Come to think of it, quite a few games include rules that modify other rules. For example, rules that vary according to the number of players, the phase, or the chosen faction or scenario. And we have quite a few terms to designate such rules, namely variable, adaptable, modular, or even customizable. The thing is, these kinds of rules are usually changed once and for all, at specific times such as during setup, and aim at creating variety—504 (2015), by Friedemann Friese, comes to mind here. And this is what distinguishes them from mutable, or “self-modifying” rules. Because those are changed at any time during play, sometimes many times over, or in a continuous fashion; they fluctuate, according to the game’s state, just like any other of the game’s parameters. Such rule sets are much less frequent. Successful ones even less so. Maybe because it is more difficult to get a game out of them.
Just like computer programs that are capable of modifying the very code they run on, games with mutable rules are made of a few master rules, (meta-rules) according to which all other rules will be changed, by different players, under different conditions and circumstances, mostly during play and in an arbitrary and unpredictable way. Which leads to animated, bewildering and chaotic sessions, more interesting by the constant surprise, thrill, reactions, negotiations, than for opportunities to develop strategies or skills.
Some systems with rules that are more or less mutable are truly original designs. Fluxx (Andrew and Kristin Looney, 1997) or Cosmic Encounter (Peter Olotka,1977, 2008) are commercially successful games that implement mutable rules to some extent.
In Nomic, players propose and debate modifications to the rules, vote on them, and decide what will happen next. This is the core of the game that can, of course, be modified. Nomic is more of a reflection on Law than a game. So the question of determining if it is a good game or not is secondary.
Here again, come to think of it, what we call a self-modifying rule is a paradox. An illusion. That is why some argue against using this term. Because that kind of rule is freely modifiable during play, with no stability and predictability, it is hardly a rule at all. It’s more of a trick.
We can divide any game into two parts: its fixed parts—the rules— and its movable parts—the parameters, the values that get changed by the rules during play. For instance, available money or resources, the value of areas, player order, even the game’s length itself. Those are parameters. And it is up to the rules to determine when, how, by whom and by how much those parameters will be changed. Forming a game’s mechanics.
Well, in the case of mutable rules, the illusion comes from the displacement of the dividing line between these two parts, the demarcation between what is a rule and what is a parameter. The designer took a bunch of rules and decided that in fact they were parameters—but kept calling them rules. And voilà.
But even the most chaotic games with mutable rules do have—and need, of course—static, immutable rules. If, for example, every card played during a game of Fluxx can create such disruption, it is only because one fundamental rule says that we must execute what’s written on each card.
Games such as Nomic raise interesting questions though. How far can we go in this direction? What’s the minimal amount of “real”, static rules a game needs to keep being a game?
References and Further Browsing
- Mutable, on Etymonline
- Self-modifying code, on Wikipedia
- Fluxx (1997), on Boardgamegeek
- Chaos (2010), on Boardgamegeek
- Proteus (1983), on Boardgamegeek
- Nomic, on Boardgamegeek
- 504, on Boardgamegeek
- The Card Game, A self-modifying game
- Terminology: Ever-changing rules, on Boardgamegeek
- Terminology: Mutable rules, on Boardgamegeek
- Mutable rules, on Boardgamegeek
- Nomic, a game of Self-Amendment, by Peter Suber
- Peter Suber, on Wikipedia
- A game of Nomic
- Universal Mutator: Nomic, on The Game Changer Channel
- What is the Postmodern game?, on Boardgamegeek
- A Question about changing rules, by Geoff Engelstein