House Rules in Board Games and RPGs, What are they and should you use them?

Today’s topic comes from Charles Baroch who wanted to know more about House Rules. 

In today’s post, I’m going to first define exactly what we mean when we say a game uses House Rules as well as discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of using them.

I will also be sharing some examples of popular House Rules and my thoughts on those rulings.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What exactly is a tabletop game House Rule?

The best definition for a House Rule that I’ve seen comes from Wikipedia:

House rules are unofficial modifications to official game rules adopted by individual groups of players. House rules may include the removal or alteration of existing rules, or the addition of new rules. 

What I really like about this definition is that it highlights the fact that a House Rules include rules that people have added to a game, as well as rules that a group chose to remove from a game. House Rules include anything that deviates from the rules as written (often called RAW). 

House Rules can be intentional. A group playing a game decides they don’t like a specific rule in a game and decide to play without that rule or modify it. This is much more common in the world of RPGs but also happens with board games.

House Rules can also be unintentional. This often happens when a popular game gets taught again and again to different groups, sometimes over generations, and the original rules get forgotten. It can also happen when a group plays a game wrong due to misreading or misinterpreting a rule and they continue to play that way not realizing they have made a mistake. 

Intentional House rules are created in order to “fix” a game for a specific group, or at least fix a perceived problem with a game. The problem is that sometimes these fixes can lead to other problems. Other times the “fix” works so well and the game is improved by the House Rule so much that the publisher or designer will adopt the House Rule as an official rule or at least an official rule variant.

For today’s topic, I’m not considering official rule variants as House Rules. Here I’m just talking about rules created by players of the game and not changes approved by or acknowledged by the designer or publisher. 

Attitudes towards House Rules differ between board gamers and roleplaying gamers

People often have a different attitude towards House Rules when talking about board games vs RPGs.

House rules are generally discouraged in board games, the rules are the rules, and must be followed.  It is the complete opposite in most RPGs. Most RPGs go so far as to have a rule that specifically states that you not only can but should, ignore, modify and add rules. This rule is often called “Rule 0” in roleplaying games.

In regards to board games, it’s interesting to note that with most board games people are willing to break the rules for games that are all about the experience and just having fun. Such as party games and games where no one cares who wins the game. 

Similarly interesting is the trend that when competitiveness is added to RPGs adherence to the rules comes back. This happens most with organized play events and RPG tournaments, where multiple players will play through the same adventure under different GMs. The goal here is that you want groups of different players to have the same experience at the table and the one thing everyone has in common at an RPG table is the rules. 

What this indicates to me is that rules adherence and the willingness of groups and players to modify the rules is tied into the spirit of competition. For a good look and discussion on competition at the game table check out this classic Ask the Bellhop article: A Look at Competition at the Game Table

People care about following the rules when playing a game where someone is going to win. When there are winners and losers in a game you want everyone to be playing by the same rules. Everyone should have the same options and the same limitations. Everyone wants the game to be fair and the best way to make sure the game is fair is to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.

When the goal of the game isn’t to win, then rules become less important. What is important is that everyone has fun playing the game. This is true of trying to share a narrative in an RPG and for a party game where you want everyone laughing and don’t care which team wins in the end.

A more detailed look at House Rules in Role Playing Games

RPGs aren’t a competition, there is no winner. It’s all about having a good time together, playing through, experiencing and creating a story. Rules aren’t nearly as important as keeping the game flowing and keeping things interesting. House Rules are common in RPGs.

For most RPGs the way one group plays can be very different from the way another group plays, even if they are playing the same game. There have been efforts over the years to change this.

The goal of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition was to codify as much of the rules as possible. The reason for this was so that D&D could become a shared experience and so that players could show up to play at anyone’s table and expect the game to feel and play similarly if not the same. This concept was a big part of the D&D organized play experience, where players all over the world could play through the same modules and expect to face the same challenges and see the same story.

Other games also did similar with their own organized play systems. While I wouldn’t call the effort a failure, it’s interesting to see that the latest edition of D&D has moved away from this. The modern version of Dungeons & Dragons has moved away from having a rule for everything and is much more rules light and similarly, the organized play element has also loosened up.

Modern RPGs have introduced the concept of The Rule Of Cool. If something moves the story forward and makes for a better narrative then that’s what happens. It doesn’t matter what it says in the rulebook.

A similar concept comes from old school games and that’s the concept of Rulings Over Rules. Older RPGs didn’t have rules for every specific circumstance. There’s actually no way a roleplaying game rule book can cover every possible situation that can come up during a game. The allure of an RPG is the fact that anything really can happen. Due to this, it was up to the group and the Games Master to come up with rulings for the things that weren’t covered by the rules.

The important thing with any House Rules is that everyone is on the same page.

One of the problems with House Rules is that they mean that your group plays a game somehow different from other groups. This can be a serious problem when people play with a variety of different groups or play with strangers. In this case, it becomes very important that everyone is on the same page.

There is little worse than playing a game with a group and then partway through someone does something against the rules and you are told, “Oh well, we don’t play by the rules.” or you go to take a move or do an action and are told, “We don’t play that way here.” This not only ruins the game for the player who didn’t know the specific House Rule but can often ruin the game for the entire table.

It is extremely important before you sit down and start playing a game, any game, this could be a board game or an RPG or something else, that everyone knows what rules are being followed. The default assumption by everyone should be that you are playing with the rules as written included with the game unless someone says otherwise.

If House Rules are going to be used this should be discussed and agreed upon by all of the players. House Rules are an exception to the norm and should never be forced upon someone. If someone doesn’t want to follow your house rules this is no reason to demean or exclude a player.

I also suggest if you have a set of common House Rules for a game you codify them by writing them down and including them with the game. This should be done to make sure that everyone can read and understand the new or excluded rules and makes sure you don’t forget any of them when talking about them before you start playing.

If running a scheduled event I also suggest letting people know your particular House Rules ahead of time, before people sign up or show up to play. The inclusion of House Rules may impact a persons willingness to actually play whatever game you are playing.

Should you use House Rules?

First and foremost once you buy a game it’s now your game and you are free to do with it as you wish. There’s no rulebook police that are going to show up to your game night and punish you for not following the rules. There is no law stopping you from modifying a game to make it more fun for your group.

We are all part of this hobby in order to gather with our friends and have fun playing games together. If we can see a way to make the game we are playing more fun, then, of course, we should take that action.

I have a warning for you though: be careful when instigating House Rules.

One of the main problems with playing with house rules I mentioned above. By adding your own rules to a game you change that game and you are no longer playing the same game everyone else is. This is perfectly fine if you only play with the same group of people all the time, but as soon as someone new joins your group or when a member of your group plays with someone else those house rules may become a problem.

The other problem with introducing a house rule is that it can have unexpected effects on other parts of the game. Most games nowadays are not only thoroughly playtested but also go through a rigorous development process. In most cases, if there’s a rule in a game it’s there for a reason, and by modifying that rule you may be changing the game in ways that can break it.

For myself and my group, I like to trust the designer, publisher, playtesters and their development teams. I will never modify a game without trying it with all of the rules in place at first. For at least the first few games. Only after playing a few times and seeing how the various game mechanics interact would I feel comfortable modifying the rules to a game. I suggest everyone else do the same.

Only after playing a game by the proper rules and getting feedback from all of the people who played with you should you consider modifying the rules to a game. Then, when you do decide to make modifications you have to make sure that all of the players are on board with the changes. Also, be willing to revert back to the main rules if you find a House Rule doesn’t work the way you intended it to.

In the end, if you do end up with a House Rule that does improve the game for your group I encourage you to share it with the world. Go online, go on Board Game Geek, share your new rule with other fans of the game. Maybe you have come up with something the designer never considered.

Other players may also find the game better with your rule changes. Perhaps even the designer will give their blessing and include your rules in a future edition or as an official variant.

It’s your game, do with it as you want and do your best to make it as fun as possible for your group, just don’t jump into changing up things willy nilly and realize that all changes can have unexpected consequences.

Some examples of popular House Rules

Here are some popular House Rules and my thoughts on them.

Monopoly – This is probably the most famous game in regards to House Rules. Some of these house rules are so ubiquitous that people don’t even realize that they are house rules in the first place.

Free Parking – In the actual Monopoly rules Free Parking does nothing. It’s a spot on the board where you get nothing, it also costs you nothing, thus the name Free Parking. There are a number of House Rules that award players for landing on this spot. Some groups just give a set amount of money, say $400. Other groups put all the money from taxes on Free Parking. I’ve even seen a group that puts all money spent here instead of into the bank.

The goal of the Free Parking House Rule is to make the game more fun for people who aren’t actually good at Monopoly, to make the game more accessible to younger kids and to attempt to make the game more family friendly.

The problem with the Free Parking rule is that Monopoly is meant to be a somewhat closed economic game where the goal is to bankrupt the other players. This becomes very difficult to do if there’s a magic spot that keeps putting money back into the game. This one House Rule has ruined Monopoly for any number of gamers and most people don’t even realise it’s not even in the rulebook.

Most of the rest of the Monopoly House Rules out there were created for the same reason, to make the game more family friendly, but in all cases make what is a long game interminably long. These include rules for getting extra money for landing on Go, for being able to build up only one property when building houses and hotels and the fact that almost no one actually uses the auction rules.

Most people don’t even know that Monopoly has auction rules.

Now I’m not saying that Monopoly is a great game. It’s not, but it is a much better game than most people think and that’s because the game has been utterly destroyed by people using House Rules. House Rules that most people don’t even know are House Rules.

Settlers of Catan – For this one, I want to feature one House Rule that I think is a good one, two House Rules I think are terrible and one House Rule that was so popular that it became an official variant.

No robber for the first round – This is a Catan variant that I actually like. During the first round of play, if any player rolls a seven on the resource dice they roll again until they get a non-seven. This removes the robber from the first round of play and stops one or more players from being punished before the game has really started.

Get something when you would gather no resources – In this House Rule when the resource dice are rolled and a player would get nothing, instead they get something. This something varies by group but includes things like a resource of their choice or a token of some sort that can be traded for resources later in the game often at 2:1 odds.

I think this is a terrible House Rule as it punishes skilled players who play the odds of the dice properly and rewards players for playing on low numbered tiles. It changes the balance of the game and the effect of the dice in a way that rewards randomness and punishes skill. I will never play with this rule.

Placing the resources numbers randomly – This is the House Rule that most people don’t realize is a House Rule and has ruined many games of Catan for many people. The resource numbers have letters on them for a reason. They are meant to be placed on the board in a spiral pattern that ensures that the numbers are evenly distributed. Using the proper rules you will never get a 6 next to an 8 and the 2 and 12 will always be apart from each other.

Without this rule, the board becomes a bunch of hot spots and cold spots where players who place first will get the hot spots and have a very good chance of winning the game just due to their initial placement. If you play Catan, always insist the resource chits are placed in alphabetical order.

Using a resource deck instead of dice – Many people playing Catan hate the random factor of the dice. They get frustrated when a 2 or 12 comes up more often than it should based on a 2d6 bell curve. In order to fix this players have created a deck of cards to replace the dice, a deck where every card is played before it gets reshuffled thus ensuring that each number comes up an exact amount of times based on the 2d6 bell curve.

While I’m not a big fan of this House Rule it has proven to be popular enough that the last publisher of the game, Mayfair Games, had released a Catan dice deck you could buy to replace the dice in your copy of Catan.

Pandemic, Forbidden Island and other cooperative card driven games – One popular variant that I am a fan of is playing these games with open hands. The goal of these games is for players to work together and use their combined skill to beat the games. It’s meant to be a game about deductions and probability and not a game about memory.

The one problem with having open hands in a cooperative game is that it can make quarterbacking more common. This is when one player with a dominant personality takes it upon themselves to tell everyone else what to do on their turn.

Power Grid and other games with hidden money – The rules as written state that money should be a hidden commodity, yet many groups play using poker chips or with open money.

This is a hard one that is going to vary group by group. According to the designer hidden money was included as a rule to prevent analysis paralysis especially at the end of the game. He did not want players spending too much time doing math and counting every dollar to make sure they bid and spend the exact right amount of money each auction and game turn.

Having played many games of Power Grid I personally agree with the designer and prefer to play with hidden money. That said, this is an economic game all about managing your money and if you really want to reward player skill I can see the appeal of playing with open money so that players who do the math and are better at managing their money are rewarded.

Now I say Power Grid but this basically goes for any game where the end game score can be either open or hidden. The choice of whether to play open or closed information will impact how people play the game. With open information, it’s also much easier to chase the leader, but it’s also more likely that a player who is behind knows early in the game that they cannot win and that’s never fun.

For more discussion on various House Rules over a variety of games, check out The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast Ep 82: On the House.

Do you use House Rules in your games? If so, what are some of your favourites? Let us know in the comments!

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6 Responses

  1. I do house rules in a number of board games. If I play with others, I always make a point of explaining why I use the particular house rules, and explain the regular rules and why the house rules are utilized.
    I use house rules with “Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age” by doing just ONE die roll a turn. The reason is because we played it wrong for a month or so before realizing the mistake and playing it by the rules, and we disliked the game when played by the rules. So we went back to the way we had done it from the beginning.
    I also house rule “Lewis & Clark” by not allowing people to play people and helpers and collect absolutely nothing. It doesn’t make thematic sense to send someone to go hunting and send a helper along, and have them not actually hunt at all. It also stops “gaming the mechanics” of the game by wasting cards to avoid penalties while at the same time not taking resources which could delay you as well. I hate when people game the mechanics of a game.
    I’ve also house ruled “Star Fleet Battles” so it plays more quickly. I’m also currently working on house rules for XCom The Game and Dinosaur Island. The former to remove the need for the app. The latter to allow for variances in the dinosaurs.

    1. Hey Phil!

      For Roll Through the Ages it sounds like you way skulls wouldn’t have much of an impact. It’s been a long time since I’ve played that though, so maybe I’m remembering wrong.

      Lewis & Clark I only played once and it was also a long time ago. So I can’t comment on that one.

      A faster SFB would be a good thing. That game is a bear to learn and very slow playing.

      For Dinosaur Island, have you seen Totally Liquid, it does what you are trying to do with the aquatic dinos and I hate it. Mainly because some are just way better than others, and if you get one up that’s a dud it tends to sit on top of the pile with no one buying it.

      Thanks for the comments,

      1. For Roll Through the Ages, the skulls have a little less impact in the beginning part of the game, but as more cities are constructed, the greater chance the skulls will have a more significant impact.
        But what it does, is make Leadership much more useful, and it also makes the highest advancements much more challenging and useful to get.

        And for Dinosaur Island, yes, I know about Totally Liquid. I own that as well, and while there are a couple of water dinos that are “odd” with either really high Threat and low VP or really high VP and ZERO threat. Those are being altered by me as well. And I think it would be really easy to “house rule” as method of cycling through the dinos on the market much like the other things cycle in the game. That’s, of course, assuming people want to deal with the house rules.

        But honestly, the one time I ran the game at the FLGS, I had people asking me “Why is the T-Rex the same value as this other dinosaur? Isn’t there any difference in the dinosaurs?” And I’ve seen some of the same comments made on BGG. So there is some demand for those house rules.

        1. It’s been a really long time since I’ve played my copy of Roll Through The Ages. I may have to try that variant out. I know I found the game to be good but not great, much better with the Late Bronze Age print and play expansion. Your tweak may help it as well.

          I do have to admit that I’ve heard people ask the same thing, as well as, why make a deck of tiles if there is no difference between them. The trick will be balancing them. Good luck with that!

          Thanks for the additional comment and reply,
          Moe T.

  2. I really enjoy Chicago Express, but found the scarcity of funds and the initial biding at the beginning of the game to be very unforgiving. Once a player gains an edge, it’s very hard to overtake them. In order to alleviate this, I introduced loan markers. A player can take out a $25.00 loan (Big Red Poker Chip) at any time. Whenever dividends are distributed (about every 5 or 6 turns) they must pay them back along with a $5.00 dollar interest charge, or just pay the $5.00 to hold on to the marker. The players total money is reduced by $30.00 per marker, if they still hold any at the end of the game. This didn’t make the game any less forgiving, but it did add an interesting new dynamic to the game, as well as a good lesson in debt management. I enjoy the game even more now.

    1. Hey Roger,

      I have to admit it’s been a bit too long since I’ve played Chicago Express. I don’t remember anyone being unduly punished myself but that’s not saying it hasn’t happened. Adding loans to an economic game does make sense though. It’s a major part of heavier train games like Steam. Which if you haven’t played Steam yet we really need to sit down and play together.

      Thanks for the comment,
      Moe T

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