I didn’t know any better. It’s how I was taught to play the first time I sat down at a Risk board.
Growing up, I always thought that you drew cards at the beginning of a game of Risk, then organized your armies in the territories displayed on the cards. You know, play with the hand you’re dealt—then make like Pinky and the Brain and try to take over the world.
Playing with a group of friends at a party last winter, though, I was disabused of this notion. Rather harshly.
As we set up the board, the host did a quick rundown of how to begin the game: Everyone rolls the dice, the highest roll starts by placing an army on the board, then each player takes turns claiming countries and fortifying until they run out of army men.
“That’s not how I play,” I told the group, then proceeded to explain.
The host took in my explanation and said, “Your way is awful.” That settled that.
Turns out I was playing by what’s referred to as a “house rule,” a minor tweak to the written rules of a game that can vary from person to person, family to family.
Differences of opinions when it comes to rules make up 72 percent of board game disagreements, according to a survey of more than 1,000 Americans by OnlineCasino.ca. When someone brings their house rule into a different house, it can logically lead to conflict.
Here’s a look at why people cling so fiercely to their house rules, what games tend to have the most, and what sort of fallout results when not all of the players are used to abiding by them.
The House Rules
You and your friends aren’t the only ones arguing about possible stipulations on the blank cards in an Apples to Apples deck. Board-game experts—the ones who rush to play as many new titles as they can and even the ones who design a few of their own—make hot topics out of house rules, as well.
BoardGameGeek, an online board gaming resource, has separate lists in its forums running down the best and worst house rules its posters have ever played. On the “worst” board, for example, users argued over whether the number of reinforcement armies you get at the end of your turn in Risk should ever be capped, or whether it should just keep going on to infinity.
Some games, though, have hard and fast rules that you just know by heart by now—right? Like Monopoly. A code of laws passed down from the official rulebook to your mother and father, then your kid sister and you, so that you may pass rainy weekends around the kitchen table in a state of uneasy tension.
Thou shalt not collect rent while in jail. Thou shalt receive $400 instead of $200 if thou shalt happen to land on Go. Thou shalt possess all the money in the middle of the board if thou takes a trip to Free Parking. No player shall begin buying properties until he or she hath traveled all the way around the board once. Thou shalt earn a bonus $500 for rolling snake eyes.
Oh, wait. Actually, none of those are in the official rules of Monopoly. They are, though, in the “House Rules” edition of Monopoly that Hasbro put out in 2014 based on the fact that so many people play the 83-year-old board game with those rules.
“Most of the house rules are ways of making the game less nasty, making it a little bit nicer,” says Geoff Engelstein, a board game designer and co-host of the Ludology board game podcast. “Here’s a chance that you can get some money, get out of the death spiral that you’re in. I don’t think there are any house rules that make it more nasty and vicious.”
"The Bank never goes broke. If the Bank runs out of money, the Banker may issue as much more as may be needed by writing on any ordinary paper."
— Rules of Monopoly pic.twitter.com/1EvPrxZu7Y
— Le Mouton Noir (@MoutonNoir67) March 26, 2018
So, if they’re done right, house rules can have the net effect of making a good game better—or making a bad game playable. There’s a whole thread in the boardgames subreddit about Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle that includes many helpful hints on how to finesse the rules to make up for the game’s shortcomings.
Engelstein says that most designers he knows are open to suggestions and appreciative of house rules because it means that people are playing their games. There is a rather notable exception, though.
“Someone plays it once and blames his poor performance or experience on the game, and then proposes house rules that might fix it,” says Jeffrey Allers, a game designer and writer for The Opinionated Gamers. “This can be frustrating for a designer, knowing how many years and playtests went into the development of the game. Such ‘fixes’ will usually cause real problems with the design, and can potentially turn others away from the game.”
Defending Your Territory
Imagine you’re away at college and it’s your first Thanksgiving away from home. Your roommate, sensing an impending maelstrom of loneliness descending upon you, invites you over to his house for the holiday.
It’s cultural and it’s tribal in a lot of ways.
You take him up on the offer, get through the initial awkward introductions, settle into that familiar Thanksgiving Day feeling, and sit down at the table for dinner. And then, when the stuffing gets passed to you, you see them: oysters. Just a ton of oysters. All over the stuffing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with oyster stuffing, per se. It’s just not the way your family used to make it.
Now take that scenario and transpose it onto a game of Scrabble at game night with friends. You put an “s” on the end of “zoo” and expect your 13 points, because that’s how you’ve played your whole life. But the host informs you that you’ll only be receiving one point, because they play no double scoring.
Would you accept that? Or would you send the board flying, tiles arching majestically into the air as they fly?
FACTS my parents haven’t played scrabble together in 20 years because the last time they did they had their biggest fight of all time
— noa 🌈 (@sansasrevenge) May 2, 2018
“It’s cultural and it’s tribal in a lot of ways. It defines families and friend groups in terms of who they are and how they’re different from other people,” says Engelstein. “As kids growing up, you never actually look at the rules. It’s just oral tradition passed down. It almost becomes like religious rituals or cultural events. Those get this feeling of tradition and your identity, who you are.”
Of course, there is a blanket remedy for game night conflict: Play by the rules as they’re written. Engelstein owns nearly 2,000 games and delights in reading and internalizing the rules.
He understands those who don’t, though. And he tries to be polite about it.
“If I’m over at someone’s house, if they want to play with something, I may gently point out that’s not really what it is, but I will go along with it,” Engelstein says. “It’s part of the social aspect.”
A Monopoly on Conflict
Rick Marinaccio, somewhat of a Monopoly pro, has been a stickler for the rules ever since he was a kid.
“Often to the detriment of certain friendships,” he says.
I’ll be playing with my wife’s family, and they have their own different house rules that they’d play with growing up. I have to tell them that it doesn’t fly at my house anymore.
So when he sits down to play Monopoly, he doesn’t want to see collusion among players. If you’re stacking the odds in favor of one of your siblings—or against another—then you’re not playing to your own self-interest. Monopoly, after all, is a game of self-interest. He doesn’t want to see people who won’t trade properties just for the sake of staying put.
And he certainly isn’t here for the Free Parking side pot.
“It causes what many people perceive to be the biggest problem, and that is the length of the game,” Marinaccio says. “What you’re doing is extending the length of the game by keeping people from going bankrupt. Every time you introduce more money into the game, you’re making the game go longer and introducing more of the element of chance into the game.”
The OnlineCasino.ca poll found that Monopoly, by far, caused the most conflict among respondents, clocking in at 47.7 percent. The next closest game, Scrabble, managed only 18 percent.
Marinaccio can see why. In informal settings, he’s seen his share of squabbles over the rules. In formal settings, such as games that paved the way to his 2009 national championship in Monopoly, he’s seen the angst that arises even when everyone is playing by the same rules.
Monopoly is just kind of a mean game.
“The game is designed to upset people because people don’t want to lose everything that they have,” Marinaccio says. “That’s the whole point of the game, and you’re doing it to each other. It’s a zero-sum game: Someone’s losing it all because someone is taking it from them.”
Family: let's play a friendly game of monopoly
Inner family: fight until Christmas is ruined pic.twitter.com/NZMo29EIaI
— Bell🔔 (@krbell21) December 25, 2016
Games with his family take a little longer than the streamlined, two-hour affairs he’s used to in competition, but Marinaccio doesn’t mind the relaxed pace. He enjoys the break he gets from the hyper-awareness and psychological maneuvering that goes along with playing for real money.
But he still never plays house rules.
“I’ll be playing with my wife’s family, and they have their own different house rules that they’d play with growing up,” Marinaccio says. “I have to tell them that it doesn’t fly at my house anymore.”
After all, they’re just games.
The next time I play Risk, I’ll be sure to keep my mouth shut about the whole “playing with the hand you’re dealt” thing.
And the next time you sit down to play with a new group of people, maybe ask some introductory questions about what house rules, if any, fly in that particular house. And if they want to play double points in Scattergories—you know, two points for “Sylvester Stallone” instead of one when the die shows “S”—just let them.
It may not be the way you grew up playing, but their reason for doing it that way is just as ingrained and important to them as your way is to you. It’s nothing worth breaking an hourglass over.
Remember: It’s all fun and games…until someone plays the game slightly different than you.