I played a game a while ago called [Redacted]. It was decently complex. The cards had lots of words, there was thick rulebook, and you had to roll 6 dice a turn, then interpret the results, then roll a few more dice, just to get anything done.

 

Here was the sequence of play:

  1. I was dealt some random cards and set up with these cards.
  2. On my turn, I would roll the dice and choose one of the options the dice presented (if more than one option came up, which often was not the case).
  3. Roll more dice to determine how many points I got.
  4. Pass my turn to the next player. After 4 other players act, go back to step 2 and repeat until someone wins.

Just one round after [Redacted] began, I had already spotted a glaring deficiency in the game. The rules made it so that (A) It didn’t matter which player you hit with an attack, (B) It was always in your best interest to make the strongest attack, and (C) It was always advantageous to take a bonus action when the opportunity arose. It took about two rounds for everyone at the table to discover this master strategy, and then we simply all repeated it on our turns. There was little choice, and never a value judgment, because whenever a player choice did come up, the best choice was always obvious.

Ultimately, the rules for this game could have been the same as for high card (everyone draw a card from a poker deck, highest card wins), because the rules did not give the players any options–they were nothing but a set of restrictions for interpreting die rolls. You could not work within the rules to win–the rules did all the work for you, and you just played out what the rules told you to.

Playing the game got me thinking about the difference between good rules and bad rules…

 

Before I expound on what makes a rule good or bad, however, let me tell you about the three kinds of rules that most games are governed by.

  • Premise Rules – these are the premise of the game. They are what the game is about. In Monopoly, you can build houses on a property if you own all three of the same color. This is a premise rule–one that defines the fundamental idea of the game. Imagine a field. Premise rules are the field itself, the ground upon which we walk. The field has natural boundaries in and of itself. You can’t move off of the board. You can’t roll 3 dice instead of 2. You can’t buy things you don’t land on. These aren’t in place to limit a player’s abilities–they’re just the inherent nature of the game.
  • Boundary Rules – these are the boundaries of the game. They define what a player can’t do. In Monopoly, you have to build houses evenly across your properties of the same color. This is a boundary rule–one that limits a player’s ability to act, or gives him a specific scenario in which an action is permissible. If you imagine that same field again, the Boundary rules are fences. Not the natural boundaries of the premise, but artificial, designer created boundaries that the game is governed by
  • Utility Rules – these are the player’s tools within the game. They make the field interesting. Again, in Monopoly, you can mortgage properties to make temporary money to fund your schemes. This is a utility rule–one that gives you an option that you may or may not use–a strategic choice that might help you and might not. In the field analogy, utilities are our tools–like a compass or a walking stick.

So what makes a good rule, and what makes a bad rule? Certainly any category of rule can be good or bad, but the kind of rules that are good and bad vary by category.

Good Premise, Bad Premise

Note that Premise Rules are different from an actual Game Premise. The Game Premise is the context of the game (are we pirates, traders, kings, or whatnot), while the premise rule is the foundational rule that governs gameplay (ie: trade money for cubes with variable value; roll a dice to see which provinces produce goods; attack your opponent to reduce their life to zero). The premise rule sets the size and style of a players’ possible choices.

I’ve mentioned before that games are about choices. In a good game, your choices affect your results and draw you in. A game where you don’t make any choices is a game where you aren’t responsible for the outcome, which is a game where you don’t care about the outcome, which is a boring game. Likewise, too many choices can overwhelm–a balance, and a balance where the choices are all reasonable options–is optimal.

Take the premise rule of Hi-Ho Cherry-o: “spin a spinner, collect that many cherries”. This is perhaps one of the worst premises ever for a board game (except that the goal of Hi-Ho Cherry-o isn’t to win, it’s to teach children to count–but we’ll glaze over that for now). Each turn presents a total of zero choices for the player. An extremely limiting premise rule.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can take the premise rule of Once upon a time: “Tell a story until someone interrupts you or until the story ends your way.” This premise is bad not because it isn’t fun (it’s a blast, and the foundation of just about every RPG out there), but it’s bad as a game because the field is so wide, the player has no idea which way to walk to find the victory flag. If you sit a player down and give him this premise, he will just sort of stare at you dumbly for several minutes, unless he’s a very specific kind of person.

A good premise rule is one that sets out the goal conditions and the playing field in a way such that the direction of the victory flag is obvious, but there are still enough paths that lead there to make it interesting. Take the premise of Dominion: “Buy cards in order to build a deck that is worth victory points.” The premise rule of the game gives you a great deal of choices (the cards to buy), but makes the win condition very straightforward (most victory cards wins). This means that the players must each pick a path towards that victory flag, and whomever chooses the best path will be the winner.

Good Boundary, Bad Boundary

Boundary rules are those that set limits on what a player can do. It is very easy to make bad boundary rules–in fact, the most common bad rules are boundary rules.

A bad boundary rule exists to cover a fundamental flaw in the game’s design. Perhaps a master strategy exists–or at least one that is far better than all the others. A boundary rule can be made to circumvent this specific strategy. For example, in the game I’m the Boss, a player is only allowed to have 12 cards in his hand. Why 12? Just an arbitrary number. The limit exists because drawing cards is almost always the better action (unless you’ve got nearly 12 already). If players could draw without limit, it’s likely that they would.

Take the example of one of Magic: The Gathering‘s Boundary Rules: “You may only place one land per turn”. There’s no reason in the premise of the game that this boundary exists–it’s there to enforce a power curve so that the game escalates at a steady pace. A good boundary rule exists to make the game play the way the designer intends, or to maintain a game dynamic (steady escalation, in this case) that would be broken if the boundary were overstepped.

In summary, good boundary conditions keep the game moving and reinforce its premise rules. Bad boundary rules exist to cover up inherent flaws in the premise rules, or imbalances in the game’s design.

Good Utility, Bad Utility

Utilities are the toolkits of rules. They tell the player what his options are in any given situation. InThunderstone, to give example, a player can choose to buy things at the village, visit the dungeon, or rest and remove a card from his possession permanently. Each of these options causes your turn to play out quite differently, and the best move is not always obvious. In this case, resting–passing a turn to eliminate an unwanted or useless card–is a Utility rule. It exists solely to give the player an additional option that may or may not be a part of the path towards victory.

“What could possibly be wrong with more options?” You might ask. It’s actually very easy to make bad utility rules. I won’t talk about balance here–all rules can suffer from imbalances. Instead it’s the nature of the rule that will prove it good or bad. A bad utility rule is too obscure to be of real use to the average player.

In Chess, a move called en passant allows a pawn to strike forward one space, but only if another pawn walked past it two spaces on the previous turn. This rule has low impact on the game, and it is very rarely invoked, often with little impact. Contrast with castling, or the swapping positions of the rook and the king, which is used extremely often, and has a very obvious purpose and utility.

Both of these utilities are options that a player can use to help secure victory. However, the “bad rule” en passant is obscure, has little impact on the game, and most people who know about it will use it perhaps once or twice in their lives to little utility. By contrast, the “good rule”, castling, offers an immediate and obvious strategic advantage, but is not always the best move to make.

In Conclusion

I hope you’ve found this little look at game rules enlightening. The next time you’re playing or designing a game, why not take a look at the rules from a designer’s perspective? Can you identify boundary, utility, and premise rules? Many are actually conglomerates of these three classes. What rules do you think are bad or good in games, and why? And can you replace bad rules in your games with better house rules?