Friday, September 28, 2012

The Importance of House Rules to Ensure "Fun"

As often happens, is spent a part of last weekend playing games with my twin daughters History and Mystery.  We played a wide variety of games ranging from Candyland to Fantasy Flight Games' Rattlesnake with a little role playing as horses in between.  All of these activities were done not merely for the sake of occupying time, but also to create a sense of enjoyment among the participants.  In short, we were playing these games to have fun.

But how does one go about designing a "fun" game?  One of the reasons there are so many kinds of games (wargames, conflict games, area control games, cooperative games, track games) is because the goals of gamers with regard to what is fun aren't always the same.  Not only are they different among different people, but they are different for the same individual at different times.  For example, there are times when I want to play a little Battletech just to get out some aggression through robot vs robot conflict, but there are other times when I want to journey through Mirkwood with the help of my friend Jason in a cooperative fashion while playing Fantasy Flight's Lord of the Rings Living Card Game.  And those are just two of my moods.

I've also learned from playing with History and Mystery that sometimes the game's rules aren't the most fun way to use the game's components.  Let me just say that History and Mystery never cease to amaze me with regard to how they look at the world.  The other day, I had BURN NOTICE on in the background while they were coloring.  History looked up and saw the skyscraper condos overlooking the water and we had the following conversation:

HISTORY: That's pretty.  Where is that daddy?
ME: That, oh, that's Miami.
 HISTORY: Why is it YOUR ami?
ME: (Laughing) No...it's not My ami, it's not Your ami, it's Miami.
MYSTERY: It's not Your ami, or History's ami, but is it My ami?
I laughed for hours at the way their minds worked on that one.  It still makes me laugh.  I understood what they were getting at, and why they would mistake "Miami" for "My ami," but the way they are processing the information is hilarious.  I do think I was finally able to convey that it was just the name of the city...

At least I think so.

The point is that History and Mystery sometimes look at things differently than I do, and when this is combined with what they constitute as fun it leads to some enjoyable house rules.

Let's take our game of Rattlesnake as an example.  It's a simple game that comes with 12 very strong magnets that the players are trying to get rid of, and the first to do so wins the game.  The players roll a die and it tells them what color snake they have to set their egg upon.  If that egg disturbs another egg and they collide, then you have to pick up all the eggs that collided and have failed to get rid of any.  The magnets are very strong and the board is small, so this game can get pretty zany.



As written, I like the game and History and Mystery hate it.  You see "losing all your magnets" isn't fun for them.  What IS fun is making the magnets collide and picking them up.  For them, the loser is the first one to "lose" all of their eggs.  They find it fun to acquire the eggs.  What is interesting about this is that the trigger of the fun is the colliding of the magnets, which is one of the things I would argue is fun in the rules as written as well.  It is the fun that is inherent in the components.  The eggs have strong magnets that attract them to one another and they collide with a loud "clack!"  That's great fun.  That's great component fun, and it has nothing to do with the rules.  With regard to what my daughters find fun, the rules as written have an objective diametrically opposed to their fun goal. 

And this is where one sees the real importance of House Rules.  When I was younger, I made house rules to fix "what was wrong" with a game or to do a particular thing "better."  This led to the creation of a number of spell point systems, and no fewer than 5 versions of Superspeed for the DC Heroes role playing game.  At the time, I thought I was fixing the game objectively.  What I didn't understand, was that I was tweaking the rules to fit my fun-jective.  Having feeble Wizards -- regardless of how they matched up with other characters at high levels -- was annoying to me as a fun objective.  I wanted to play Gandalf or Merlin, I didn't want to be the apprentice in DRAGONSLAYER.  That just didn't seem fun to me, and the rules disagreed with that fun.  I liked the components of D&D -- the odd dice, the miniatures, and the rolling of 5 or 6 dice when casting fireball -- those were all fun activities.  Heck, one of the reasons I love Champions is the opportunity to roll handfuls of dice.  That's just a good time.  My fun goal and the fun goal of the game weren't lined up, even though the fun inherent in using the components was the same. 

Eventually, I learned to have a flexible definition of fun and to allow individual games to set the "magic circle" of what fun is being attempted.  In doing so, I've come to appreciate design efforts I might otherwise have overlooked.  Setting aside my personal fun-jectives from time to time leads to enjoyable experiences.  Heck, my journey as a game master in roleplaying games has gone from grudging acceptance to joy as I came to view the GM "fun" rule to be "Losing the game in a dramatic way is the job of the Game Master."  If you are losing properly, then the players are having fun.  The key here is "in a dramatic way."  There needs to be risk for the players, and character death must be an option.  But it's like a TV show, in that you know the protagonists will usually win out...not always, but usually... and they'll rarely die.  It depends on the game and the expectations, but players rarely enjoy investing time in creating a persona only to have it die as the GM laughs at how pathetic they are.  Though that can be fun from time to time too.

History and Mystery have reminded me of how important it is sometimes to forget what the fun being attempted by a game is, and to see what kind of fun the components of the game are advocating.  It was a nice refresher course for me, and it reminded me why I have all those Heroscape boxes lying around the house.


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