House Rules

“House Rule: The rule a sibling makes up during a game in order for them to win in the most ridiculous way possible while capitalizing on the adoration and gullible-ness of their younger sibling” – Urban Dictionary

Ok, so maybe that’s not the actual Urban Dictionary definition of “House Rule” in games, but come on, who hasn’t suffered a loss at the hands of a sibling, only to find the ‘rule’ they made up wasn’t part of the game in the first place.

In fact, a “House Rule” is usually pretty different than that.

a rule (as in a game) that applies only among a certain group or in a certain place” – Merriam Webster Dictionary

I promise, that is the real definition this time. But why should you care about House Rules? Don’t they all suck?  

I’d say no. In fact, House Rules can often be the most fun part of tabletop gaming! With no restrictions like code in video games, you can do whatever you want. Maybe players swap places when a seven is rolled or maybe a player at a disadvantage gets a boost. The key to enjoying House Rules is understanding them.

In my experience, “House Rules” can develop in one of three different ways:

  1. That’s Dumb: Typically, this is a disagreement with the particulars of a rule. Sometimes it comes from a feeling a game is unbalanced, or doesn’t provide ample opportunity to use different strategies to win. Most often, this is used to make a game easier, or more streamlined. I find these a lot in Monopoly, especially pertaining to free parking. Free parking normally has very little money in it, making it feel worthless. By adding in more money, it gives more excitement to the game and provides greater chance of turning tides. Most rules you make as a kid fall under this.
  2. New & Different: These come more often from experienced players. While they may introduce new rules similar to that’s dumb, it’s not with the express purpose of enhancing game play but in constraining it. Often these are for games you’ve played so much they become stale. Think of these rules as parameters, that make a game harder. For example, in Catan, normally the board pieces are randomized. One way to play is to arrange the pieces with a specific style of play in mind. Menz Gaming has a lot of great examples such as Four Islands which uses Catan’s expansions to create four areas on the board that require different strategies.
  3. Telephone: The easiest way to learn a game is to learn from someone else. Let’s be honest, have you ever really read a manual lately? Do you even still have one for Monopoly? Telephone House Rules come about from miscommunication while teaching someone a game. Maybe you phrase something differently and suddenly by rolling snake eyes they get another turn instead of skipping a turn. I find these are often small and harmless in the long run, and give your play a unique flavor!

If you have House Rules you play with, see what criteria they fit in! Any of them can generate equally good or bad House Rules, but it can help you understand how the rule interacts with the game.

As to create a house rule, it’s important to know what you want to do:

  • Make the game easier, either for younger players, new players, or impaired players
  • Make the game harder to increase the need for strategy and understanding of the game
Via Rounding Thirty
Via Rounding Thirty

Making the game easier sometimes means getting rid of rules, but more often it means adding or manipulating existing rules in order to streamline the game. Let’s look at Catan. In Catan, the Robber Baron exists as part of a limitation rule. When a seven is rolled, all players must discard half their cards rounded up if they have more than seven. This forces players to use their resource cards. The Robber Baron is then moved to a spot, which allows the person who rolled to choose a card from an opponent. That spot now no longer generates new resources on a roll until the Baron is moved. The Baron’s great as is, but sometimes a game of Catan stalls because one resource is impossible to come by. One example of a rule I’ve found that makes it easier is that the Baron can be placed back on the desert in exchange for the player being able to choose any one resource from the bank. They miss the chance to block opponents, but gain greater flexibility in their strategy, streamlining the game.

Four Islands Catan Board Via Menz Gaming

Making the game harder often involves specific scenarios. Catan is also a great example as shown above through “New & Different” style house rules. Maybe one resource has only uncommon rolls. Maybe each player is only allowed to control one resource. Maybe towns have to be connected by three roads. Some people might even go as far as to build custom game pieces to add in a new resource. Regardless, ‘harder’ doesn’t mean no fun. If you understand a game deeply, it can force you to think in new ways, without you having to learn an entirely different game!

All in all, House Rules are a great example of ways to vary up your game nights or bring new life to the dusty games you thought you’d played to death. They encourage creativity and problem solving in and out of the game and are the first step in learning about game design! Whether it’s a silly rule like adding a layer of truth or dare on top of a game or a serious challenge meant to stump someone, try adding House Rules. You’ll surprise yourself by how fun they can be!

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