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Relentless Rules

O Updated
(Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

I have talked about house rules before, but what I want to talk about in this article is slightly different. When you play a game for the first time, or when you play a game you know with someone who plays it for the first time, the rules aren't always clear and it's possible someone misunderstands them. That's to be expected, but when you base your whole game, your whole strategy on your misunderstanding, then the game experience can really suffer. (This topic was inspired by the always wonderful Bez.)

 

I know, the obvious answer is probably: always accept that your first game is a learning game and that you will misunderstand something, so if you lose because of that, don't be upset. However, that's sometimes easier said than done. I've certainly been there myself. It's so great when you think you understand the rules, you carefully plan an amazing strategy, but then it turns out that you got it wrong and everything falls apart. It's frustrating to say the least.

Now, I appreciate we're all grown-ups and should be able to deal with this sort of disappointment. I'm not saying we should throw a tantrum, but the question is, how to deal with misunderstandings when they become apparent halfway through a game.

Let's look at the situation where all of you play a game for the first time. You all think you understand the rules, because maybe someone taught the game or you all learned it yourself beforehand, or however you group goes about playing a new game. So you start playing and then you get to a point where the rules don't seem to make sense. You all thought you knew what to do in the situation, but it's not clear. You check the rulebook and find a section that covers the situation you've encountered and it clarifies it.

Chances are, one person in your group will be disadvantaged by the rules clarification, so they're unhappy and insist that you all should continue to play by their interpretation of the rules. After all, if you play by the rules, that player will definitely not win, so it would really ruin the game experience for them.

I would say, if the ruling doesn't much affect everyone else, but only that one player, then there is no harm in introducing a house rule for this one game and then for the next game, you all know what the rules are. Everyone should continue to enjoy the game, and the player who would have been negatively affected gets a chance to see how to adapt their strategy for the next game, when you will play by the rules as they were written.

Another situation is when you all think you've understood the rulebook, but actually you all missed an important section that's an exception to what otherwise makes sense. Let's say, in the game you can always move up to four spaces, but there is a little call-out in the rulebook that says that you can only move one space when you've were involved in a fight on your previous turn. Nobody in your group has noticed that exception and everyone assumes you can always move four spaces.

However, when you play the game, something doesn't quite feel right. You eventually come to a case where moving four spaces is just too overpowered somehow. So you stop, check the rulebook and find the exception. The question is whether you continue to play with the four movement rule or apply the exception.

I would say, in most cases you probably want to continue playing the rules as you understood them at the beginning, but of course, if everyone agrees that the rules are just too overpowered or otherwise feel wrong, then you would want to agree to play with the rule exception you found.

The situation gets a bit more murky when you have played a game many times before and you have one or two new players. You do everything you can to make sure they understand the rules fully, but of course, halfway through the game one of the new players realizes they misunderstood something and they feel they would be seriously disadvantaged if the game continued with the correct rules.

You need to decide as a group how to proceed, of course, and if it's literally only one player whose game experience is ruined, while everyone else is virtually unaffected, then maybe houserule it for this one game and agree to play by the written rules next time.

Yet, there is another option for all of the above situations. There may be a situation where it's better to stop a game halfway and write it off as a learning experience. That's especially true, if you have plenty of time to play another game with the correct rules. That way you all can start again and everyone knows what's expected.

Also bear in mind that houseruling is always an option as well. As long as everyone agrees that a specific rule doesn't feel right, then try a houserule and see if it makes the game more fun for you all. It's just not always easy when you've already started a game and are halfway through.

So I would like to know how you deal with situations where you discover a new rule or learn that you misunderstood something? Do you tend to allow individual players an exception to the rules, if it makes the game experience better for everyone? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please share them in the comments below.

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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ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #319511 23 Feb 2021 12:56
If it is a learning game for everyone, and we discover mid-game that we have been playing wrong, we usually just immediately start playing by the correct rule, because the point of playing is to learn the correct rules.

When it is any of the other situations, particularly one where only one player has misunderstood, it can become far more awkward. Most often, in our group, the player who misunderstood, will just be like "Oh, drat," get over it, and play with the correct rule, even if they are really screwed by it. But sometimes people get quite pissed off, and it becomes really unpleasant for everyone.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #319514 23 Feb 2021 13:42
I often do a 1-2 round "trial run game" when running a new game (to myself or with several new players) for this very reason. We can kick the tires and rev the engine before we start the actual race. Especially with euro style games full of mechanics that make no sense when described but suddenly click when seen in play.

I suspect a LOT of "ho hum" game experiences were due to misapplying rules, most of those games never get a second chance.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319516 23 Feb 2021 13:56
When this has come up in the past, we have typically taken a quick vote on immediately adopting the correct rule or playing out the current game with the wrong rule. I can see where a competitive player might get upset, and that is yet another reason why I tend to avoid playing games with people who are obsessed with winning.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #319520 23 Feb 2021 14:07
^agree, that's my general position on this too.

It's very frustrating, though, as a rules explainer. That petulance/disappointment by the wrong rules player feels like a shitty accusation if it starts to come to "well I didn't know that! Why didn't you say something?" I have a good friend who would do this constantly (my nickname was "rules master"), it stopped being personally funny to me at some point and just felt shitty. Which, when you're doing the rules explaining, which is hard, is extra bad.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #319523 23 Feb 2021 14:36
One of my groups used to have a couple rules explainers go so in depth in rules explanations and even talk about strategy and stuff. I think it was to avoid the "you didn't tell me that!" guy, but it always bugged me. I remember at least one 45 minute rules explanation for a 1-hour long kids' racing game. I'm much more of a "start the game as soon as reasonably possible, and explain things as needed," kind of player, both when teaching and my preferred style of learning. Like if I'm teaching Codenames to a group where at least two people are already familiar with being the spy masters, I'll give only a cursory explanation of what they actually see, and instead try to get people started with, "which words match the clue given" within a much shorter time frame. If the game is interesting enough to me I'll want to play it again to learn how to play it better.
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #319524 23 Feb 2021 15:02
Interesting topic. I think how this is handled really has far more to do with who you are playing with than anything else. Just the other day Shellie and I were playing Mariposas and I completely misunderstood the hieroglyphics on one of the end of the round scoring cards. Shellie had looked it up and explained it to me, but I still misunderstood what it was saying so I ended up missing out on some points. I think she thought I was going to flip the table or something, but why? I was having a great time moving the little butterflies around and coming up with strategies for getting the most points out of the cards that I had. And my strategy was great for what I THOUGHT the card said. As long as I'm having fun I really don't care what the scores is in the end. On the other hand, if this wasn't such a short game (especially two player) and I had blown the entire game on a misunderstanding, I probably would have been pretty frustrated.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #319525 23 Feb 2021 15:08
Jexik, I have to fight that overexplain instinct every time to avoid that guy, you nailed it.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319527 23 Feb 2021 15:18

jason10mm wrote: I suspect a LOT of "ho hum" game experiences were due to misapplying rules, most of those games never get a second chance.


Great point. The stakes are higher for playing a game right the first time, because if the game flops it may never get played again. My original gaming group was always so excited to try a new game that we often breezed quickly through the rules and got some things wrong. And that was fine, because we didn't have a lot of options back then and everything we had got played repeatedly.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319528 23 Feb 2021 15:21
That also explains why we experimented often with house rules. We didn't have many games back then, so we wanted to get as much as possible out of the games we had. So, house rules, homebrew expansions, and custom scenarios. Nobody has enough time for that anymore, and why make house rules to fix a game when there are plenty of games that don't need fixing.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #319531 23 Feb 2021 16:02

engineer Al wrote: I think she thought I was going to flip the table or something, but why?


I was mortified. I felt so bad, because it was so easy to misinterpret the text explanation which was pretty poor, and it was 7 points, which is huge in Mariposa. I wanted you to just take the 7 points. When something like this happens, the rules explainer usually feels just as bad as the player, if not worse.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #319540 23 Feb 2021 17:21
As the primary teacher/rules explainer in my various groups, I've gotten into two habits that help to avoid a lot of pitfalls. The first is, almost absurdly, practice. When I know I'm going to be introducing a new game to people, I spend a few random minutes running through the rules in my head and outlining a patter for them:

"This is Tiny Epic Quest. Everyone has three dudes, with which you'll try to complete quests, kill goblins, and learn magic to score points. Here's the scoresheet and we have five rounds to do it. In the beginning phase of each round, each of us will pick a movement type. Here are the five movement cards and this is how they work. Then everyone gets a chance to move one of their dudes with the selected type. BUT, if you move past a red goblin, it will cost you Power to make that move. Goblins are usually green, but can turn red. I'll get to that in a minute. There are four different kinds of locations to move to..."

And so on. I get it to basically a script that takes less time than me trying to remember everything at the table. The other habit is if I've only played once or, indeed, have never played a game of something new (a rare thing these days as I've reduced the collection size), I'll just say so: "First time effort here, so I'm learning with you. So, if there are mistakes, let's just roll with them." Most people are fine with that. But in the situation Oliver describes, we'll usually just switch to the right rule and, if it makes the endgame wonky, fine.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319546 23 Feb 2021 18:02
How do members of The Cult of the New deal with teaching rules? Are they unusually good at teaching rules? Or do they stick to simple games?
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #319553 23 Feb 2021 20:47
Cult of the New is why we started getting "quickstart" rulebooks and "the real rules" rulebooks, i think. Or first play options that minimize game complexity in order to focus on learning the core concepts.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #319566 24 Feb 2021 00:15
I think teaching rules is a skill, and one you can get better at. It requires a certain thought process and strategy in its own right. Each game needs its own approach depending on the structure.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #319577 24 Feb 2021 08:26
I can't teach a game to a group cold. I have to play solo to get the cadence down and be able to anticipate the easily missed rules. It is the very epitome of dread for me to have a cold game start. This is likely why I don't necessarily mind being the primary game procurer/teacher in the group. I would much rather teach than be taught a game.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #319588 24 Feb 2021 10:24

Gary Sax wrote: ^agree, that's my general position on this too.

It's very frustrating, though, as a rules explainer. That petulance/disappointment by the wrong rules player feels like a shitty accusation if it starts to come to "well I didn't know that! Why didn't you say something?" I have a good friend who would do this constantly (my nickname was "rules master"), it stopped being personally funny to me at some point and just felt shitty. Which, when you're doing the rules explaining, which is hard, is extra bad.


Far too often the person whining about the rules being explained wrong is the person who is too fucking lazy to read the rules ahead of time. And never takes their turn to be the explainer. If I know I'm gonna be playing a game ahead of time, I at least try to skim the rules so I get a sense of what is going on. I've played enough games over the years I can pick up 90% of the gist pretty quick. Put me in the camp of "just start playing" vs an hour long intro. If a game takes that long to teach , people should have prepared ahead of time .
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #319589 24 Feb 2021 10:26

Shellhead wrote: How do members of The Cult of the New deal with teaching rules? Are they unusually good at teaching rules? Or do they stick to simple games?


From what I've seen they stick to the simpler Euro/abstract type stuff. They're not skipping from TI4 to War of the Ring to Gloomhaven .
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #319619 24 Feb 2021 13:37

jason10mm wrote: Cult of the New is why we started getting "quickstart" rulebooks and "the real rules" rulebooks, i think. Or first play options that minimize game complexity in order to focus on learning the core concepts.


I actually think this is great and I'd love to see it become standard. With the caveat that the "learn to play" booklet should be a PDF download. You usually only learn a game once, but (for a complicated game) you refer back to the rules many times. Don't weigh down a useful reference book with stuff I use once.