I shall begin by considering a matter of great relevance to the modern boardgamer – the former occupations of the Popes, both current and historic. Pope Francis apparently once worked as a bouncer in Buenos Aires, while other Popes have worked as soldiers, quarry labourers and all manner of unexpected professions. Crucially however, none of them have ever been recorded as having worked as boardgame designers. From this, we can infer an important detail about boardgame designers: they are fallible. Designers, just like us, are human. They are capable of making mistakes and of designing things that are not as good as they could be. There is no reason why a professional designer is always going to be right, or why the people playing their games will be wrong if they disagree with them. The rulebook does not have to be sacrosanct!
To gamers such as ourselves, two options are available – we can sit back and endure the consequences of poor design or we can do something about it. Who has not, at the end of a game of Power Grid, wondered how someone could design such a good game only to ruin it with such a ridiculous win condition? Did no-one else wonder, after exposure to too many drunk rugby players in their student days, why no-one had invented a version of poker where the loser had to put clothes on?
My opinion is that boardgamers should be more willing (and, in an ideal world, drunk rugby players should be less willing) to take their mechanics into their own hands and examine them closely. Even the best games have their flaws, and many can be greatly improved with just one or two small tweaks. After all, a game’s whole purpose is to provide you with entertainment, so why shouldn’t you play it whatever way pleases you most? You, not the designer, should be the dominant partner in the relationship.
Leading others astray.
Of course, while there is nothing wrong with indulging one’s personal tastes the practice must be consensual and all participants should be treated as equals. Make sure that you clearly state any house rules you intend to use before you start playing a game (and before determining any relevant game parameters such as the starting player or faction assignments). You should also be willing to revert to the base rules if your opponents want to, or if there is an irresolvable disagreement about exactly which house rules to use. When making a house rule in a game with asymmetric factions or player abilities try to ensure that it does not bias the game in favour of one party over another.
An excellent way to avoid having to convince people to accept your house rules in the first place is to abuse your power when teaching a game. Simply telling people confidently that the rules are what you would like them to be usually works well. In fact teaching people lies is a very important transferable skill, and my colleagues have even been able to apply it in my workplace: some of my labmates were able to mislead a new PhD student, for whom English is a second language, by consistently replacing the word “tweak” with “twerk” for a period of several weeks. The student picked up the new term impressively fast, and I think I can confidently say that the results led to a great improvement in lab morale (except possibly for the new PhD student).
Sometimes wrong can feel right…
Occasionally a good house rule can begin with a mistake. When I learned to play Race For The Galaxy I for some reason misread the rules and thought that players should start with seven cards in hand instead of four. Despite finding out the actual rules I still sometimes play the game this way, as I find that it gives players more choice about which strategy to follow – with only four starting cards it is often the case that only one remotely viable strategy is available to a player.
When I learned to play Castles of Mad King Ludwig I played with four players and we accidentally used the three player side of the board, where the cheapest tile slot is unavailable. This made the game a bit tighter financially, which I thought made it rather more strategic and less luck-based. My friends and I still play this variant, which we refer to either as “Austerity Castles” or as “Castles of Prudent and Financially Responsible King Ludwig.”
Expand it, put it in, take it out.
In conclusion, I thoroughly recommend the introduction of house rules into boardgames. Many things can be greatly improved by the addition or removal of just one or two key elements, so feel free to twerk your games until you are happy with them.
It is also surprisingly easy (and fun) to make homemade expansions for games. If you have tried designing boardgames you will know that making a game from scratch is quite an undertaking. Do not let this put you off – making an expansion for an existing game is much easier (and perhaps a good place to start…)!
Finally, remember that if you don’t like your modifications you can always revert to the standard game next time you play. Keeping this in mind should allow you to try things out with more confidence. After all, your previous suggestions don’t have to be permanently binding, and it would be pretty stupid to go ahead and do something that you knew was a bad idea just because you once said that you were going to.