it. Some examples from the top of my head:
- Horus Heresy (FFG remake), they did a nifty thing with the initiative/time track, which determined the game length, where actions cost differing number of points movement but it just wasn't feeling quite right so I added a few options.
- Star Trek: Ascendancy, didn't like the simplistic Tech card mechanic of draw 2, choose 1 and put the other on the bottom of the deck so I made a few other options to choose from.
- Secrets of the Lost Tomb, spending a scarce resource to reroll dice required you to reroll all of them, the game was hard enough as it was so we played you could reroll any number you wanted.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #316947 09 Dec 2020 07:03
Being strict, I remove all trackable hidden information to the degree all other players allow me to and it's not more annoying than keeping it.
WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #316954 09 Dec 2020 14:20
We were playing The Crew last night and my daughter joined us and picked up the commander token and asked why it said "Sing" on it. Without missing a beat, my wife said "You have to sing a song when you are the commander." (I have no idea if or why it says sing in it) and i quickly agreed. Of course, my daughter doesn't become commander until 5 rounds later, so me and my wife end up singing songs for 4 rounds before we finally get the payoff of having Tegan sing in round 5. Oh. Wait. Is it round five? Oh, you have to stand and sing... it's in the rules. Thus, new house rules were born.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #316960 09 Dec 2020 15:27
More of a fun variant than a house rule but in my euro group about 15 years when they played Manhattan (simple game building the tallest skyscraper in different city blocks for VPs) they had the Godzilla rule where (from memory) a monster would enter the board and each round you would draw a card and move it around, any unfortunate building in its way would be knocked over - turned a reasonably fun German-type game into a great laugh. I ended up contributing a plastic gorilla for him.

And just looked on my laptop in my old documents and found the rules for it (from 2003) :laugh: :

The Godzilla Variant
Well, Manhattan is already a good game. But, after having played a bit too much poker, Eric Moore and I were discussing the game and I said "Well, Ben can't wait to steal a godzilla from an Alan Moon game and play Manhattan with it."
A few minutes later, these rules were born.

Setup and Play
Take any convenient counter (of course, a Godzilla from one of Alan's games is preferred) and set it in the center of any city. For purposes of Godzilla, the cities form a 2x3 rectange that wraps around at both edges. Play of the game is completely normal, except, after you play a card and build a piece, Godzilla moves. If you played a card that let you build in the center, Godzilla doesn't move. If you played a card that let you build in any other space, Godzilla moves in that direction (diagonally if you built in a corner, horizantally or vertically if you built on an edge). Any building that Godzilla steps on is destroyed.

Big vs. Little Monster
Big monster destroys an entire building when he enters a space with a building. Little Monster only eats the tops floor piece (and if he stays where he is by playing a center card, he eats another piece.) I prefer big.
gversace's Avatar
gversace replied the topic: #316966 09 Dec 2020 22:06
I suppose I'm in the Barnes camp on this one. I have a limited amount of gaming time and "fixing" games seems a waste of time to me when there are so many other, better games. I also tend to have faith that the game has been tested more than I've played, and whatever change I think should be made was probably examined and discarded in development. Obviously, that isn't the case for many games, especially Kickstarted ones, but in that case, I'd rather just play something else.