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How Important are House Rules in Games?

This tweet by UNO’s official twitter page has created a lot of conversation and controversy this past week:

Uno Draw Four Draw Two House Rules

My gut reaction to reading their tweet was to yell at my computer screen: “House rules are more important than real rules!” because one of my favorite strategies when playing Uno is to destroy other players with stacked cards.

And by destroy I mean obliterate into oblivion! I save up as many +2 and +4 cards to play them all at once, stacking them one on top of the other, to expand another player’s hand by making them draw an insane amount of extra cards right before I say “Uno!” and play my last card. The look of terror on their face while shaking their head in disbelief of the sheer amount of cards they must draw at once, and the panic they get when they draw the face cards that are worth the most points, THAT is what makes Uno a great game. But now you’re telling me I can’t play that way? I don’t think so!


What are House Rules?

House Rules are rules that are not the same as the official rules provided by the game’s instructions. House rules can range from tiny to huge variations that change the entire game play. Most groups of players will have some type of house rules, ranging from simple to complex.


Why do House Rules exist?

Games are a social construct. They exist both as entertainment and a way to play and socialize with others. Some people may never read the instructions because they learned by playing with others, only playing by the rules others taught them. The human memory is flawed, people forget things. It’s like playing the game telephone: inevitably within a few repetitions, someone is going to understand it differently than it was originally explained and now you have an evolutionary offshoot of a new game with new rules.

Telephone game gone wrong

Once upon a time, there was no internet, no mobile phones, and no way to quickly look something up. Imagine opening a game box to find…. NO INSTRUCTIONS! Oh no! Well, you improvised. That could have led to creating your own rules so you could still play with your friends and family. Those rules stuck around and your friends taught their friends your house rules, not knowing those weren’t the official rules. And then after many years, your house rules had spread like a plague throughout many households across many neighborhoods and many cities, all across the land. At least, that is one of my current working theories on how really popular House Rules come to exist.

Monopoly is notorious for its house rules being so incredibly popular that virtually nobody plays by the official rules. The official rules say that you aren’t supposed to get any money when you land on Free Parking. However, I think every person I’ve ever played that game with has played with the House Rule that all penalty money taxes paid to the bank will instead be put into a community pool in the center of the board that is paid to the next person who lands on Free Parking.

Creativity and imagination are also driving forces for why house rules exist: it can be a lot of fun to make up your own rules and create your own games. Never underestimate the imagination of a child, especially when it comes to games. Their creativity is why the stick is in the toy hall of fame. Just this week I have seen my own son use a stick as a fire hose to put out an imaginary fire, and as the wand that probably caused the fire to begin with.

A child’s creativity and the telephone effect both remind me of one of my favorite short skits I saw as a child that also seems relevant here. The first kid looks up at the night sky and sees a shooting star. He asks the second kid, “Did you see that shooting star?”. “No” said the second kid. First kid walks away. Third kid walks up. Second kid asks the third kid: “Did you see that meteor fall out of the sky?”. “No” says the third kid. Second kid walks away. Fourth kid walks up. Third kid asks the fourth kid, “Did you see that meteor strike just over those trees?”. No says the fourth kid. Third kid walks away. First kid walks up. Fourth kid asks the first kid, “Did you see that UFO land over there just over those trees?”. “No, dang, I missed it!” said the first kid.


Are House Rules more important than the official rules?

First off, I think it all comes down to what is the most fun for the players. You should play what is the most fun to you because it’s just a game and its purpose is to provide enjoyment.

Second, it is important to understand the intent of the official rules and to try to understand the entire ruleset and play the normal way at least once. This way, you know what rules you are changing and understand why you are changing them.

So, I would say that while yes it is important to understand the official rules, no they aren’t always the best rules or only way you must play a game.

House Rules can put a new spin or flavor into an already fun game to give it a whole new type of strategy or fun factor.

Whether you follow the rules that came with the game or make up your own rules, be sure that everyone agrees to them before the game begins.

What do House Rules have to do with Bad Game Design?

One doesn't correlate to another. Playing with House Rules does not mean the game is badly designed or flawed.

Intentionally changing the rules to accommodate the people playing can be a very good thing when you want to include everyone! Maybe you are playing a more complicated game with younger children and you need to make a few rule changes in order to make it easier for them to play too. Maybe the rules were intended for a different number of players, so you want to break a few rules so a larger group of people could play. Rules are meant to be broken so everyone can have more fun!


What if it was a game you were designing?

If you are designing your own game that you want to sell to other people one day (such as on Kickstarter), it is important that it is actually ready. Not all ideas need to become products. Playtesting is super important.

If you playtest and find that players are often challenging you on the rules of the game, are confused by the rules, make their own rules, or don't play by the rules as they're defined, then there is likely something wrong with your game’s rules and you need to refine them more. If your instructions are too long or too complicated, that could be a problem. And just because you have perfectly refined rules doesn’t mean your game is great or fun or worth selling.

Also, don’t be afraid to look at the rules your players ask for or come up with and see what’s worth adding. Some of the best aspects of our game came from listening to suggestions from playtesters and hearing what they liked or wanted to add or remove from the game.


House Rules can help fix design flaws in games

House rules don't just come into play with indie design games. In fact, some of the most popular board games have exploits or serious design flaws. We’ve already talked about a couple here from Uno and Monopoly, definitely more main stream games.

Connect Four has a design flaw that there is only one opening move that is guaranteed to win every time, if both players play perfectly otherwise, which is to be the first player to play the first checker in the very center column. A house rule to fix this could be that the first center checker doesn’t count for either player.

Candy Land has a design flaw that you can only draw 1 card, and you have no choice in what to do from there. As soon as the deck has been shuffled, the winner has already been determined based on the order of the cards. A house rule to fix this could be to use dice instead or have 2 decks of cards, letting the players choose from which deck they want to draw from each time so there is some choice and randomization involved.

One of Monopoly’s design flaws is that there is a limited number of house pieces, and that if you only buy houses and buy the majority of them, there won’t be enough houses for other players, including blocking the ability for other players to have enough houses to upgrade into hotels. Being the player with the most houses means you are extremely likely to win. A house rule to fix this would be to simply not play this terrible awful time suck of a game that was a rip off of another game called “The Landlords Game” which was initially designed only to show people the inherent problems with capitalism. Speaking of capitalism, did you know that you can buy the Mixed Company card game?

Monopoly is a ripoff of Landlords Game's Official Rules

House Rules are Victorious!

I don’t know about you, but I plan to keep stacking those +4 cards and +2 cards together and enjoying playing all the different house rules that make our favorite games so much more fun.

And who knows, if you’re someone who is constantly coming up with your own house rules, too, maybe you should consider getting involved in making your own games like we have.

In the wise words of my Grandpa: I don’t like people who don’t play with House Rules, and I don’t like people who do.


What is Mixed Company?

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