If you’ve ever visited the forums of Board Game Geek, you’ve probably noticed that they have a separate subsection for possible variants of any given game. The temptation to make house rules seems irresistible, at least to some of us – but not to all.
How are variants made?
It seems to be almost a rule: the longer a game is played, the more people play it. The more people play a game, the more versions of the game come into existence – often by accident. Many variants are born because of reading a rule wrong, and finding an alternate, albeit interesting, way to play a game. Sometimes such a variant becomes a new game, as Alien Frontiers was reputedly spawned from a misreading (and misplay) of Kingsburg by Tory Niemann.
Variants also come into being out of a desire to make a game better, or to prolong its life. It’s great to see someone passionate about a game invent new ways to play it. The important thing here is the creators exhaustive knowledge of the modified game, as it often makes a new variant both interesting and balanced (especially after some play testing). Sometimes such a passionate creator is the designer herself, in which case variants are already printed in the rulebook.
On the other hand, if the knowledge is lacking, a variant may either break a game or distort one of its key elements, utterly annihilating the hard work of designers, developers and testers. It’s truly horrifying, right?
How are variants perceived?
Turning a game on its head, rebuilding some of its important internal structures, is perceived by some as almost a crime. What you receive boxed and shrink wrapped is exactly what the designer or publisher wanted to give you, so why would you make any changes? Love the game or hate it for exactly what it is – or for what it is not.
There are both gamers and designers with this mind set. The former will simply never change anything in a game. They perceive it as a complete work, and are either ready to accept a game for what it is, or to reject it altogether. The latter will often believe that their work should be assessed based on the same principle – with exactly the same outcome. Those designers should, however, probably stay away from the internet.
There is, of course, an approach almost completely opposite: a game once played belongs to the player, and they not only can, but also should do whatever they want. It’s an idea popularized by Scott Nicholson, one of the founding fathers of the video game review, a librarian, a professor, and – for a short time – a designer himself. It’s also the idea I tend to subscribe to, as a designer, and as a gamer.
Is there a grey area?
It’s more than reasonable to expect to find a complete game in a box we open up for the first time. A community created variant should not be a crutch without which a game is unplayable. But what about games with tiny modifications that made them much more enjoyable?
I’m not here to judge anyone, even despite my own belief. Personally I do think that a game should be completed before shipping it to stores, but I don’t see variants as a strike against its independence as a piece of entertainment. That being said, I see a lot of validity in claims that a game should be the best version of itself right out of the box.
The problem here is that it will never be just that for everyone. One of the best examples for me is pretty much any game with information that is both hidden and trackable. I know exactly why designers decide that some information (that can still be tracked) should be hidden from other players, but I just tend to ignore the rule on account of having good enough memory to be able to track at least some of the hidden information regardless of player shields or single-sided coins. If a game is not based on memory, I will gladly level the playing field, and enjoy it a little more myself, not having to store everybody’s stocks in my brain all the time.
Again, this will not work for everyone, and some people will disagree with this approach, as some will disagree with my general attitude towards variants. And while more radical approaches appear, I think that the majority of gamers falls (more or less) into this grey area when it comes to variants – ready to loosen or crank up a few screws, but by far not looking to overhaul games in general.
So, what is your approach?