This case arose while playing a game called Eclipse with some friends. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Eclipse is a sci-fi themed 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) board game. The object of the game is to obtain victory points through such methods as controlling territory, researching technologies, and winning military victories. At the end of the game, the person with the most victory points is the winner.
To aid in their galactic conquest, players can form a kind of alliance called diplomatic relations. Both players involved gain bonus resources and if either breaks the alliance by attacking the other, they are branded a traitor and lose victory points.
Across the board from where I was setting up my own spectacular defeat, such an alliance had formed between two players, with another’s territory sandwiched between them. The two outer players had been eyeing the middle player’s territory and had made strides toward claiming it. They were about to meet in the middle and gang up on one of his fleets when they encountered a problem with the game’s rules.
The Eclipse rulebook states that when two players move units into an already-occupied space on the same turn, the invaders must fight each other first before confronting the original occupant. The two members of the alliance did not want to break their diplomatic relations, and furthermore, such an outcome would actually make it more difficult for them to defeat their opponent, rather than easier.
Unable to find a way to accommodate their plan within the established rules of the game, they brought an appeal to the group at large to establish a house rule: when two players who have established diplomatic relations move into an occupied tile, they should be allowed to fight the original occupant first, before fighting each other (at which point, according to the game rules, one of them could retreat and allow the other to occupy the area uncontested).
It only makes sense, right? There’s no reason for two allied sides to fight each other when a nonmember of their alliance is present. Eventually, the vote on the rule came to a deadlock, and I was the only person still undecided. I was somewhat torn.
On the one hand, the rule did make a lot of sense. Games like this are, to some extent, supposed to be a simulation of reality, and in an actual military situation involving spaceships armed with ion cannons, there would be no reason two separate fleets couldn’t gang up on a third.
On the other hand, the change would be a substantial deviation from the established rules, and one that would effect a significant redistribution of tactical advantage and disadvantage.
Eventually, I came to a decision with which the group reached general agreement. My reasoning went something like this: when people sit down to play a board game, the rules function as the agreement under which they’re playing. If you were to change that agreement partway through, you may create a situation in which you invalidate someone’s previous strategy or put them in circumstances for which they could not have prepared because they (rightly) believed them to be impossible. We might use the rule next time, but for this instance, it simply would not have been fair to the player stuck between the two allies.
With that said, I have nothing against house rules in general. They can be a good way to make a game more interesting, clear up ambiguities, or tailor the game to your particular group’s tastes. They’re just best decided on before the game actually starts.
This case was a pretty clear example of players trying to gain advantage over each other, but even when that’s not the case, it’s still more likely than not that any given house rule, if implemented mid-game will have a disparate impact on the players. This is because, in most games, players start off in relatively equal positions. As the game progresses and players pursue differing courses of action, each will be in a position where they are more harshly limited by a new rule or better able to take advantage of it.
So go ahead and customize to your heart’s content, but if you have an idea for a great house rule in the middle of the game, maybe save it for the next round. Happy gaming, and I hope to see you in court!