Sunday, February 26, 2006

Free Parking, or Why We Don't Do House Rules

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If there's one game mechanism that can show us why house rules, or not playing but a game's published rules, is something to avoid, it's Free Parking.

Free Parking jackpot, which usually consists of an initial stake plus collection of fines and taxes that would otherwise be paid to the bank. A player who lands on Free Parking wins the jackpot, which may then be reset with the initial stake (if any). The jackpot is usually put in the center of the board. (, Monopoly House Rules)

Thus it mystifies me when I read many posts of gamers modifying game rules due to perceived imperfections in the original design. Essentially, they are creating their own Free Parking problem. House rules are fine if the same group of players confine themselves to playing with each other. I'm sure that there are gaming groups where this is the case.

However, when gamers start playing with (or even worse TEACHING the game to) people from other gaming groups, then the house rules become a problem. It becomes easy to forget the correct published rules when you are used to playing with house rules.

Say, your group has decided that you don't want to deal with memory and therefore always play Euphrat & Tigris with open scoring. You then teach the game to a cousin from out of town, who then buys his own copy and takes it back home. He then teaches the game to his own friends with the same open scoring rules error. It is in this way that Free Parking comes to Mesopotamia. When these players go out and play with others, they are surprised to learn that they have been taught Euphrat & Tigris incorrectly.

It is understandable that gamers try to take a game that they found uninteresting or borken and try to salvage their investment by tweaking the rules. Perhaps it would be better to simply take the offending game and sell or trade it. There are many games that work very well out of the box. Why dignify a crappy game by devoting even more time trying to fix it, and then playing the same crappy game again in the hope that the fix improved gameplay? Sell or trade it for a game that you know works. Boardgamegeek is a good place to see if a game you have your eye on has any problems.

On a final note, companies are exhibiting an increasingly alarming tendency to issue games with poorly-written rules. Whether this is a result of poor translation from a foreign language or simply having a poor rules writer AND editor is irrelevant. Companies then try to correct this problem by issuing errata or "official variants". ("Official variant" is a term that is horrible and laughable at the same time.) A recent and very amusing example is the recent release of the new edition of Britannia, which had its "FAQ and errata" released one day (Feb 23) after the game (Feb 22). That's just pathetic from a consumer standpoint. There is clearly very little focus on quality in this case.

There are apologists who say that this kind of thing is expected and should be tolerated. Bullshit. What happens to the people who buy the game but never access the internet? They're stuck with a product that's flawed or even broken such as Avalon Hill's Betrayal at House on the Hill. The publisher's product contains house rules (since the rules are incorrect and/or incomplete) as produced, and the correct way to play the game is issued as a fix. We've already given up on holding software companies to standards of high quality, accepting that all software will have patches, bugfixes or service packs just to get them to work as advertised. Let's not do the same thing with publishers or any other companies that produce flawed products.

Let's not pay for Free Parking.


Yehuda said...


Dear Rick,

Um.... Good old Rick.

Nah, can't think of any nice way of saying this.

You're out of your mind.

A song is a collection of words and melodies. The exact words and exact melodies just happen to be the ones in the song. Good songs have good words and melodies, bad songs have bad words or melodies.

No song is God's gift to mankind. If I change a word or adapt the melody while I'm singing in my shower I am not committing crimes against nature. I may end up with a better song, a worse song, or a different song. That's all there is too it.

A recipe is a collection of ingredients and preparation methods. The exact ingredients and exact methods just happen to be the ones in the recipe. Good recipes have good ingredients and methods, bad recipes have bad ingredients or methods.

No recipe is God's gift to food. If I change an ingredient or adapt the methods I am not committing crimes against nature. I may end up with a better recipe, a worse recipe, or a different recipe. That's all there is too it.

A game is a collection of rules and components. The exact rules and exact components just happen to be the ones in the game. Good games have good rules and components, bad games have bad rules or components.

No game is God's gift to mankind. If I change a rule or adapt the components I am not committing crimes against nature. I may end up with a better game, a worse game, or a different game. And that's all there is too it.

Do you really think that game design is akin to godhood? I've designed games. There's no end point to a game. There's no perfect location where "within this area the game is perfect" and outside it isn't. It's just a damn game designed by some guy or gal. That's it.

Really good games can be made better for some people by changing rules to suit their taste. Some really good games with flaws can be made into great games, too. Some really great games can also be ruined for some people by changing a rule or two. So what?

Free Parking is an outstandingly bad game variation for most people. I'm sure that lots of people like it, because these type of people don't play games for the same reasons that you do.

Now, I agree that when you play a game with a variant, it is a good idea to tell people this when you teach them the game. It saves confusion.

I also agree that you should try games with the original rules before deciding to use variants, but for a very different reason than you think: it's because the only way you can be exposed to new ideas is to try something different.

If you always play all games with open holdings, even when a game tells you to do otherwise, you are not giving a new idea full evaluation, and it is a shame. Maybe closed holding really work in this game. By that exact reason, I like to play with variants for games, so that I can experience new things. Maybe the vast majority of them are bad; most of those I can eliminate without much thought. Lots of them require playing, however, to see if they are good.

When you buy a game, you are not licensing the game: you bought the game, period. To do with as you like. Game designers don't patent their games; there's no DMCA preventing you from hacking with the rules and contents. And thank God for that.

The hordes of people who think that they have no right to live free and independent lives, but must do what the rules tell them, is simply distressing. I am a game designer. I have no more claim over your creative freedom than a singer does over my singing their song in the shower.

I say to everyone; no! Change the game. Don't accept perfection; there's no such thing. Perfect games are made better by screwing around with the rules. It's your very right as a human being. Don't be afraid of people who tell you to conform.


ekted said...

I guess I'll equivocate and say that while you can play any game however you like, you should know and be prepared to play by the original rules if you play it other than in a tight circle where everyone agrees to use your house rules.

Yehuda, you are right that game rules are not sacred, but for most games I buy, I'll give the benefit of the doubt to the designer that they knew what they were doing. I like to feel I really understand the design of a game before saying it plays better modified.

Chris Farrell said...

Yehuda, I am sympathetic to your thoughts on this matter.

But I think you entirely missed the point of Rick's post. He clearly said that you can do whatever you want to flavor a game to your group's taste. The problem is when you take your modified game to other groups.

Boardgames are not art, or at least not most of them. Sure, they have some expressive elements, but for the most part they are a collection of concepts designed to produce a very limited type of entertainment. They have as much in common with architecture as song. While it is certainly arguable that nobody else's song is of more inherent worth than mine, my ability to build a house is crap next to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rick's not saying not to use houserules. He's just saying, as I often do, what are the odds of you being a better game designer than Reiner Knizia? You're better off really trying to understand the artistry that went into the game in the first place than arbitrarily house-ruling it, as is too often the case. When the game is understood, then you can fiddle with it a bit. But the odds are you won't need to. said...

House rules are fine if the same group of players confine themselves to playing with each other. I'm sure that there are gaming groups where this is the case.

I seem to play with a different person each week and I see no problem at all with using house rules.

I really don't care how many different rules sets for Monopoly, T&E or Settlers, etc. that are out there. The author sounded like they were bothered by this. Perhaps it was undetected sarcasm/irony on my part.

Of course if someone is going to use use a house rule and they have a rational reason for doing so, then I think it is best that they inform the others that they are using a house rule. Other than that, I think house rules are fine.

In practice. I have only run across house rules a few times, like some Settlers variants or Errata (official house rules) developed to streamline or balance a game a few times. Classics like Diplomacy, Magic Realm, Age of Renaissance or Adv Civ usually have some house rules associated with them that have developed over the years. Never a big deal either because plays are few and far between for these games anyway.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your viewpoint, and everyone else's here, but I don't think wanting to implement a house rule means the original game is "crappy". I will readily use a house rule if there's a certain rule that I dislike for whatever reason. Not to say I'm making it "better", but I'm just making it "different" to suit my taste more. Even the designer can't see all possible ways of making a game. And that's the truth. Otherwise novelists, screenwriters and journalists wouldn't have editors changing their pieces of writing they have slaved over for part of their life.
I'll be bold enough to say that some of the house rules I've made for some games would be a part of the "official" rules today if the designer had given me the opportunity to playtest their creation and discuss it to influence their thinking.

You don't have to be a published game designer to make good suggestions for game rules. But I would expect someone to have significant experience playing games to be promulgating their rule change.