When I was a little boy, I loved playing Monopoly. It’s quite clear from the stories and memories that you hear from a lot of board gamers (and pretty much anyone for that matter) that a lot of people hated the game as children. It’s also pretty clear if you look at the mechanics that a lot of this hate is due to misguided but extremely common house rules like pooling fine money on Free Parking and allowing anyone that lands there to collect it. We didn’t use any of those house rules, and that certainly is a big reason why I thought fondly of the game.
But we did have one house rule which I’ve never come across before or since. When the last property on the board got purchased, active play would pause and we’d have a phase of intense negotiation which only ended when every player had at least one coloured set of properties they could build houses on. I can look at the game now, with a reviewer's eye and see that it’s a good rule: it marginally increases the amount of skill needed to play the game, puts players on a more even footing and reduces the chance someone will get lucky by landing on and buying a whole set and then go on to win.
But as an adult, when I suggested to my gaming friends that we play this way, they were aghast. While they understood the point about Free Parking and similar rules, they thought that forcing players to negotiate was against the spirit of the game, made it needlessly longer and reduced the fun chaos-factor in the game. This is the trouble with house rules: I have always found it tremendously difficult to get all the players round a table to agree to using a house rule or variant and we almost always play by the rules as written.
I was inspired to write this piece by some of the discussion that’s gone on in regards to the clear stipulation in Rex: Final Days of an Empire that players are not allowed secret negotiation or to write things down, both activities that were absolutely key in its predecessor Dune. It looks to me pretty clear why those changes are there: they exist purely to speed up play and reduce downtime. So any gamer will understand that they can certainly house rule for these things to be allowed and the only major logistical and mechanical knock-on effects will be that play time increases. So from that point of view it should be an easy choice for a group to make. But it does shift the focus of the play fairly drastically, away from mechanical and psychological appreciation of the bidding and combat elements and toward deal-making and diplomacy. It’ll be far harder to convince all the players that that’s a good thing, even if many might think so.
This example from Rex: Final Days of an Empire has direct, transparent implications. When it comes to more mechanically obtuse games, there may be a large number of mechanical knock-on effects from a house rule that are not so easy to understand or appreciate. I once suggested that you could balance Twilight Struggle a bit better as well as adding a bit of tactical interest if you made the starting player each turn dependent on the value of the headline card which is played simultaneously by each player at the beginning of every turn. I got to try this particular variant and it turned out there were a number of negative unintended consequences: some low value cards that were clearly intended for use during the headline became useless, there was more randomness, controlling nuclear war became less important and all sorts of other small things. If that relatively inoffensive change can have such a profound impact on the game, what hope something more ambitious on a more complex game?
In fact I was very lucky to even get to try this one. For the most part, variants and house rules that I’ve considered rather more deeply and written about at length at best tend to spark a bit of discussion and then get ignored. The reason is simple. Games take time and effort to organise and play and usually work pretty well as the designer intended them. Unless you’ve got a criminally large amount of spare time at your disposal, playing a game using a variant or house rule that’s untried and which, as we’ve seen, may spoil the game all sorts of unforeseen ways, is not going to be high up your list of things to do with your precious gaming time. I came up with a variant for the original GW edition of Fury of Dracula which I’m fairly certain stands to push what’s already an excellent game into an outstanding one. Have I ever tried it? No. I love playing Fury of Dracula and on the rare occasions that I get to game and get that particular game to the table, my desire to simply kick back and enjoy outweighs my curiosity about whether my variant will work without fail every single time.
Even for games that have an obsessive dedicated fan base, getting wide agreement on a worthwhile variant or house rule seems difficult. Witness the protracted discussions and testing regarding balance on the first edition of War of the Ring before the expansion, or A Few Acres of Snow before the designer was forced to admit that ongoing fixes may well be necessary. With all that effort, was there wide agreement? No. The best the War of the Ring community could do was post a list of effective variants with some of the side-effects of each. A Few Acres of Snow fared a bit better but ultimately got torpedoed by the fact that no one variant may actually solve all the problems. It illustrates the problem of understanding the effects of and getting agreement on a particular house rule to a tee. Best just play by the rules as written: if you really want to, use a designer approved variant and leave it at that.
The point of all of this, aside from grumbling about the inability of gaming groups to collectively decide on the worth of any given variant, is to demonstrate why it’s so vital that designers, developers and publishers get things right in the first place and, if they don’t manage that, that they fix, clarify and confirm as rapidly as possible. It’s not like this is a particularly tough task in the age of the internet, where publishing and rapidly disseminating errata and FAQs is incredibly easy. Games Workshops’ unwillingness to do this in spite of clear, obvious and widely accepted problems with Warhammer 6th edition was a big driver in pushing me away from that hobby and into board games. They lost my custom, permanently, which they’re big enough not to care about but it illustrates how big an issue this can be. We’re reliant on all publishers to make the grade, and some of the smaller ones might not be so able to weather the fallout.