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The dubious sanctity of board game rules

Rule out nothing

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That headline isn’t just a wanky way of saying ‘house rules are good’, promise – house rules have a dark side too. I should know, because I recently spent an evening in France embroiled in a bitter argument with my dad.

Diamant, also published as Incan Gold, is a lovely little push your luck game. Each turn sees you plunge further into an improbably dangerous cave, chancing snakes and spike traps in the hopes of bringing home precious gems. We call them diamants, because we are silly.

At some point, though, you need to turn back. Just like in real life, there are no rewards to dying in a cave – if you press on and a second trap of the same type appears, you earn diddly squat. That’s neat. Neater, though, is the need to figure out if anyone else wants to turn back at the same time. Returning on your own lets you snaffle up all the gems that couldn’t be divvied up evenly on the way down – but if someone joins you, you need to share. The game can hang on those decisions. It’s about reading people, about gauging their gauging of risk and reward.

Unless you do what I realised I could do, and just publicly announce that you’re going back.

My mum and my sister rolled their eyes, accepting that they’d have to carry on. For my dad, it broke the game. The question of figuring out my intentions had been usurped, replaced with a new one about whether to sabotage his chance of winning in order to mess with my own. Was that decision less interesting? Maybe! Do I regret doing it? Of course not!

I love board games that let me pull stunts like that. Videogames are typically about mastering systems, but the best board games reward thinking outside of them. They’re puzzles that take place in people’s heads as much as they do the tabletop: screens constrain possibility, cardboard sets it free. Until you start talking about the sodding designer’s intentions.

My dad’s argument kept going back to how we were no longer playing the game we were supposed to, as if we’d strayed from the true path. In a way, he was right. I think Alan R. Moon and Bruno Faidutti designed their game around psychology of a different sort to the one I supplanted it with – but I also think they knew some people would try to do what I did, and deliberately didn’t mention it in the rulebook.

I think they had a few reasons. I think they saw how much fun people had in figuring out that trick, and didn’t want to get in those people’s way. I also think they’d agree with everything I wrote two paragraphs ago.

It’s a double edged sword. That ambiguity, that openness I regard as one of board gaming’s greatest strengths, can be a source of so much conflict. We’ve argued a lot over the years, my dad and I – though thankfully, mostly about inconsequential stuff like this. Is it ok to leap into a territory control game with a pre-formed alliance? How about making overly niche references in Dixit?

There are no right answers, only preferences. I’ve talked here about house rules that are conjured by the gaps between rulebooks, but I’m also an advocate for flying in the face of rules that don’t provide the experience you’re after. (That’s right Mysterium, I’m looking at you.)

Just look at that. It’s Shut Up And Sit Down playing Champion Of The Wild live on a PAX stage, the structure overhauled to introduce dramatic reveals that the vanilla game lacks. I think you lose more than you gain playing it their way – though I certainly don’t play by the original rules either.

Board games let you sculpt your own fun. That’s fantastic, even if it did ruin a day of my holiday.

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Who am I?

Matt Cox

Staff Writer

Matt is the founding member of RPS's youth contingent. He's played more games of Dota than you've had hot dinners.

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