Monday, 26 March 2007

The Rules of this House.

One of the more common complaints expressed by those who hate Ameritrash is the constant crow cry of a game being ‘unbalanced’ or ‘broken’. It does make some sense that this occurs in these brand of games really, after all the more complications and exceptions you place onto a rule set, the more chance you have of breaking it in some way. It is for this reason that fans of the game begin developing house rules as a ‘fix’, which of course leads to the second crow cry from many of our gamer cousins.

“House rules?!?! After I paid all of this money for the game the designer expects me to do his job for him as well?!?!”

I find that attitude somewhat bizarre. Not slapping on 1 or 2 minor house rules to fix a problem is like refusing to look out the window before you head off for a walk, because well the weatherman should bloody well just get his forecasts right in the first place damn it! I often wonder how such people would act when in the market for a new home – would they knock back the perfect house just because they don’t like the wallpaper or because the kitchen needs a little remodeling?

House rules normally are very simple to implement, and with the advent of the internet you don’t even need to come up with them yourself, you can simply apply other people’s ideas if you lack the imagination or time to come up with your own fixes. Of course, a lot of this comes down to a simple question – is the game worth ‘fixing’ in the first place? That’s a subjective question, but I personally like to divide a rule set into 2 parts, the core rules and the chrome.

The ‘core’ rule set is the ‘skeleton’ of the game, so to speak; the main mechanic that drives the game and which all other rules hang upon. Eurogames tend to be built almost exclusively of a core rule set. If the core rules are broken then in most cases anything short of redesigning the entire game won’t help. An example of this for me is Medevil; the core rule set is so bland and uninspiring that I simply don’t think it’s worth playing, and therefore I won’t bother trying to develop house rules to make it play better. I’ll just play something else entirely.

On the other side there are the ‘chrome’ rules. These are the touches and extra bits which are hung onto the core rules to bring more flavor and nuisance to the game. Ameritrash games tend to have a lot of these, and it’s normally these rules which cause problems. The good thing is that because chrome rules aren’t part of a games foundation but rather more like its branches, they can be altered a lot more easily without sending the entire game crashing down, due to them having a lesser impact on the rest of the game then core rules do. That is why this is the ideal level to be applying house rules at. As an example I will use the game Doom. I love the core mechanics in this – the combat dice are brilliant, the scenario base a lot of fun and the options one is given throughout play I find very interesting. On the other hand I don’t like how hard it is for the marines to win – the balance is simply too skewed away from their survival for me to have much fun with it. Fortunately addressing this issue is simply a matter of tweaking the chrome rules a bit; be it changing the way ammo is acquired, giving the marine more armor or lives to increase his chance of survival, or simply designing easier adventures. Such fiddling around the edges are unlikely to affect the game in ways you can’t foresee, but can address the problems you have with it to make the whole experience much more enjoyable.

So when people argue that they should not be forced to implement house rules in order to fix a game, I simply argue why throw out a perfectly good game just because it has one or two issues you don’t care for?

Of course, ‘fixes’ are not the only reason to implement house rules, the other big reason is to customize the game and give it your own personal stamp. You see this all the time in other hobbies – car enthusiasts will buy parts to modify their vehicles and customize it, people who love to cook will experiment with spices to give the dish a bit of their own signature, photographers will experiment with light and lenses and so on. Tinkering with something you enjoy is a lot of fun, and house rules are really nothing more than taking a light hand at playing designer. And really, who is more qualified at custom building your ultimate game experience than you yourself?

So while a nice set of problem free rules is a great thing, one should not be afraid of pulling out the hammer and have some fun nailing in a few house rules. They aren’t quite as sacrosanct as Matt Thrower would have you believe.


Ken Bradford said...

Have anyone in particular in mind when you wrote this?


Refusing to implement minor house rules on an otherwise fine game is like sending a Ferrari to the impound because it has minor fender scratching.

We aren't perfect; I don't understand why some flip out when game designers also exhibit this very common human trait.

Michael Barnes said...

I dunno...I'm sort of on the fence about it, on the one hand I think of house rules as the gaming equivalent of shooting your own Tom Bombadil footage to stick in your personal copy of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. But on the other, if a couple of minor tweaks save a game from the rubbish heap then it can't be a bad thing, right?

WARRIOR KNIGHTS is a good recent example of how house rules can really be a game's salvation- as written, all the kowtowing to Euro sensibilities with the artificial timing mechanism, completely balanced and underpowered starting positions, and limited VP pool made a great game merely rules to add more starting troops and doing away with the point limit make the game come alive.

One of my favorite house rules was implemented by a good friend of mine that has designed at least one very, very famous and popular game...he added dice to TEMPUS to make it go from zero to 1 on the fun scale.

Robert Bowsher said...

I've seen a lot of times where proposed house rules were proposed to 'fix' a problem that came up in one playing. _Battle Cry_ being an example, where a friend was ready to throw the whole card system out after getting stuck with no cards to activate a particular flank. This after _one_ play. "We really need a rule to fix this card problem, then this game would be a lot better." Hmmm, do you suppose the designer played this game a couple of times, ran into this problem, and left it in for a reason? Too many times proposed rules fixes are like people playing a single game of tennis and saying, "This would be more fun if that darn net wasn't there."

This doesn't mean that the designers are always perfect, but I think it takes more than a few plays before the holes show up.

brumeister said...

I totally agree - house rules are the chrome with which to customize any game to your personal liking.
Furthermore - I cannot count the many number of times that I have played a game improperly due to misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted or forgotten rules.
(not that anyone else on this site or BGG would EVER do that)
That in my mind is a version of house rules - inadvertent as it is.

Shellhead said...

Mr. Skeletor has hit the nail on the head here. House rules for the core game are generally a waste of time. Maybe the game designers didn't bother testing the game enough to realize that there was a problem with the core mechanics, or maybe they didn't care. But if the core rules don't work, play something else. If the bits and pieces are really good, I might use them when designing one of my own games.

But house rules for the chrome aspects of a game can be perfectly reasonable. Some games even need them badly. For example, the Lannister starting position in A Game of Thrones is just unfair. Not only is there that specific opening gambit for Pyke that exploits the Lannister weakness, but it's just blatantly harsh to occupy the center position in a five-player game. We tried to balance that by giving them an extra footman, before Clash of Kings came up with a better fix.

Some games scale well to a larger scale than the available pieces allow for. Strange Synergy is okay fun for two players, but it becomes a wild free-for-all with six players. I didn't like the cheesy Foglio artwork anyway, so I downloaded suitable superhero artwork and re-sized it for those SJ plastic bases. Then I bought more bases, and painted them in different colors, so we can now potentially have a nine-player game of Strange Synergy. I did a similar project with Prince of the City to make it 10-player, but that was easy because I worked on one of the early designs for that game.

There is one other class of house rules worth mentioning, and that would be rules that make a game especially festive for a party. Yes, I'm talking about drinking rules. Nuclear War with drinking rules is a blast. For every five million people you lose from a single attack or propaganda card, you take a drink. We also had a house rule where if you got the spinner result for triple yield on 100 megaton payload (not for the MX), the world was destroyed instantly, and all players still in the game at that point had to shotgun a beer.

hughthehand said...

I really have nothing to comment on. I just wanted to say this is yet another brilliant article and small discussion. Good read Skeletor.

pbwedz said...

If you are writing a game review or rating a game, then the game must be judged on what was in the box.

That said, house rules should be added where needed or whenever you want. It's your game, play it how you want.

alan richbourg said...

Making and using house rules can be awesome, as long as you accept that what works for someone likely won't be appreciated by someone else. Feel free to make house rule, but don't try to ramrod them through a game session if others disagree.

jathomas said...

Good read Skelly. I think a game should usually make every effort to be balanced, but in a game with any level of complexity, you can never get it %100.

A good example of this is Fury of Dracula. Everyone seems to have strong opinions about this one, and it's hard to call because the roles of Dracula and hunter have different strengths and strategy options. In the end though, does it really matter if it's %100 fair to both sides? I mean, if you and three of your friends were REALLY trying to stop a plague of vampires all over Europe, and Dracula kept leaving bitten ladies everywhere in his wake, how fair would THAT be? That's right, probably not real fair. I don't know if that means its less fun, just as long as the fairness isn't too slanted. I like a challenge, but I don't want it to be impossible. I have played some games of Doom which made me want to go get my controller and throw it across the room in frustration.

This is something I like about Memoir '44 (and games like it). You will play a scenario which is OBVIOUSLY easier for the Nazis, for instance. The Allies will kick your ass and eat your lunch. Then you flip it over and play Allies.

Nice and fair, and the people writing the scenarios don't have to worry about boardgamecrybabies.

ubarose said...

Wonderful article.

Have you ever noticed that AT games need "House Rules" becauce they are "broken," while Eurogames have "variants" to increase their playability.

jathomas said...

Oh yeah, my point:

If there's some little thing we can do to really help the game, we'll do it, but usually we just play it out of the box, unbalanced or not. We are light on the house rules, and most of those are based on timing issues.

Totally agree with pbwedz, and have seen annoying reviews which include fixes that have been made to rules and poor components.

"We found the game to be quite playable once we carved some new fortresses out of soap, rewrote the rules, and made some new cards out of 3X5 cards. Ten stars!"

Ken Bradford said...

Well, there is a "tipping point" where you are just making up your own rules instead of using what's in the box (I believe this is how Age of Mythology is played--mostly with out-of-the-box variant rules, right?)

I will gladly "fix" small problems, but if a whole game is broken then yeah, I will move on and play something else. I just don't see the point of getting all worked up and indignant over small, easily fixed problems.

vialiy said...

House rules are nice to spice up some Euros. Several games (ex. Tigris & Euphrates, Samurai, Shadow of the Emperor,...) have hidden scoring in order to prevent gang-jumping on the leader, but if you don't mind the confrontation, making scoring open often makes those games better.

I agree with Mr. Barnes that sometimes, rules are added on top of a system in order to dampen confrontation, which is especially evident regarding Warrior Knights.

Godeke said...

The biggest problem with house rules is when you go to another "house". As an example, I will use a game that isn't an Ameritrash game: Tempus.

There is a really stupid rule that (according to posts by the designer) was added by the publisher: any player with three stacks of population can not be attacked. Again, according to the designer, it was tacked on to prevent "early elimination".

There is a pretty obvious "fix": count cities as stacks. The reason for this fix is otherwise it is possible to keep a small number of stacks in play and only create a new stack once a city is built. By playing this way, the entire warfare aspect is reduced from a supporting role to unusable.

My group loves the rule as it keeps things flexible and late in the game trashing an opponents city is the only way to build one of your own.

Yet... there are a few *extremely* *extremely* vocal people who have decried any ruling other than the "official" rules and have posted fascinating insights into their personal character in their attacks upon those who would dare taint the holy work that is the rulebook.

So, while I have no fear applying house rules, I tend to simply avoid playing games that *require* them with unknown personalities at the table. So in that respect, a game that needs house rules becomes self limiting in popularity.

pbwedz said...

This is something I like about Memoir '44 (and games like it). You will play a scenario which is OBVIOUSLY easier for the Nazis, for instance. The Allies will kick your ass and eat your lunch. Then you flip it over and play Allies.

Yea, but it depends on the game. In a game like M44, the author is trying to model the setup on what happened in RL. He's not shooting for balance, which is why he tells you to play twice with each person playing each side once and the game is short enough that this is doable.

In games that are not based on RL, I do expect something close to balance and if the game's maker wants their game to sell, it should be close. People are more apt to just say 'That sucks' and move on then to go fiddle with the rules.

In a game like FoD, an M44 'solution' is not do-able with a 3 hour game time. Note: I have no problems with FoD's balance.

robartin said...

Look all I want to know is when we're changing the name of the site to Fortress: AMerryRide?

Shellhead said...

Look all I want to know is when we're changing the name of the site to Fortress: AMerryRide?


If somebody ever publishes a My Pretty Pony game that turns out to be the most kickass AmeriTrash game ever, I *might* support that name change.

robartin said...

Have anyone in particular in mind when you wrote this?
No kidding - talk about a clarion call. MrSkeletor must be lonely or something.

Mr Skeletor said...

No kidding - talk about a clarion call. MrSkeletor must be lonely or something.

Originally the title was going to be "Houserules - The bane of the Natus" and I was going to open up with a quote from Nate with his stereo typical "Why should I design the game" bit, but I oddly couldn't find any such quotes after searching the geek for an hour. Go figure.

Any other attempt to put Nate in felt forced, so he ended up getting dropped. Sorry Nate, you could have been a contender.

I also can't believe I forgot drinking houserules. Doh!

Ken Bradford said...

Believe it or not, Nate and I have become friends, despite our arguing over the merits of various FFG titles. He's a good guy, he just has wildy different viewpoints on gaming than I do.

I don't understand why he's always poised to strike at passing FFG games...if I could help him break that habit, he'd be alright.


Mr Skeletor said...

Nates not a bad guy.
For an Opera Wiener anyway.

the red phantom said...

Can we make our own house rule that we are not allowed to allude to a cool house rule without describing it herein? ;) I like what I'm hearing!

Mr. Bradford brings up an excellent point about a "tipping point"; AoM is played with so many rules changes now that it's a whole other game than originally designed (at least that's so in our case). Would some longer/more intense design have helped? Yes, it would! Same with Nero, Empire of the Sun, Crusader Rex, and too many other wargames I have tried. Blah! Stick with AT!

But I don't know that the house rule controversy adequately reflects a game like GoT. FFG immediately spotted the problem, and they fixed it, no house rules necessary.

With Doom and WarCraft--pre-expansions--however, do you reach the tipping point? Is it just too much work to create house rules? If I love the game despite its flaws, I'll buy it and house rule it if I need to, same way as I'll buy a new PC game and wait for the inevitable update, instead of buying the game two years after when the designers have had time to fuss and tweak.

Mr Skeletor said...

With Doom and WarCraft--pre-expansions--however, do you reach the tipping point? Is it just too much work to create house rules?

Never played warcraft.
With doom just have marines start with 3 armor instead of 2. Easy.

Ken Bradford said...

Or scatter a few extra ammo tokens throughout the level. Also an easy fix.

And play the "Dud" card as printed in the expansion, that's actually official errata.

Or use the official difficulty mods, available for free from FFG's website.

Warcraft--I haven't played it, but as I understand it that game has more problems than just a few rules quirks.

Anonymous said...

My main issue with house rules is that it can cause issues when playing with new or unfamiliar gamers. I'd prefer to have a standard rule set that everyone can agree on. I am often introducing new players to the genre or playing with strangers who already know the game. In either case, bringing some homegrown rules to the table in inappropriate.

Michael Barnes said...

"Homefield advantage"?

Wargamer66 said...

Who is Natus?

Anyway, good post. I like that FFG games can be tweaked easily! Arkham Horror has gotten too easy? Start with 4 doom tokens... Doom is a blast, and so easy to tweak its not funny. The ability to make little changes to suit yourself is a strength, not a problem. Eurogamers tend to throw around the term "broken" without really knowing what it means anyway.

AdrianBolt said...

robert bowsher explains very well what appalls me: making house rules having hardly played the game. My copy of Vernissage came with two lots of house rules. #1 was 2 pages long and created after two games. #2 were another 1.5 pages made after a third playing with the #1 rules.

It contained this gem: "One problem [occurred because the designer] for some reason has started two of the artists ahead of the others". I was shocked by the sheer arrogance that after two plays the houserules writer knows the game better than the designer. The "some reason" part also annoyed me due to them obviously not caring to give that further thought.

So what do you do regarding other peoples house rules? Do you first play the game straight to see if you think there's any problems? Or leave the house rules for later? Basically you have two sets of rules to evaluate.

How many times should you play a game before deciding to create or use house rules? Given how quick a lot of people are to move on to the next game, I would imagine house rules are very much in decline.

And of course, these days with the internet you also have the added question of WHICH house rules to download...

Anonymous said...

Probably too late, but this is what we call the Oberoni Fallay over at the WotC boards, which states "Just because you can use house rules to fix something doesn't mean it wasn't broken to begin with." So if a game has some major flaw in it which you can fix by removing one card, the game is still flawed even if you can deal with it. /For you/, the game will function fine, but not for every group, since not every group is gonna make the fix.