Games Gist

Family Gaming

Game Tinkering

One key to happiness – GAMES

Two events in the past week made me give some thought to the idea of tinkering with games.

When I joined BoardGameGeek in 2004, I uploaded a bunch of digital photos (all of too-large size, before I learned better) and information about a couple of games that did not then exist in the database. One of those games, with two photos, was The Last Card. This is a trick-taking card game. I cannot even recall where I purchased it or how I learned about it, but I acquired it in 2001. Our family group played it a number of times, enjoying it less and less, until we finally stopped bringing it to the table. I rated it “3” on BGG.

Last week, while I was reviewing and updating my games ratings on BGG (three cheers for me), I noticed that another person now is shown as owning the game – BGG username mike86. Not only does he own the game, but he has posted an excellent review of it, noting that it is one of his favorite card games (and this is from a serious Bridge player). Well, that got my attention, so I read the review to find out what he liked about it. It turned out that he and we had different interpretations of one of the rules, a key rule. After pulling out the game and studying the rules again, I could see how he arrived at his interpretation, but also believed ours was a reasonable interpretation. I wasn’t interested in debating which interpretation was correct; I wanted to find out whether his rules would make the game more interesting for us.

Four of us played two hands of the game this weekend, just to try the “new” rules. We did, indeed, find the game more interesting, although it was difficult for us to get our heads around the change. We had a lot of discussion about what cards could be played each round. In the end, we agreed that it would be worthwhile trying it with our full group (our son was off on a skiing weekend, so wasn’t there to try it). We will try it soon with the whole group, and it’s possible this old game might come out of the closet once again.

Later in the week, I noticed Coldfoot had posted an audio review of Carcassonne on his blog (although it is apparently far from being a favorite game for him). I have enjoyed his audio reviews, and Carcassonne is one of our family favorites, so I decided to see what he had to say about it. As always, he does an excellent job of clearly explaining a game, and when he mentioned the restriction of not playing a meeple on a road, city, or field on a tile you are playing that adjoins another tile that already contains a meeple on that road, city, or field, I was taken aback. I thought, “That can’t be right. I know that’s the rule in Hunters & Gatherers, but in Carcassonne, you are allowed to play a meeple under those conditions. That’s why we have so many battles over stealing or sharing cities, roads, and fields in our games.” Well, I pulled out the game and the rules and found, to my great embarrassment and consternation, that he was absolutely correct (no surprise there). We have been playing and loving Carcassonne for four years, with an incorrect understanding of a key rule. When I read the rule sheet, it was extremely clear about that point, with excellent illustrations to explain it. We cannot imagine how we not only missed that point when we learned the game, but also why we didn’t re-check the rules in Carcassonne when we acquired Hunters & Gatherers and found that same rule in it. We thought the H&G rules had made a change in the playing of meeples, which reduced very much the direct conflicts over ownership of the point-makers that we experienced in Carcassonne. It never dawned on any of us to re-read the Carcassonne rules. Amazing!

Well, we’ll give Carcassonne a try with the correct rules, but, as I told Coldfoot, we may unanimously decide to play by our unintentional modification of that rule. It may be that we enjoy the game so much because of that misinterpretation.

Hunters & Gatherers is very popular with our family group. We have liked it from the beginning. However, we enjoy it even more when we apply some suggested rules modifications posted on BGG. We play with the aurochs (according to Wikipedia, aurochs is both singular and plural) tiles and with the proposed changes that allow aurochs to “chase away” a tiger when the aurochs is played, plus the scoring bonus that makes deer in the same valley more valuable when an aurochs tile is played there. These changes have increased the challenge of H&G for us and made it even more fun.

I can recall a number of Forum and GeekList discussions on BGG about game play modifications. Some people (I would consider them to be game purists) believe a game should only be played according to the written rules. Others feel that if some modification of rules or other parts of a game makes it more fun, more challenging, more interesting, or more playable, they have no problem doing so (I would consider them to be game tinkerers). My family and I fall into the latter category. We always (attempt to and intend to) play a game by the printed rules. If it works well, we stick to it. If it doesn’t work well for us, we will consider changing something and experimenting with modifications. If it still doesn’t work well for us, or if we can’t come up with a good change, we will shelve (and probably dispose of) the game. Well, I didn’t get rid of The Last Card game, but kept it simply because I thought it might have a future with us, somehow (fortunately).

One game which we believe was much improved by two home modifications is Trumpet. When we first played Trumpet in 2001, it became an instant hit with us. After playing it almost every weekend for a couple of months (sometimes two or three games in the same day), we decided that (although we really liked it) there were two things about the game that did bother us a bit. We did not like the fact that a person who first reached the Change Trump space just two spaces back from the finish line could usually win the game, since that person could change trumps, take two tricks, and win. We decided to eliminate that unbalancing opportunity. We actually drew an “X” through that space on the board; it is still a usable space on the board, but landing on it does not allow the person to change trumps. We believe this better balances the game, allowing players farther back a better chance to catch up before the game ends. The other change we made was regarding the initial placement of trump designators on the board in the early stage of the game. The rules require that, until all six designators are on the six trump spaces, each succeeding Change Trump space landing causes the player to put on the next higher trump indicator space a color that is not already in play. This forces the person who places the final designator to have no choice; it is frequently not to his advantage to change the trumps in that case. After all six designators are on the board, the player who can make a trump change can exchange any two of the designators. We believed that a player who manages to land on a Change Trump space at any time during the game should always be allowed to name the top trump, so we modified the rules to allow players in the beginning stage of the game to move an already-played trump designator up to the highest available trump indicator space and place a new color on the vacated space. This allows the same opportunity for changing and designating trumps throughout the game. These two changes made the game virtually perfect for us, and we played that game to death. In fact, we wore out several decks of cards, and I acquired at least four additional copies of the game, just to have new decks on hand (expensive, since it was out of print by then). Although we don’t play the game too often these days, it is still one of our favorite trick-taking card games.

Another form of game modification which we have sometimes used is to give younger players a “positive handicap” that makes it easier for them to compete with adults. I did this as far back as the 1970’s, when our kids were young, in games such as Battleship, and we did it this weekend to make Scattergories more fun for our young granddaughter. We have not done this often, but sometimes it has seemed important to make the game playing-field more level, when adults play certain games with children.

In the case of Carcassonne, our “interpretation” of the rules was absolutely wrong, but it may have resulted in a game that we will enjoy more than if we play by the true rules. In The Last Card, the rules, I believe, can be legitimately interpreted in more than one way; finding which way makes a better game is the goal. For Trumpet, for creating handicaps for children, and for Hunters & Gatherers, the rules/board modifications we made have been deliberate, to make the game more balanced, interesting, challenging, or fun.

When we purchase a game, especially a relatively-expensive game, we want to enjoy it. If the rules are not as clear as they should be, or if a modification of a rule or something on the board makes it more fun for us, we will “re-interpret” or change the rule or make a board change without hesitation. If we unintentionally misread a rule, we will certainly correct our play when we learn of our mistake, although we may later decide to ignore the true rule, if we prefer playing with our misinterpretation. We only tinker with a game deliberately if we find the change makes it more fun for us to play.

Certainly, if I were competing in a game tournament or playing with strangers at a game convention, or joining a new gaming group, I would want to know and understand the true rules and play by them. For family gaming fun on weekends, that is not so important. Sometimes, tinkering with a game makes it better.

— Gerald … near Denver, Colorado; February 2006
aka gamesgrandpa — A grandpa who is a mile high on gaming


February 12, 2006 - Posted by | Games


  1. Go tinkerers! 🙂

    Comment by Yehuda | February 12, 2006 | Reply

  2. Another very enjoyable and interesting post, Gerald.

    I’m particularly interested in what you did to Scattergories, because that is a game that our Biggie enjoys very much. We have successfully made “house scoring” rules for both it and Boggle so that she competes pretty much on a level with us.

    In Scattergories, our rule is that she has only to get six (or seven or eight) of the categories and we then score only those categories that she got. The first couple of times we played, she got to score if only one other person had the same word, but we ditched that very quickly as we felt it didn’t fit the spirit of the game as well as the reduced number of categories.

    In Boggle, we’ve allowed 2-letter words, and shifted all the scores one to the left for her only – we still have to get words of 3 or more letters.

    Actually, it’s been so long since we played Boggle, we may be able to get rid of some of those advantages.

    Comment by Melissa | February 12, 2006 | Reply

  3. Melissa —

    Yesterday was the first time Natalia had played Scattergories. After a couple of rounds, I suggested she be allowed to use more than one letter to start the answers — the one rolled and her choice of the letter either before or after the rolled one in the alphabet. An “L” was rolled; she could come up with answers beginning with “L” and answers beginning with either “K” or “M”, her choice before we began the game. Afterwards, my wife suggested that next time we play, we will allow Natalia to find answers with both letters on either side of the rolled one. We will try that, but I think she will be competitive with just two letters.

    Our daughter’s family has played Boggle a lot, and I know they allowed the kids to make 2-letter words. Don’t know what else they did to even the playing-field. As an aside, I think playing Boggle has been a major help for our grandkids to learn spelling. I’ll write something about that soon.

    Comment by Gerald McD | February 13, 2006 | Reply

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