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When Games are Ruined

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A friend, brother-in-law, and occassional board-game opponent of mine (who I will henceforth refer to as “Josh”) once told me a story about a very bad experience he had playing Settlers of Catan as a newcomer in a previously established group.

Let me get across an important fact here:  Josh loves Settlers of Catan.  He has every currently-available expansion for the game.  He has been known to stay up all hours of the night playing multiple games.  It’s his number one game.

And yet, when he played with one particular group of guys, he didn’t have any fun.  Why? Well, apparently their method of playing essentially ruined the game.

This is not even about house-ruling here.  As I heard it from Josh, these guys would utilize game-breaking methods of trading resources that… well, that broke the game, without technically breaking any rules.

Here is an example: one player might have a large number of one particular resource – say, 5 sheep, and with a hand size around 11 cards.  Another player would have only 2 resources in their hand – lets say, a log and a brick (yeah, I called it a Log, not lumber.  What of it?).  The 1st player would then make an agreement with the second to, say, trade their 5 sheep for the 1 brick, which would protect their hand from the nefarious “robber” roll on the start of the next player’s turn.  Then the two players would trade their resources back, the 1st allowing the 2nd to keep say 1 of his sheep, but returning the rest in exchange for the return of the brick.

So in the end, they technically haven’t done anything illegal as far as the rules of the game, but their methods circumvented many of the important balancing elements of the game.  There was not really any house-ruling here, just some sort of agreement to allow this activity.

This is the strangest behavior I have ever heard of regarding a game.  I’ve heard of games being house-ruled to death, but this? It almost sounds like those players are board with the game and need to move on to something else, but instead have contrived strange ways to make things more interesting to them, i guess?

The main issue here is that this kind of thing excludes new players.  Any outsider with any motivation to keep a semblance of a game going should feel very uncomfortable partaking in such peculiarly imbalanced trading, but that would make them feel like outsiders even more, like they aren’t in the “inner circle” where such trades are acceptable.  Not only that, but if such a trade is offered to the newbie, do they compromise the rules of their favorite game to join in?  Or maybe they worry that this kind of deal is just a set-up to “prank” the new player.

And if the new player has never played Catan before, they would encounter what would seem to be an imbalanced, broken game.

I’m not sure where this kind of tradition would form – after all, if one of my friends offered me 5 sheep for a brick for safekeeping, I would agree at the moment – and then most likely refuse a return trade when the time came, and that would stop anyone from trying anything similar.

In addition, this activity would seem to totally tilt the game towards the player who is gaining a large number of resources, allowing them to avoid the robber which is a huge part of the balancing act of the game.

I cant think of any other example in which players have simply used the rules to their advantage to circumvent consequences and break the game, without other players calling them out or refusing to play that way.  Have any of you ever tried a gaming group and ran into problems like that?  Not house-ruling, but simply methods of play that exclude anyone not party to the dirty dealings going on?

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion5 Comments

  1. How often do you find yourself tweaking the rules of certain games? When should it be permissible? My friends have a few house rules for Settlers, and I always wonder if we’d enjoy the game better if we stuck to the official rules.

    Is it ever ok or possible to change the rules of a game in such a way that breaks the balance of a game, but still makes it more enjoyable?

    A case study of Monopoly makes me think that doing so is probably more risk than its worth, and that we should probably just trust the poeple who made the rules. I recently learned that according to the offical rules of Monopoly, when a player is fined they don’t put money into the center of the board, and when a player lands on “Free Parking” they should get diddly squat. This deviation from the real rules is apparently why Monopoly games can last so stupidly long.

  2. I’m going to come out with a dissenting view on this one. It’s something my group has done for a while without feeling like Catan is “broken.”

    Rather than thinking about it as a lopsided trade of one brick for five sheep, think of it instead as the trade of one sheep for one turn of robber safety. That’s a pretty even trade in my book.

    Plus, sometimes that person with all that sheep is the only one with sheep. There’s a common interest in making sure he has sheep to trade out.

    And, in our games, it has never resulted in an imbalance towards the person with more resources. In fact, if the person with a hand full of cards is nearing victory, the other players no longer make that robber induced trade.

    It actually makes the game go a little faster and allows the players to create a little “robber insurance” for the right price.

  3. I dunno, GI, something about that doesn’t set right for me. I could see offering cards so that the player doesn’t move the robber on to your space when they play a soldier card, but other than that it just seems like circumventing a key balancing rule. And if that player really is the only one with sheep, why hasn’t he been trading them off each turn?

    @robertleeanderson, I’d say that changing rules is always dangerous. It might make the game better for some people but less fun for another, especially if it breaks the game’s balance. But each group can make their own choices. As long as everyone in the group is fairly okay with it, it’s all right, but be especially careful when bringing new players in.

    Also, just FYI, the reason Monopoly isn’t fun is not because of the free parking rule. It’s not fun because you have very little choice as a player, you win or lose based on the rolls of the dice, and even though there’s almost a certain winner after going around the board once or twice, it takes a long time to really “end” the game.

  4. “In fact, if the person with a hand full of cards is nearing victory, the other players no longer make that robber induced trade.”

    This is one of the reason I really don’t like Catan anymore.

    The endgame is just a big bout of tense kingmaking. Players decide to not trade with people based on how “close” they are to winning. More often than not the 2nd place player will get catapulted into 1st because people start refusing trades with the player in 1st.

    Or, worse, a bad trade or a refusal to trade earlier in the game is used like a club against you later on.

    Additionally, if you’re in last place with two people about to win you have no incentive to trade with anyone other than to end the game or fulfill some arbitrary mission of your own.

    Also, all of that tends to lead to yelling at each other.

  5. In a half decade of playing games, there’s only one occasion I can remember in which I felt a house rule was needed. Your example just sounds like a way of making an already so-so game even less playable.

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