Polymath Tabletop

Alternate Formats and House Rules

What do you do when your favourite game no longer scratches that itch? Has it just become a bit less competitive, too many or too few rules, maybe the internal balance of your army is just gone and now the models you love are just not competitive. Have you tried house rules?

Now, I don’t want to recommend you and your mates go out and try and fix all the issues you have with a game. Majority of the time, the people making these games are making decisions for a reason and with more information and knowledge than any of us have. They know the rule that seems funky now, will fit in perfectly with the new players pack coming out in 3 months. They know the massive overpowered model will have its perfect counter released soon. They know things that you don’t, so just because you and your mates think something should work in a different way, that doesn’t always mean you should start playing it your way.

But sometimes, a community can come together and decide that things need to change and the game developer isn’t going to do it, so they enforce a house rule. This house rule could be as simple as the way a rules interaction could work, or are complex as changing core rules of a game or model. Either way, majority of the time, they only work if every player in a group agrees that the new interaction is better for them then the original way.

The issue with doing something like this, is when these players interact with the world. When someone who is very used to playing a particular rule a certain way, that is not the rules as written way (or RAW for short) then they can run into issues. Especially if it is a core rule or something that has become so second nature that it is difficult to play the intended way.

Now, I’ve played in communities that have used extensive house rules, and ones that stick to the main rulebook as gospel. Neither of these groups is ever 100% happy with the way the games work, but my personal opinion is the rules are written that way for a reason, so sticking to the main rules, with as few changes as possible, is usually the right way. But with that being said, some tweaks are a good thing.

The most common tweak that I’ve seen is comp. Comp or comping is the practice of applying a separate system to rate or rank an army to give it either a bonus or a handicap, depending on the balance of a particular game. For example, an army made up of all the most powerful models, might start with fewer or negative objective points, and an army made up of the less used, or overcosted models might get a bonus each game, to try and give them a level playing field.

A more common system of comp applies during army creation or list design. The army or faction will be limited to a set number of comp points, in addition to the points system usually applied. This will help keep armies that are considerably more powerful in check, compared to armies that might be older and weaker in the current ruleset. With each model costing these points, the tournament organisers can try and set a power level so that every army can be used, and each player has an equal chance to achieve victory.

The downside of each tournament or event doing their own thing, means that armies or factions may end up being wildly different between events, so players who want to be competitive are forced to purchase more models that they won’t always be using. The other issue that can occur is dispute over whether the additional comp is accurate or not. Everyone has their own opinion on what is the best, so this can cause issues with what people think should, or should not be, comped.

The other more common type of tweak can be something that directly impacts the gameplay of the game. This could be used for comedic effect, such as unique additional rules that cause hilarity, or could be more of a serious impact, something like playing the game on a timer, or restricting certain rules or abilities.

Comedic rules are often used at fun events, this could be bribing your opponent with chocolate to negate certain rules, rolling a random event at certain times, or even bribing a judge to bestow special rules for your army. Majority of the time these are all taken in good fun, which is great if they enhance the enjoyment of the game. I once ran a fundraising event to raise money for new terrain, where players could buy a reroll for a dollar. 

The more serious tweaks are usually implemented to try and balance the game more. This could be due to time constraints within a tournament setting, hence the use of chess clocks. Or it could be due to a poorly worded rule, that could be abused easily and lead to a negative play experience. The goal of these tweaks is to improve the balance of a game, and give all players a better chance to perform well.

Chess clocks are a common example of this. Each player has a set period of time in which they are able to perform their actions in the game. This time is limited, and once it runs out, they might be restricted from certain actions, or might even lose the game outright. Whilst some game systems heavily encourage chess clocks, others see them as an additional source of pressure for players.

The biggest downside of these additional rules or changes is that people might not be comfortable with them. So games are very simple so an additional change might not break it, but others are already quite complicated. The additional source of stress or the additional resource (time) to manage, can push games over the edge and go from a fun enjoyable experience, to something more akin to a defusing a bomb. And there is no faster way to lose players if you stop them having fun whilst playing the game.

And this is what causes this fun balancing act. Play the game purely with the ruleset released, and deal with the issues that are known, or tweak the game, and deal with the issues the tweaks cause. What is the right answer? Well, I definitely don’t know, otherwise I would be getting paid a lot of money by games companies to balance their games.

But, if I can offer my 2 cents, it would be this. Someone will always lose. No matter what you do, someone will be unhappy with your decision. This doesn’t mean you’ve made the wrong decision, it just means that someone disagrees with you. And this is normal! Don’t take every comment or critique to heart. If you do, you will quickly lose all sight of what you are trying to achieve. What you need to do is balance this with the number of people that like the decision.

If you have two people who absolutely, and positively will not come to an event because of a tweak, but you also have five who are pumped about the tweak, then do it. Those two people might be the loudest, but they aren’t the majority. And unless you are specifically targeting a particular subset of a group, then you want to be onside with the majority. When push comes to shove, if you don’t appeal to the largest possible number of players, then you are excluding a big chunk of your possible playerbase. And any type of gaming event is pretty boring if no-one shows up.

So, as much as it pains me to say it, you won’t always get your way. You might think a particular tweak or change will drastically improve a particular game, but if the rest of the community isn’t onside, then it’s not worth it. That isn’t to say give up, but test it out first. Get a good group of friends to trial it. If they all get onboard with it, then you have a player base to build off, and can start expanding out. Otherwise, it might be time to go back to the drawing board and switch back to playing without any “improvements”.

Until next time,


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