The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Fiddling About

Kevin Maroney

August, 2000

My friend Philip once showed me the rules to a game invented by an acquaintance of his who wanted some advice on getting the game published. It was a war game based on the American Civil War. Its core system was simple—three types of units (cavalry, artillery, and infantry) moved on a large array of square spaces, shooting at each other. If the game had stopped there, it would have been a simple, playable (if bland) game.

But it didn't stop there.

Three-quarters of the rules were a confused mess of special cases designed to simulate the Civil War troop formations, giving special movement and combat abilities to arbitrary arrangements of pieces that formed "lines" similar to those actually used by troops in the Civil War.

This struck me as bass-ackward. Historical Civil War formations arose not because commanders would get a movement bonus from an arbitrary sequence of troops, but because certain formations made the best use of the unique abilities of the troops. In an elegant historical situation, historical tactics and strategies emerge bottom-up from the inherent properties of the units, not top-down from a set of arbitrary rules designed to force historical tactics and strategies.

Let's take this as a working definition of "elegance" in game rules: The more universally the general rules of a game apply, the more elegant the rules. Contrariwise, a "fiddly" rule is one that violates the general pattern to create a special case; the more a specific rule stands outside of the general pattern of the rules of a game, the more fiddly it is.

Rhetorically, I've just stacked the deck. Given a choice between "fiddly" and "elegant," who's going to choose "fiddly?" But, of course, no one sets out to create a fiddly rule for its own sake. Sometimes such rules are necessary to fix a problem with an otherwise elegant game; sometimes they improve the thematic or simulation value of the game; and sometimes they spice up a game by creating interesting special situations which the players can explore.

Fiddling While Rome Burns

War games are the playground of the fiddly rule. A war game will frequently start with a simple core of rules—say movement, combat resolution, and victory—and then pile on special case after special case: Unique units with unusual abilities, leaders, different systems for infantry vs. armor, air support, weather conditions, special events, and so forth and so on.

Fiddly rules can be found in strategic war games or tactical. Advanced Squad Leader (by John Hill, Don Greenwood, Bob McNamara, et al.) is the most complex tactical war game ever created. The rulebook is sold as a stand-alone package: a three-ring notebook with hundreds of pages detailing such elements as sewer movement, setting buildings on fire, scrounging for ammo, and Russian troops going berserk. At the other end of the scale is Europa, John Astell's monster game series of World War II at the division level, which has rules covering such esoterica as bridge demolition, variable railroad gauges, seven different types of air missions, frozen lakes, and railroad artillery. In both games, the fiddly rules are designed to enhance the historical verisimilitude, though at the cost of system elegance. But the very complexity of these game is part of their appeal—Advanced Squad Leader grew out of the much simpler game Squad Leader because players wanted more detail, more units, and (with them) more interesting scenarios.

In the field of role playing games, the last fifteen years have seen a battle between elegance and fiddly rules. Steve Jackson's GURPS is probably the modern exemplar of the fiddly RPG. At the core of GURPS is a very simple system, which is described in a mere two pages. But piled on top of this simple system is a breathtaking set of special cases—hundreds of skills, abilities, spells, weapons, devices, and so forth, all of which overlay the basic system, sometimes to the point of impenetrability. (Editor's note: While it's longer than 2 pages there is a free version of GURPS available at http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/lite/.)

At the other extreme is Jonathan Tweet's Over the Edge, which has a simple resolution system that can be applied to any situation from two players having an argument to two countries engaging in nuclear warfare. GURPS puts the burden on the game system to come up with a special rule for every special situation, and sometimes does it very well; Over the Edge puts the burden on the game master to fit every special situation to the simple mechanics.

Certainly, war games and RPGs aren't alone. Francis Tresham's 1830 is a highly abstracted economic game about the development of the American railroad network. The basic system is elegant, with stock prices, train types, and track construction forming a tight interlocking system. However, at the start of the game, the players buy six "private companies," each of which has its own special power that violates the standard rules of the game. These private companies act to "seed" the game with variability—every player develops a slightly different set of interests based on the special abilities of the private companies. Here, the fiddly rules help keep the game lively by creating a different starting situation every game.

Icehouse Rules

IcehouseEven some abstract games have manifestly fiddly rules. John Cooper and Andrew Looney's game Icehouse is generally elegant. Most of the game consists of placing pyramids (worth 1, 2, and 3 points depending on their size) on the board either as "defenders" (pointing up) or as "attackers" (pointing at other pyramids). A defending piece is said to be "iced" if more points of attacking pieces are attacking it than its value. A defending piece is worth its point value at the end of the game if it is not iced; an attacking piece is worth its point value if it is part of a successful "icing" attack.

In general, Icehouse offense is easier than defense. Left to themselves, players would much rather place attacking pieces than defending ones, which would cause the game to grind to a halt because no one would place a defending piece. So there are a pair of fiddly rules designed to force players to play defensively. At the start of the game, a player must place two pieces defensively, and the "icehouse" rule says that if a player reaches a certain point in the game with no uniced defending pieces, that player is out of the game. Neither of these rules rises elegantly out of the general rules, but without them the game falls apart. Unfortunately, there might not have been a more elegant solution available without changing the game immensely.

Go board and stonesGo Moku ("Five stones") is a classic Japanese game familiar to Americans under the name Five in a Row. Two players takes turns placing white and black stones on a Go board trying to get five stones in a row.

Unfortunately, Go Moku strongly favors the first player—it is almost certain that the first player has a forced win, although this has not yet been proven. To address this disparity, many serious players of Go Moku have moved toward the game of Renju. Renju has the same basic goal and game-play as Go Moku, but with some crucial differences. The opening moves of Renju are limited to a small set of standard openings—the first (black) stone must be placed at the center of the board, then the next two pieces in one of a small number of possible arrangements around the center. In addition, the second player can, during the opening turns, swap places with the first player, so that the second player plays black instead of the first player. And there are also restrictions on the legal moves that the black player can take during the play of the game—for instance, black cannot win the game with a line of six stones, but white can. (The full rules of Renju and some history can be found at http://www.lemes.se/renju/r1rulhis.htm.)

Renju is clearly much less elegant than Go Moku—there are fiddly rules restricting play at all points of the game. But the gain is significant: Renju is significantly deeper than Go Moku. While some versions of Go Moku have been solved by computer analysis, for Renju it isn't even yet known whether the game favors the first or second player. Tournament Renju is a spectator sport in Japan, and the game is gaining in popularity in the West as well. (A different approach to "fixing" Go Moku is the game Pente, in which players can win by capturing their opponent's pieces as well as by getting five stones in a row.)

And that brings us, circuitously, back around to Chess. Last month, I wrote a column about two of the Chess variants I've invented; one of them, "Ur Chess," is "chess with all the fiddly rules removed." If you haven't read it, you might want to take a look at it now: (Varying Chess). Unsurprisingly, my somewhat cavalier and sweeping changes to this classic game poked the buttons of some Chess adherents.

- Kevin Maroney

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