Boardgames in the News: What are “House Rules” and are they a Good Thing?

Occasionally, our game reports refer to “House Rules”.  These are slight alterations to the game rules which our group introduce when we play.  For example, the GOATS are quite slow players and, although we love Las Vegas, they find that it drags a little if the full four rounds are played, so we have a House Rule which means we stop after three.  Similarly, for us Saboteur sometimes drags and we find the scoring element a bit pointless.  For this reason, we usually skip the scoring and play each round as a short, independent game, which means we can play for as long as we want and just stop when we’ve had enough without worrying about overall winners.  The group also recently discussed allowing two players to make a pact with the Devil in Auf Teufel komm raus when playing with six, to help those players bringing up the rear catch-up, and perhaps make the decisions a little more interesting for the other players too.

Las Vegas
– Image by boardGOATS

House Rules are frequently quite controversial though, and the reason is largely philosophical:  the game designer’s vision is based on “The Rules as Written”.  Tampering with the rules can be seen as showing anything from a lack of respect for the designer, to ignorance.  This is because the designer, publisher and development team will have the best understanding of the game through extensive play-testing which will be reflected in the rules. There is a point here, famously, many people play Monopoly “wrong” for example, which changes the character of the game significantly making it overly long and often extremely tedious (especially for players at the back).

Carcassonne
– Image by boardGOATS

When asked, most games designers will encourage experimentation though. This is for two main reasons.  Firstly, game designers enjoy experimenting themselves; to them there is no “one true rule set”, only the “current rule set”.  This is true for the rest of us too, as some games change when new editions are published—for example Carcassonne where the first, second and third editions all have different scoring, and Orléans where the rules for the Bathhouse  changed between the first and second edition.

Orléans
– Image by boardGOATS

Secondly, most designers understand that different groups have different characteristics and dynamics, and enjoy different aspects of playing games.  Designers also want people to get the maximum enjoyment out of their game and sometimes that means tweaking the rules slightly, so ultimately, they want people to play the way that makes them happiest.  For the avoidance of arguments, it is clearly important to make any “House Rules” very clear to everyone playing, as there is an expectation that games will be played with “The Rules as Written” except by prior arrangement.  However, if playing a game in a particular way is enjoyable, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using “House Rules” as long as everyone knows they are doing it.

Las Vegas
– Image by boardGOATS

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