I really enjoy playing board games with friends, as you can probably guess from my media reviews. Over the last ~25 years of playing we’ve evolved a couple house rules that are worth formalizing and sharing.
1. Yes Take-backsies
We’re playing for the fun of learning new games and competing. If you make a mistake and we can unwind it, you can take it back and do what you meant to do or realize you should have done.
Though we don’t do take-backsies of things we can’t easily and fairly unwind. For example, in Risk, if you roll the dice to attack another player’s army and get wiped out, well, that’s not fair to unwind. Similarly, if you learn hidden information like turning over the next card on the deck, we can’t make everyone forget that (though this can bend this for someone’s first time playing a game).
Making mistakes is a normal part of learning. By helping keep them cheap and emphasizing that it’s socially rewarded to admit and correct them, everyone learns and plays better, and gets to relax and enjoy themself more. Games are fun because they’re an exercise in trust as much as exercise in formal systems.
We very often have players with uneven experience and take-backsies helps the newbies get into a game and keep the moderately-experienced competitive with the experts. We encourage suggestions and polite criticism of in-progress mistakes, too. When learning a complex game it’s hard to recognize the legal moves available and what their tradeoffs might be. So when someone looks particularly stumped, it’s normal to hear something like “Sooo… it looks like you have five or maybe six things you could do here, depending on what’s in your hand?” to offer help.
Suggestions show up even with competitive, experienced players, in part because some of us are so competitive we wrap around into helping our opponents make the best moves for their strategies so that we’re ourselves pushed into improving our own play. Suggestions aren’t a rule because some people don’t like hearing them and it’s more common in competitive play to want opponents to make mistakes, but I wanted to go into it because it’s foundational to the Yes Take-Backsies rule.
2. Public Stays Public
Information that’s revealed during gameplay stays public information and can be reviewed at any time unless doing so severely inconveniences the flow of gameplay.
What this means in practice is cards get discarded face-up and spread out for anyone to look through, or other things that have been played can be reviewed. The limit is that we might run out of table space or it would be distinctly un-fun to dig through that many cards, but when there’s that much information laying around it’s probably not particularly important what’s been played.
For example, The Great Dalmuti is a light trick-taking card game that’s a longtime favorite. Players play cards to try to empty their hands before everyone else, and between hands they shift to sit in the order they finished in to get benefits for the next hand. The last player is punished with the chore of clearing away the cards from each trick (and they have some other chores) so we task the next-to-last player. Instead of the game rule that all played cards are flipped face-down, our house rule is to arrange the best six ranks (numbered 1-6 of the deck’s 12 ranks) face-up along the side of the table. We don’t do this for ranks 7+ to balance the work vs how little strategy is at work in high cards (>85% of the time the correct play is “dump any of them at first opportunity”). This has been a big success. Beginners graduate from learning the rules to start exercising strategy in 2-3 hands instead of 5-6 hands, experts can experiment more effectively, and everyone’s happier not trying to remember “wait… did I see all of the threes, or just two of them?”
Information that’s derivable from public information is also public. In Acquire every player starts with the same amount of money and buys and sells stock in public transactions… but the rulebook suggests keeping it secret to make the game “even more challenging”. Arithmetic is not a fun game, it is a chore.
These “memory subgames” crop up all over, are stressful and uninteresting, and seem an unfair advantage for those who are better at this or spend a few days learning mnemonic techniques. When public information stays public, players make fewer uninformed and mistaken decisions.
The common downside is that sometimes players bog down the game while sifting through old cards or falling into analysis paralysis. We solve this through good-natured grumbling and some smoothly-worn old jokes that reference getting on with things before the mountains crumble into the seas, etc. In rare cases (or rare players) we’ll set a turn timer on someone’s phone. Or give suggestions! Once you’ve looked at all the things an opponent might do and thought through how you’d respond to them and gotten bored, there’s no harm in talking to the opponent about their options.
To keep things moving along (especially when playing someone with very good recall of previous game state), it’s common to ask something like, “Wait, have you played all your aces?” rather than spend twenty seconds flipping through their discards. An honesty norm has developed: you can answer honestly, you can fib and say “I’m not sure” (if you think it gives you a competitive advantage and they won’t check), in an fiercely competitive game you can say “count for yourself”, but you can’t lie. If you’ve played all your aces but say you haven’t, or vice-versa, or otherwise deliberately give false information, it’s considered very rude, unsportsmanlike conduct and is treated almost as negatively as cheating. It’s OK to want to win and normal not to want to help your opponent, but we’ve established lying about public information as something that gets you a lot of frowning friends. We’re good friends or becoming them, so social disapproval means this basically never happens. (Exception: Diplomacy is a blood sport.)
Public Stays Public is a much younger and more explicit rule than Yes Take-backsies, which grew out of long habit. We had only very small, limited experiments with it until about six months ago (December 2017), when I heard at Recurse Center that someone knew of a gaming club (maybe at MIT?) that had it as a universal house rule. I decided it was worth trying and we’ve enjoyed it in every game since.
Our process of developing house rules is a very much like developing traditions, we’re doing this slowly and sometimes only recognizing in retrospect that we have one because we learn another group doesn’t. I’m finally getting around to writing this up today because it came up in an online chat and my response kept getting longer and longer, so maybe I’ll add more in the future.
I suppose one thing worth noting is that in the last decade as games have generally gotten much better (and we’ve gotten more patient), we’ve become much more reluctant to add house rules to individual games. Usually something that seems weird and wrong is a corner of gameplay worth exploring and deliberating rather than something we feel we comfortable immediately trying to prune. We have almost no per-game house rules, really.
Economics Doesn’t Believe in Magic
Games: economics, magic, politics, world design, writing
On a writing forum an author asked for users to think of what societies would do with the magic system he designed. Here’s a short rewrite of his setup:Continue this post
Ironwood, a Roguelike Game in 7 Days
Games: 7drl, game design, game development, projects, roguelikes
Ironwood is a roguelike game developed for the 2014 7 Day Roguelike Challenge. “Roguelike” is a pretty poorly defined genre, but generally speaking it’s a turn-based game with generated environments, emergent gameplay from simulationism, and a steep learning curve. (For more, see an informal definition, a formal attempt, or a current take on its broad use.)
It’s on Friday afternoon and time to start working on Capture the Flag game. After chatting with friends I have some vague title/theme ideas. In the sprites there’s this row of pieces that look like a broken crest:
I’m not really sure what they’re supposed to be, but they prompted some theme ideas that fit with teams playing CTF over and over on random maps. Maybe there was a great evil sealed away that has broken free. It was defeated, but its wild magic broke the world into ever-changing pieces. Which is not so bad as things go, but it would be nice to put things back together again. There’s a bit of a tragedy of the commons, though – whoever is the one to reassemble the seal to fix the world will have the power to shape it, so rival groups (families? clans? guilds?) are trying to take the pieces away from each other and remake the world to their design.Continue this post
I’m going to spend next Friday to Monday making a game. I was inspired by Oryx’s 16bit sprites, they’re a beautiful, cheap resource for game prototyping (the license is a bit confused for business purposes). I’ve been wanting to (and failing to) make games for years, so I’m going to ensure I succeed by defining the game by the time I spend rather than the infinitely long wish list plan I can invent.Continue this post
All weekend I’ve been captaining a series of (mostly doomed) Trek-like starships in FTL, a new indie game. The gameplay is mostly derived from time management and roguelike games (more on that later), as you juggle crew between tasks, shift power between systems (straight up “more power to the engines and target their shields!”), and balance exploring the galaxy with fleeing from an ever-advancing plot device that’s too boring to describe.Continue this post
Luke, who writes backwards like DaVinci did some more game design with help from #bbg (on irc.freenode.net – anyone’s welcome to drop by to talk browser game development, it’s a great place). Reading his note photo, it looks like he’s breaking cards down into Settings, Characters, and Monsters. There’s not a lot more info, just that he’s spending his hours planning out his game.Continue this post
When Jim asked me how many hours I could put to So Play We All this week, I said “Negative three”. That turned out to be pretty accurate, as I managed to drop on the floor all but the three most important things for my week. Unfortunately, Oaqn didn’t make that top three so I sent $20 each to Jim and Luke. So, let’s look at what I funded this week.Continue this post
Oops, got totally distracted by flying back to Chicago and forgot to write my So Play We All response post on time, so there’s $10 each to Luke and Jim. Late but not lost, here’s that response. (Luke didn’t post an update this week, so I’m only responding to Jim.)Continue this post