Whenever I tell anyone outside the hobby that I’m trying to make a board game, I get some variation of the same question.
“How’d you even get into that?” or “What made you even think to do that?” or “What gave you that idea?”
I know the answer, and thanks to the fact that I’ve gotten to hang out with a bunch of other designers at GenCon, PAX, and online, I know it’s a really really common answer.
We all got addicted to this whole game design thing thanks to house rules.
It’s the classic story of a gateway drug. You start off pulling a couple cards from the deck you think are out of balance, or giving everyone a chance to mulligan, or adding a cheeky option to a player’s list of actions. The next thing you know you’re cutting customs tokens out of handmade punchboard and pricing out 3D printers. The first hit is free, maybe giving someone a little bit of wriggle room deciding on the scenario in Betrayal. But eventually you’ll have to pay for the real thing, after you stay up past midnight writing out your own custom haunt.
For me, it started with this one game.
I had this one beautiful game from Kickstarter. I went all in, and it was gorgeous. Absolutely beautiful, and completely my style. I was completely enamored, but when my friends came over to try it…it didn’t go great. In fact, it went badly. Really badly. It just wasn’t a good match for the group, and it played out a little clunky. I could have put it back on the shelf and accepted defeat, but I had an idea.
Actually, I had a bunch of ideas. I spent the next couple weeks trying to think about how I could make this game work with my crew. I adored this thing, and I was going to find an excuse to get it back to the table.
I came up with about eight single spaced pages worth of ideas and scenarios for that game, and when the next game night came up, I brought the game and all my printed notes. I’ll be honest, some eyes rolled when I brought it back to the table, but then I told everyone that I’d been fiddling with it, and I wanted to try some things, and, bless them, my friends indulged me.
They probably dug the chaos of it all. We tried one idea one round, then another idea on the next. We tossed out weird rules, and gave them a shot, knowing it would get totally janky, but why the hell not? We spent the whole day playing that one game that didn’t quite work in dozens of different ways. We were having too much fun seeing what weirdo idea we could come up with next.
I didn’t know it then, but I was playtesting for the first time. I friggin loved it. My typed out pages got scrambled with cross outs and marginalia that afternoon, but after hours of stress testing, we’d cobbled together our own version of the game. Those rules still live in that box. In fact, there are four or five games in my collection that have printed house rules tucked in the box.
My favorite might be our yearly game of Last Night on Earth. A little while ago I found a custom scenario that combined the B-movie madness of my favorite zombie game, with the classic shopper placement game, Mall Madness, and I knew we had to give this a shot.
Each year, before Halloween, we head down to our local game store to play out this scenario on their copy of Mall Madness, and each year the house rules on this already awesome custom scenario get more detailed.
We started off with some movement tweaks: Instead of roll and move, a hero can move a number of spaces each turn equal to six minus the number of their wound slots.
Then we started adding more to the story: Zombies emerging from a fountain move slower, but hit harder and can encumber a hero.
Then, since we were basically playing Dawn of the Dead anyway, we started leaning into the cinematics: When a hero dies, they get one big cinematic death action before joining the zombie team. This can mean throwing a key item just as they’re getting devoured, luring the horde away from the other heroes, or being sure to take out one particular zombie as they leave this mortal coil.
This year, we went with custom characters and pieces including a terrifying zombie queen, and the best doggo this side of any apocalypse.
After three years, we now have four pages of house rules, specifically for this decade old custom scenario, for a board game that was released fifteen years ago. And I know we’ll be adding more this October. How could we resist?
Noodling with the rules is flat out addicting.
It’s somewhere in all that noodling that more than a few people have gotten an idea that sounds good, but doesn’t quite fit into any game they already have. So they imagine what that game would look like, and how that particular idea would work.
And, as soon as you’re down that rabbit hole, the bug has got you.
So, I’m just curious about what your house rules are. What games do you bring to the table and immediately announce, “We’re playing with Aubrey’s rules.” What games have little printed sheets in them at your house?
What game gave you the bug?
Check out our upcoming game, The Last Summit.