House Rules

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.

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 (but mayyyybe if it’s 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)]{.small} 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.