Eclipse and House Rules

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!

Munchkin: Can a Card Discard Itself?

Today’s case comes once again from Munchkin, and this time revolves around cards that force you to discard other cards.  I was playing a while ago when my opponent played the “Contemplate Your Navel” card.  This card allows a player to go up a level, but there’s a restriction on the card, which goes like this: “To use this, you must discard your entire hand (minimum of 3 cards).”  Trying to minimize her losses, my opponent made the argument that the “Contemplate Your Navel” card itself could count as one of these three cards. 

Something about the argument didn’t quite sit right with me, but I couldn’t define exactly what at the time, so I allowed it.  Not only did this satisfy my personal rule of not tying up a game with rules arguments, but it also satisfied another of my personal gaming rules.  Munchkin has implemented an element that is, in my experience, unique in game design.  There is actually an official method in the rulebook of resolving rules disputes: “…disputes should be settled by loud arguments among the players, with the owner of the game having the last word.”  Being that I was the one who owned the game, I could easily have turned this to my advantage and refused to allow the move.  Instead, I chose to allow it based on the maxim “let them have their fun.” 

In other words, allowing the play was the most fun solution possible.  It rewarded a creative tactic, kept things moving, and while it did allow one player to benefit, it didn’t really hurt anyone else, especially since it was just a difference of one extra card discarded.  When a game has placed you in a position of power, try to avoid using the rules as a bludgeon against the other players or a tool to help you win.  First attempt to make an unbiased decision based on what you know of the rules.  If it’s a grey area, go with the option that’s the most fun.  That’s what games are for after all, right?  I will admit that the fact that the person playing the card was my wife did not hurt my decision either.

Upon further investigation of the rules, however, it appears that my misgivings were correct.  In reference to playing “Go Up a Levels” and similar cards, the Munchkin rules have this to say: “You may use these at any time, unless the card itself says otherwise.  Follow its instructions; then discard it.”  Following these rules, the sequence of events goes as follows:

  1. The “Contemplate Your Navel” card is played.
  2. The player must discard their whole hand.  Note that since the “Contemplate Your Navel” card has already been played, it is no longer in this player’s hand, and therefore does not count against the three card minimum. 
  3. Having satisfied the card’s restrictions, the player goes up a level. 
  4. Now that all the instructions have been followed, the player discards the “Contemplate Your Navel” card. 

Official inquiry has backed up this ruling, so I’m now willing to declare the case closed.  This is not to say that I regret the decision I made in the moment.  Just because a decision may have been objectively wrong, doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right one to make when you made it, based on the information you had.  Now I know the right way to rule it and I can do it that way if it comes up again.

Until next time, happy gaming, and I hope to see you in court!

Munchkin: Cheating and One-Time Use Items

This case is based on the popular parody card game Munchkin.  It originally started off as a parody of traditional table-top fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, and has since expanded to poke fun at everything from westerns, to science fiction, to super heroes, and countless other genres and fandoms.  The name “Munchkin” refers to a slang derogatory term used in tabletop gaming meaning a player who tries to twist the rules to their advantage in order to “win” at a game that’s intended to be cooperative. 

In Munchkin, though, that sort of behavior is actively encouraged by the rules.  Every player starts out at level 1 and the player who gets to level 10 first is the winner.  There are several different ways to go up levels, but the most common one is by defeating monsters.  Each monster specifies a level on its card and in order to defeat it, your character’s level (plus any bonuses from whatever other cards you may have) must be higher than the monster’s level.  When you defeat a monster, you gain the level(s) and treasure(s) specified on the card. 

As I mentioned earlier, Munchkin is a game in which players are encouraged to twist, bend, and even occasionally break the rules.  Perhaps the ultimate expression of this is the Cheat! card.  This card allows you to “Play this card with an Item card you have in play, or when you play an Item card from your hand. This item is legal for you to use even if it otherwise would not be.  Discard this card when you lose (sell, etc.) the attached item.”  The main purpose of this card is to get around certain restrictions on various items.  For example, an item card might specify that it is only usable by elves or that it takes up the headgear slot.  If you don’t have the elf race card or if you’re already wearing headgear, you could use the Cheat! card to let you use that item anyway. 

The problem, which I promise I am getting to, came in the interaction between the Cheat! card and a specific kind of restricted items – usable once only items.  As their name states, these items give a temporary bonus, frequently a small boost to one fight, and then must be discarded.  One inventive player played a Cheat! card with one of these items and declared that he was using the Cheat! card to remove the “usable once only” restriction, effectively making the item a permanent piece of equipment. 

Fortunately, the rules of Munchkin do provide an official method for settling rules disputes.  “…disputes should be settled by loud arguments among the players, with the owner of the game having the last word.”  As I owned the game, the decision was mine to make.  At the time, I allowed this use of Cheat!, but the ruling has never really sat right with me.  To me, this seems less like a simple restriction on an item’s use and more like a fundamentally different kind of item. 

I did some poking around on the website of Steve Jackson Games, the company that prints the Munchkin series and eventually discovered that enterprising cheaters have come up with so many potential different uses for the Cheat! card that they’ve forced the company to publish a list of every possible legal use of Cheat!  The list is quite extensive and makes reference to rules which are not relevant to this case, so I won’t quote it here.  Suffice it to say that it does not include making a one-time use item permanent, and further inquiries yielded an official response confirming that this is not a valid use of the Cheat! card.  Perhaps a somewhat anticlimactic ending, but I always try to abide by official rulings when possible, and as this one agrees with my gut feeling, I’m not inclined to argue with it. 

Until next time, happy gaming, and I hope to see you in court!

Magic: The Gathering: Fog Bank v. Trample

This is our first fan-submitted case!  Thanks go out to Jon, for submitting it on our Facebook wall.  There must be something in the air, because it’s another case about the invulnerability of fog.

This one comes from Magic: The Gathering, which, for those of you who’ve been living under a rock since the early nineties, is a collectible card game in which the players must accumulate enough land cards to power spells and summon monsters and destroy their opponent.  This particular case involves the interaction between a card and a property of other cards:  Fog Bank and Trample.

Before I explain what these specifically do, you’ll need to know a bit more about how combat works in M:tG.  Each creature has two values, an offensive one (called power) and a defensive one (called toughness).  The two numbers are separated by a slash with the power coming first.  So, a 6/4 creature has six power (offensive strength) and 4 toughness (defensive strength).  When you have one of your creatures attack, your opponent may choose to block with one of his own.  If this happens, the attacking creature and the blocking creature deal damage to each other equal to their power.  If either creature receives damage equal to or greater than its toughness, it is destroyed.

Normally, one blocking creature is enough to completely stop an attacking creature, even if the blocker is destroyed and the attacker has power to spare.  Some creatures, however, have the trample ability.  Trample allows the attacking creature to keep going as long as it has enough power.  So a 6/6 creature with trample could be blocked by a 3/3 and a 2/2, destroying them both and still having enough power left over to deal one point of damage to the opponent’s life.

Fog Bank is a special kind of creature called a wall.  Walls generally have 0 power and none can attack, but are generally quite good at blocking.  Fog Bank specifically is a 0/2 with a special ability that reads as follows: “Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt to and dealt by Fog Bank.”  Seems simple enough.  Fog Bank just can’t take or dish out any damage.

But what happens when Fog Bank blocks a creature with trample?  Since it doesn’t take any damage, the trampling creature can never destroy it.  Based on this reasoning, I was ready to give the case to Fog Bank, but a little research changed my mind.

The answer came in the interaction between trample and another special ability, protection.  Certain cards will have the ability “Protection from X” where X is some quality that other cards might possess.  Any card that has the stated quality can’t have any effect on the creature with protection.  Specifically, “Any damage that would be dealt by sources that have the stated quality to a permanent or player with protection is prevented.”  The key here is the identical phrasing between Fog Bank and protection, they both say “damage is prevented.”

Furthermore, in the trample section of the rules, we find the following example: “A 6/6 green creature with trample is blocked by a 2/2 creature with protection from green. The attacking creature’s controller must assign at least 2 damage to the blocker, even though that damage will be prevented by the blocker’s protection ability. The attacking creature’s controller can divide the rest of the damage as he or she chooses between the blocking creature and the defending player.”

As far as I can tell, Fog Bank’s special ability essentially functions like “Protection from Combat.” When Fog Bank blocks a creature with trample, it soaks up two damage and, assuming the attacker has enough power, it can continue trampling onto the defender’s other blockers, or his life points if none are available.  The essential difference between this and the Wiz-War case is that Mist Body doesn’t allow the player to be attacked, whereas Fog Bank simply doesn’t take damage from attacks.

So the score is fog: 1, other: 1.  Keep those cases coming people.  Until next time, happy gaming, and I hope to see you in court!

Edit: minor correction to rules content

Wiz-War: What Does it Mean to be Attacked?

Note: The previous case about Hex Hex was somewhat light on rules quotes, partially because the rules in question are quite simple, but mostly because I don’t own the game or have access to it anymore.  I posted it because I needed to get some cases up and other than that, I thought it was a good, in-depth example.  Readers wishing to submit their own cases should look to this one, rather than the Hex Hex case, for an example of what kind of rules info should be included with submissions.

In this case, we answer the age-old question, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?”  The case arises from a game called Wiz-War.  In this game, each player plays as a wizard trapped in a labyrinth together with the other players.  Each must use their items, spells, and cunning to achieve the objectives – killing the other wizards and stealing their treasure.

The dispute arose when I was playing Wiz-War with some friends and, quite frankly, doing rather poorly.  I was down to just one health point left and had retreated to an isolated corner of the labyrinth to try and recuperate and develop a comeback strategy.  To further aid in my objective of remaining undisturbed, I had cast the Mist Body spell on myself.  Among other things, Mist Body has the following effect: “You cannot attack or be attacked.”  I wasn’t concerned with the limitation of my offensive capabilities, as I wasn’t in any shape for a fight, and I assumed that not allowing any other player to attack me would afford me some time to recuperate, at least until the spell’s duration ran out.

A clever opponent, noticing that I was on the run as well as on my last legs, and determined to take advantage of my disadvantage, moved into position and cast the Psychic Storm spell.  He thought the wording of the spell would let it work around Mist Body’s defensive property.  The relevant text of the Psychic Storm spell is as follows: “Strike target square and all adjacent squares (even through walls, but not diagonals) with a howling storm of power… Each wizard or creature caught in the storm… suffers magical damage equal to this spell’s energy.  This spell cannot be evaded.”  It is also important to note that every spell in Wiz-War has a type and Psychic Storm is an attack spell.

I reasoned that because Psychic Storm is an attack and Mist Body states that “You cannot… be attacked,”  I would suffer no ill effects.  My opponent countered that Psychic Storm “…cannot be evaded.”  Even if Mist Body didn’t count as evading the spell, he reasoned, it specifically didn’t target me, a wizard, but rather “…target square and all adjacent squares…”  I just had the misfortune to be occupying one of those squares.

I was pretty sure I was right, but after a short debate, the entire rest of the gaming group was persuaded by my opponent’s logic.  I wasn’t being attacked, my square was, and by an attack that “…cannot be evaded,” to boot.  Disappointed, I conceded the argument and therefore the game.  My wizard perished in the midst of a terrible Psychic Storm, and I congratulated my opponent on both a debate and a game well-fought.

That was quite a while ago now, and I’ll openly admit that I was biased at the time by the fact that I would not only be disadvantaged, but lose the game entirely if the decision didn’t go my way.  When the time came to decide this case, I reexamined all the relevant rules and I was having a very hard time deciding.  Both cards seemed to use pretty absolute language and I had a hard time determining which one should trump the other.

In an effort to provide some more insight into which spell was more potent, I decided to do a little research.  Many game companies will provide official clarifications and corrections to their game rules when they are incorrect or unclear.  Wiz-War is currently produced by a company called Fantasy Flight, which, in my experience, is a well-run company which puts out quality products and is genuinely concerned with customer satisfaction.  A quick Google search of the game’s title brought up the official page from the Fantasy Flight website, and under the Support section, sure enough, I found a FAQ page.  I browsed through it and didn’t initially find anything helpful or relevant.  I had almost given up hope when I reached the very last question:

Q. Can a wizard under the effect of “Mist Body” be
damaged?
A. Yes. The wizard cannot be attacked and does not suffer
damage from attacks, but can be damaged from other
causes. For example, “Destroy Wall” can damage a wizard
under the effect of “Mist Body” because it is not an attack,
but “Psychic Storm” cannot.

I guess I should have trusted my first instinct. Winner: immovable object.

Until next time, happy gaming, and I hope to see you in court!

Hex Hex: On the Meaning of the Word Across

This case is a good example of how the most complicated issues can arise from the simplest rules in the simplest games. It came from a game called Hex Hex. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it’s essentially a card game version of hot potato. At the beginning of each round, a “Hex” token enters play. When the Hex is passed to a player, he or she must use one of his or her cards to pass it off to someone else. Inability to do so results in the player being “Hexed,” causing them to lose a point (called “voice”) and causing the person who passed them the hex to gain a point of voice. There are various ways the Hex can be modified and bounced around, most of which are irrelevant to this case and won’t be discussed here. The three most basic cards for passing off the Hex are Turn Aside Left, which passes the Hex to the player to immediately to your left; Turn Aside Right, which passes the Hex to the player immediately to your right; and Pass Across, which passes the hex to a person across the table. The first two cards are pretty self-explanatory and have never really caused any problems. Pass Across, while it might seem self-explanatory at first, is actually where the dispute arose.

The problem is that its effects can be dependent on the seating arrangement of the players. Consider a four player game in which there is one player sitting on each side of a square table, like so:

A 4 player game

Fig. 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this case, the interpretation is quite simple and easy to put into practice. Pass Across sends the Hex to the player directly across from the one who played the card. The problems enter when there are different numbers of players in different configurations. Consider, for example, a three player game in which the players are sitting at regular intervals around a circular table, like this:

A 3 player game

Fig. 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No player has someone directly across from them.  In addition, no matter who Pass Across sends the hex to, they could have been reached with a Turn Aside Left or Turn Aside Right card.  Is Pass Across even a valid card in this scenario?  This was actually the easiest scenario to resolve.  As the game rules provide no real direction, in this case I would recommend allowing Pass Across to send the Hex to either of the other players.  In this way, you avoid having a large section of the deck become entirely useless, as rendering Pass Across invalid would do.  It is also in keeping with the somewhat vindictive, screw-the-other-guy-over spirit of the game (all in good fun of course) by allowing players to choose who they wish to target with the Hex.

However, a three player game was, as I mentioned, the easiest difficulty to resolve.  Consider instead a five player game taking place at a rectangular table, with two players on each length of the table and one at its head, as shown below:

A 5 player game - Problems!

Fig. 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Certain scenarios in this configuration seem quite simple. Player A plays a Pass Across card and sends the Hex to player E. Player D plays one and sends it to player B. The issues come in with that troublesome Player C. If each person can only use Pass Across to target the player directly across from them, then Player C cannot use the Pass Across card at all and no one can target him with it either. One could make the argument that Player C’s diminished capacity to receive the Hex is balanced by his diminished capacity to pass it on, but this line of thinking is not without its issues. The inherent randomness of dealing out a hand of cards could result in a scenario in which Player C has no Pass Across cards in his hand and thus is immune to a card that the other players likely possess while suffering no disadvantage for his immunity. Conversely, he could also be dealt a hand of nothing but Pass Across cards, and thus be entirely unable to act if the Hex is passed to him through other means.

Ultimately, though, this seems like a poor solution for the simple reason that it forces the rules to treat one player differently than the others in a game that is ostensibly supposed to be equally balanced. Now that we’ve ruled out the solution that we don’t want to use, it’s time to discuss what we actually do want to do in practice.

The solution my group came up with was to allow Pass Across to send the hex to anyone not adjacent to the one who played it. I will admit that this is not a perfect solution. It results in some counterintuitive restrictions. For example, Player A and Player E can no longer Pass Across to each other even though they are sitting directly across the table from each other. While it is not a perfect solution, it is a fair one. Each player can Pass Across to exactly two other players, and each player can receive a hex via Pass Across from those same two players. If you’re still bothered by the counterintuitive inability to Pass Across to someone directly across the table, try removing the table from your thinking and instead imagine the group just sitting in a circle all facing directly towards the center.

Perhaps more importantly though, this solution is good enough. By the time we reached this conclusion, my gaming group and I had discussed the issue for probably at least a half hour. Everyone was getting sick of the discussion and somewhat irritated with each other. At that point, it didn’t really matter what solution we went with, as long as we got back to actually playing the game. This may sound ironic on a blog dedicated to debating and discussing game rules, especially in a post that has already gone on so long on such an apparently simple issue, but rules debates in a game, while sometimes necessary, are frequently counter-productive. The most basic point of playing a game is to have fun, and a lengthy discussion on the finer points of the rules can bring that objective to a screeching halt. Those who don’t have a stake in the debate and aren’t involved in it can get bored and irritated with the players who are holding things up. Those involved in the debate can get frustrated and even genuinely angry at each other if things go too far, always something to be avoided between friends if possible. The next time you’re playing a game and a rules question comes up and no obvious solution presents itself quickly, consider just conceding the point, even if it would put you at a disadvantage. Think about it this way: which would you rather do, reach a quick, amicable solution that allows you to keep playing, even if you are inconvenienced, or hold up play for an extended period of time by engaging in a debate with no clear answer just to gain an advantage?

That kind of debate is better held after the game, when there isn’t so much riding on it and you’re not holding anything up by having it. Or better yet, write up the question and the arguments and send it in to supremecourtofgaming@gmail.com. You and your friends can keep gaming, and that way, if the answer isn’t what someone wanted, they can get mad at an anonymous person on the internet instead of at you.

Whew! Thanks for sticking with me through all of that folks, this was my first case and it kind of spiraled out of control in terms of length. There’s more to come soon, and the more you send in, the more I can post. My own gaming history can only provide so much, you guys have to provide the fuel to keep this blog going.

Until next time, happy gaming, and I hope to see you in court!

P.S.: If you’re a Hex Hex player, or just an interested reader, and you have another seating configuration you’d like a ruling on, feel free to submit it and I’ll add it on to the end of this post.