The Constitutionality of Rules

signing-constitution Painting by Howard Chandler Christy

Today's post is me transcribing and odd thought process going through my head the last few days. The thesis is a tinge weak, but I find the notion fascinating and hopefully it leads to useful thoughts in your own mind.

I love the United States Supreme Court. I don't always love their decisions, but I love the institution and think it is one of the more brilliant creations of the founders of the United States. The court exists to provide long-term, precedent setting interpretations of our almost 230 year old Constitution. The document, meant to be a living, breathing, evolving supreme law, must change to adapt to the modern world.

It's fuzzy, intentionally so, and the few words of the Bill of Rights (for example) will be debated probably until the end of our republic (which I don't foresee, but who knows). The Second Amendment is particularly prone to wildly varying interpretation. It reads:

"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

Does this mean only the militia should exist and be armed? Anyone can have arms? Is there a limit to the type and quality? Security of a free state implies their use being for defense against external forces, whereas guns are often advocated for self-protection, particularly in the case of criminal instances. I'm not trying to make commentary on this topic, merely prove the point that 27 words have a million interpretations.

Please don't turn this into a gun debate. It's not the point of this article.

In stark contrast, the rules of our games are intended to be taken literally with zero interpretation or wiggle room. Any fuzziness is derided and is seen as poor craftsmanship on the part of the designer/publisher. If there is a set rule structure that must be followed to enjoy the game, well, that makes sense. But, and this is where my thesis begins to lose its momentum, I'm curious if we can or should craft games with a more interpretive rule set?

In a sense, many RPGs already do this. Many are a sandbox of rules that you can pick and choose from in order to craft the adventure or session to your liking. Mods, to borrow a PC gaming term, are an accepted and encouraged standard of the medium. I wager few D&D designers are upset when people home rule a rogue's ruling to maximize fun.

Home ruling exists to some degree in board games, for a few cases. One, to fix a broken element in an otherwise solid game. I imagine this is frustrating to a designer, as it means they botched it, or that people disagree with a decision that might otherwise work. In other cases, people just want to layer or tweak things to suit their personality or play style. I know Jerry Hawthorne is outspokenly in favor of folks home ruling Mice and Mystics.

But, I'm not sure in either of those cases the mods are intentional. The interpretation is a byproduct for some users, not necessarily the main course. The strength of the Constitution is that it can be reinterpreted, widely applied, and amended to re-address current wrongs.

I imagine a few scenarios.

Imagine a broad, operational game of war in which the rules of engagement and the rules of war are re-defined and enforced over time. Perhaps you have 6 independent countries, none allied for any cause. Country A employs chemical weapons, let's say Mustard Gas, against Country B. Country B may be able to build a coalition about this, due to a moral mechanic baked into the game, or perhaps the strategic importance. Perhaps the other countries have a lack of their own chemical weapons to employ. Moral outrage, for them, is convenient. The court in this case would be a United Nations or Geneva Conventions like body.

This wouldn't result in a rule that is taken from a table of options. We the players would define how it works. Perhaps Mustard Gas can only be used in a war that has stalemated. Perhaps an army is limited to 3 machine guns. These are weak ideas, but it's a quick brainstorm.

The rules shift and can be reinterpreted such that Country A adjusts their behavior. Or, doesn't, with consequences.

A second thought. Imagine an economic game at the turn of the 20th century. Children work in factories, labor unions have limited power, women can't vote. I'm speaking of the United States, by the way. Obviously you would need to sacrifice economic game complexity to facilitate the other mechanics (or not, if you're going for the uber game). But, let's say Company A leverages child labor. Or, they pay their words a very poor wage. In this game, Company B could similarly compete, OR, as a strategy, they could bring suit and attempt to alter the rules of the game.

Here's where it gets interesting -- instead of me plopping a card down that defines HOW it's changed, we, as players, decide the new laws. We, mid-game, define the rules we must follow.

Right now, I'm appendingĀ some fuzzy social elements to rather traditional game structures. I began this article by tying this all to the United States Constitution, so let's get a bit weirder. What if the game were in two parts: the preamble (so to speak) and the game. Let's say this is a 1-2 hour experience. Probably leaning towards the 2. Let's call it 2.

The game would provide a broad swath of rules, ideas, and notions. It would provide the components to support these rules. Perhaps cards with symbols and various reference points for them. In one Constitution, blue square means one thing. In another, it's different. Your group's constitution could create an economic game. A game of Machiavellian politics. You could almost see the preamble phase as you defining the challenge of your country. After all, the issues of agrarian 19th century America are quite different than industrial, global super power 1970s America. Or, the country of your choice.

I love the idea of two groups meeting to discuss their interpretations. Or, two groups, or a community of online groups, sharing their interpretations and games. I think the key is making it simple to create legitimate and fun "constitutions" in the preamble. It's all too easy to try to make everyone a game designer when really, most people don't WANT to be game designers. They want to be players.

This is a weird thought exercise, and I'm not sure it delivered on its premise. I'm relatively certain it didn't. But, perhaps it will generate a thought in your head to conceive a more perfect thesis.

Comments

This makes me think of Nomic (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/14451/nomic), a game that is all about creating and altering its own rules. It's a little mindblowing.

Nomic is probably the purest essence of what you're going for, but there's also Twilight Imperium, in which players vote on rule modifications in the game, or the trick-taking game Njet!, in which each player who wins a trick establishes a rule for the next trick.

I just think we are crazy as designers to not want house rules.

It means the game is compelling and being played.

Invite community and engagement for variants and house rules.

Do you make rules about what rules can be made? If so, how much imagination can your game really support? If not, how much more game can you put in the box? I'm thinking there's not much room in between the two extremes.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/gamesalute/emperors-new-clothes

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/239309591/storyteller-cards-a-playing-card-deck-to-inspire-c/posts/481528

Wow, Nomic is exactly this game. The How to Play document even gets really deep into the Constitutional and law-making concepts and the experience that the game is intended to deliver. But the rules feel like a legal document to me. They may encourage that experience where players are debating over the interpretation of rules, but I think it might feel too much like work. If I was playing, I would promptly propose rules that simplify the existing rules. That's one thing the game definitely has going for it; it will naturally adapt itself to the preferences of any group.

Yes, Calvinball IS fun...

now, a slightly more adult version wherein the framework of the rules is sort of defined, and a PROCESS by which they are changed, and their interpretative limits is agreed upon by some mechanism would make for a VERY fun, and, frankly, ingenious new tabletop game mechanic.

If I can steal this, I will! ;)

Nomic was groundbreaking, but for me, if the rule change can be more thematically bound somehow- less abstracted, that would make this idea a lot more fun to implement.