Monthly game profile for September: Exception-based rules, rules-play and nomic games

Hi everyone! This month we’re looking at games where you play the game by messing with the rules: games with exception-based rules.

This superficially sounds like a contradiction – aren’t games defined by their rules, and isn’t messing with them cheating? But in fact this is precisely the charm of these sorts of games: you get to shift the ground under yourself and your opponent as well as maneuvering the pieces over that ground.

(The rise in computer coding – itself a business of establishing rules that produce desired outcomes – and other careers in procedure-based design is almost certainly a key influence here. Games with fixed rules still have their charm, but for people used to creating rules it was inevitable that this would become a key locus of play.)

Exception-based rulesets are those where there is a general framework that applies unless some rules element says otherwise, with the specific overruling the general. (For instance, under the normal rules of a game, as a disincentive against drawing too many cards too quickly you might lose if you are required to draw a card but have none left to draw. However, if you have previously played a card that changes this rule and causes you to win in this situation instead, you might actively seek to empty your deck as fast as possible – regardless of your ability to play any of the cards.)

Perhaps the simplest of these games is a little card game called Fluxx. At the start of the game there is only one rule: on your turn, you draw a card and you play a card. Yes, if you’re paying attention, that’s correct – there is in fact not even a way to win the game. That comes with play.

The cards you play are of 4 types – Keepers, which are unique named cards that sit in front of you until something causes them to be moved or discarded; Actions, which have an effect and are then discarded; Goals, which establish victory conditions (such as “have these two specific Keepers in front of you”, “have this many cards in hand”, “have this Keeper and not that one” and so on) and cause previous Goals to be discarded; and Rules, which change some aspect of the game – such as turn order, how many cards to draw or play, and more.

What this means in effect is that both the objective of the game and the rules by which you seek to achieve it are subject to constant manipulation by your opponents – and, of course, you. It sounds complex, but in fact after a single playthrough or two you will have the hang of it and will be gleefully stealing your opponents’ Keepers, swapping your hand of zero cards for their hand of five, and changing the Goal just before your opponent matches its conditions and wins the game.

It also, when you reflect upon it, teaches some interesting lessons about opportunities and information, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time (or maybe the comments).

This is the most basic form of rules-play, but there are many other examples. Calvinball is of course worth mentioning in this regard (among others; Calvinball is often worth mentioning). Then you have the games Nomic, and (for those wanting to test their deductive reasoning) Mao… but perhaps the best-known games of this type are the entire new genre they enabled, the collectible card game, or CCG.

The CCG genre was first originated by mathematician Richard Garfield with his 1993 game Magic: the Gathering, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year and currently has somewhere over 12,000 different cards (and is also Turing-complete, meaning that with the correct arrangement of cards and gamestate you can simulate the logic governing the functioning of a Turing machine, aka a computer). Our sponsor for this year, Yu-Gi-Oh!, is one of the more popular entrants into this field, running regular local and international tournaments – an upcoming guest post will discuss one library’s experience of hosting Yu-Gi-Oh! play.

CCGs are especially predisposed to exception-based rules and rules-play, because the nature of the medium (cards, easily printed with rules text; sold in randomised boosters, conferring little ability to predict which cards a player might receive) means that the best place to explain how each card affects the game is on the card itself. Many times the card will simply perform standard operations within existing rules frameworks, negatively affecting your opponent or improving your own position, but when the rules are on the card it’s possible for them to overwrite the standard rules, so that for instance you might have a card that prevents your opponent from taking certain actions, or doubles the effect of some of your own actions, or even means you can’t lose until it’s removed from play.  The ability to change the normal rules of play also prolongs the life of the game, because it allows you to add new rules elements in addition to printing variants within existing rules.

All this, combined with the possibility of prize money worth thousands and international competition, and the evolving backstory created to support (and be told on the cards of) the new sets, makes CCGs a potentially endlessly absorbing hobby. Their susceptibility to theft and damage makes them difficult for libraries to hold in our collections, but they can form the basis of terrific programs with a great deal of fun to be had in the library. They are also terrific for developing not only traditional numeracy (since most games require basic number-juggling) and literacy (since you have to read the cards), they also give players incentives to read more traditional forms of tie-in fiction. And lastly, they foster the ability to process basic procedural logic and the ability to read systems – a topic we’ll discuss further in a couple of weeks.



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