Game Theory: Variants: Destruction or Creation?

Every once in a while, I read a post on BoardGameGeek about a new player-created variant, and the replies will be very negative about how nothing should be changed at all in the game, and the original poster is wrong for having suggested it at all. I’m always disappointed to see so many negative responses, because variants play an important role in board games. Following up on the “House Rules” theme of today’s #BoardGameHour on Twitter (see the explanation at Ministry of Boardgames), I want to examine some reasons people don’t like variants, and why variants age important for a game.

There seem to be only a few basic positions on creating game variants. There are people who think that games should be played as-is, and that the game should never be changed from the official rules. Then there are people who think that games are meant to be played, so anything that contributes to the experience is good.

There are practical considerations to playing the official rules. For tournaments and conventions, players must have a single set of rules that puts everyone on the same ground. Being strict about a set of rules is good practice to avoid disputes. Teaching others a variant rule can make this hard. But it is on the head of the player to know what the official rules are for these scenarios. Beyond these reasons, I don’t see any good arguments for not using a variant.

Some people, when presented with an idea of something that could be changed in a game, say “If you don’t like X in the game, you should play something else”. This brings up the question of whether a game is a single entity or a combination of parts. The answer, as with most things, is both. We have the capability of appreciating games on both the level of their constituent elements and the level of their complete whole. Variants can be used to change a single element, while keeping the remainder of the game (including the theme, and other mechanics) in tact. Understanding things that people don’t like in games is a great way for a designer to find a new mechanic, or consider strategies that they might normally not.

Many people decry that variants “destroy the game”. Changing the rules obviously does not physically destroy the game, or affect any other copy or play of the game, so this can only be an appeal to some inherent value in the “purity” of the rules. But the value of purity is only in the eyes of the players. If it is taken in the sense of destroying the experience, the sword cuts ways. Maybe the people who play with the variant are hurting their own enjoyment, but it only affects them. On the other hand, perhaps some official rule ruins the experience for the variant players. Then, being the one person who dictates the rules is the person ruining others’ experience.  Similarly, “you’re changing the game” has the same problems. Change in and of itself is not an argument. Games change all the time, between editions and publishers and official expansions. And people who propose ways to change a game obviously know that they are changing the game, so this is not a useful observation to make.

So is there some other inherent negative about using a variant? There are a few responses people give.

“It is offensive to the designer.” Being offended for a third party is a way for the offended person to appeal to authority, without a good reason behind it. Certainly, the designer chooses the rules that give them a game that they like the best, because the rules work, or fit the theme, or because they just like them. We, as players, also have that right. If designers do find out about the variant, they can either be happy that they made the right decision when the rules don’t work, or be happy that they created something that is flexible and enjoyed. At worst, designers should take it as constructive criticism. At best, it is a source of ideas for the designer, for a new expansion, or something to add to a new game.

“It changes the balance” or “it can affect other parts of the game” These are usually true statements. But, as with the more general complaint that “it changes the game”, that is usually the point. It may create new situations that the existing rules don’t cover. However, well thought-out variants take this into account, and adjust the balance accordingly. The variant rules should be complete enough to cover any other changes to the game. Similar statements of “it makes it too easy” and “it changes the strategy” are simply preferences, for how you already play the game. Some players, most obviously players of different experience levels, find certain strategies much easier, but we do not complain that this changes the game in the same way. It can be a way of leveling the playing field, even if the playing field is not level to begin with.

Untested or unbalanced variants are often the source of complaints about changing balance or affecting the rest of the game. But these are signs of bad design, which should certainly be avoided. We should be careful that variants are only developed after a long time with the game, learning its more subtle points, and a lot of thought.. Something that seems “broken” or “unbalanced” after only a few plays may be a very important piece that makes the rest of the game work. If you start changing rules early, you may find you have to continue changing more rules to make the original changes work. At the same time, that any changes to the original game should be as small as possible. If you have to change a major portion of a game to make your variant work, it would be better to create your own new game.

Finally, some may say that creating a variant is a form of stealing to take the ideas of another designer. I certainly don’t propose outright copying of a game, putting your name on it and calling it something new. But that is why these are variants to existing games–to give the original designer credit, while contributing our own thoughts. This sharing of ideas is how the art form develops.

Now, on the other hand are the players who make their own rules. Often, this is about adding an element that players like to a game that does not have it. It can be a way to add variety into a game that you have played a large number of times and is in danger of feeling the same each time. For these players, the rules are about keeping the game fun, and experiencing something familiar in a new way. In video games, there are cheats and New Game+ and challenges to do the same thing. It takes the original rules and adds new constraints so that players can experience something new in the same framework. Board games are much more flexible than this, since it is generally much easier to make your own parts, while the average player can’t go into the game code and add new parts. As players, we should take advantage of this to have a whole realm of things we can choose to add to games.

Personally, I almost always play games as-is, because I have faith that the designer and publisher put in a lot of work to make sure the game works completely, and provides a good experience for the players. But I also like to think about rule changes in theory, and I occasionally make changes for the sake of practicality. First and foremost, I like the mental exercise of seeing how flexible the rules are and seeing where they can be bent. That is how I got into game design in the first place.

A lot is made of a game having “flaws”. There are only a few rare games that have known problems. More commonly, what people call “flaws” are simply elements that they dislike, or elements that make the game hard to enjoy. I make variants in rare cases when these elements take away from my enjoyment, but I like everything else about the game. I don’t want to give up on so much that I like because of a small element I dislike. Please remember that I don’t think these games are “broken” or need to be “fixed”, but that I make changes to increase my enjoyment of the game. I am fortunate that the people I play with agree with me and want to get the absolute maximum amount of fun out of every game we play. There is not enough time to play a game I don’t find fun. And sometimes there isn’t enough time to play games I DO find fun.

I just don’t understand the anger against people who want to play games to have fun. I don’t know what is at the root of the issue, but I suspect that it is just getting offended that someone doesn’t like something the same way as you. Life is too short to be angry about other people creating game variants. In the end, it is about who owns our experience of playing a game. It is not the designer, or the publisher, or a group of people, but each player. Just as each player is shaped by their experiences, a game, too, must be malleable to be inclusive the different experiences people bring to the game. It is good for the art, and good for the community. We need to remember that everyone has different preferences, and game variants are one way of expressing them.

Perhaps this article is preaching to the choir, since this will be read by mostly game designers and those interested in design–people who naturally think about how to change rules. But I hope that this gives people a new perspective on game variants.


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  1. Game Theory and Game Design | Vellum Information
  2. Stealing From Existing Games: Part 1 – Good Artists Copy | Oakleaf Games

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