Nomic is a game of law creation and legislation invented by Peter Suber and presented in his book The Paradox of Self Amendment. The game was also presented in the Metamagical Themas column of Scientific American by Douglas Hofstadter.

It starts out with a minimal ruleset, which lays out a framework, gives a simple method of winning, and gives a workable set of rules for changing those rules. Players then start out taking turns proposing rule changes and voting on those changes.

Games can diverge wildly from the initial ruleset, because it all depends on the whims of the players, and there are no set limits to what the rules can become. Even the rules for how the rules are changed can themself be changed, or eliminated completely, if the players decide. Absolutely no statement about the goals of the game, or how the game is played, can apply to ever game of Nomic, because absolutely everything can be changed.

I would have to say that Nomic is very much like Everything in a way. After all, everything takes on the personality of its noders as they add content, vote, and the like. Similarly, a nomic will take on the personality of its players as they create, change, and remove rules.

In more general terms, a nomic is something that is generally valid, sometimes to the extent of being a law of nature. 'Nomic' may mean 'ordinary', 'conventional', or 'guaranteed'.

In my limited experience with it used in a philosophical context it is used to mean guaranteed via the laws of nature.

Relating to a musical nome, that is, having to do with an ancient Greek musical piece played either as an instrumental or to accompany the recitation of epics.

Games are based on rules; this is the one commonality all games share. Under all the graphics, all the historical settings, all the phasers, tanks and ancient weapons there are rock solid rules to learn and observe.

Many games, most games in fact, have rules sets which are clearly spelled out and forever set in stone. . Once you had the game rules in your head you were set to play the game from then on.

Many games, but not all. There are games that treat rules with less permanence than what you might be used to, games where the rules are a good place to start but not the end of the road.

The first game I came across where this sort of rules mutation was built into the very core of the game was Nomic (1). Back in the early 1980’s Douglas Hofstadter was writing the games column in Scientific American, a task he took over from Martin Gardener. In one column Hofstadter wrote about a game invented by Peter Suber, called Nomic.

The game starts off with an initial set of rules. The rules lay out the basic game play and the mechanics for how new rules can be added as well as old rules changed. The rules become the playing field and the playing field changes as you play on it. Over the course of the game the very fabric of the game can twist and mutate so that you are playing a very different game than what you started with.

Nomic was the game that started me wondering how the rules and the goal of the game interact. With most games you use the rules to reach a goal, a victory condition, or an objective. In Nomic you could well play yourself into a game with no end in sight, where the mutating of the rules becomes the point of the game. Of course you will be playing with other people whose ideas of the games point will be different, thus from turn to turn even the rules that govern changing the rules may change. You might think your playing a purely procedural, rules for rules sake game, only to find that it becomes a goal driven one.

Over time I found other games that did some of this rules mutation. One famous rules mutation game is Magic The Gathering (2). There is a core set of rules and then there are the rules on the cards. The rules on the cards take precedence over the core rules such that as new cards are released the very nature of the game changes.

The idea of rules mutation via new cards opened up the playability of Magic beyond its original card set. If certain flaws in the game balance were found new cards were published to over come them. There is an official allowed card list for tournament play that ensures a well-balanced game can be had. Old cards that open flaws or imbalances in the game are disallowed while new card sets are rotated in on a clocklike timetable.

There was a time when certain strategies could win most games of Magic but over time new cards were published that altered the balance of the game. Once powerful decks had to be retuned, new cards needed to be purchased. Over time the cycle of disallowed cards and releasing new ones had its die-hard players calling the game Magic, the Gathering of Your Money.

One of the key ways Magic differs from Nomic is that the players are not altering the rules rather the game developers are doing it for them. The players are back to simply playing the game for a set goal and then periodically mutating their game style to fit the new card sets. Magic also made these rules changes items of scarcity, that is the cards with the new rules and abilities were published in limited runs. Cards with rules that gave the player the best advantages were printed in less numbers than more common rule cards. This opened up Magic into the wide world of card trading. The art of the deal to acquire the best rule cards become as much of a game to many players as the playing of the game itself.

The idea of a Nomic like game using cards is the core idea for Dvorak (3). Dvorak itself is a core set of rules for playing Nomic like games with a set of predesigned or user made cards. Dvorak is also a web site run by Kevan Davis that houses the rules, the mutations and all the information a player or designer needs to get into the game.

Dvoark can be played in one of three ways.
  • You can start with the core rules and a card deck created by some one else.
  • You can start with the core rules and a deck you and the other players create collaboratively.
  • You can just start core rules and work at odds with the other players to make a card set that ensure your victory.

    The core rules of Dvorak are fairly easy to learn much as Nomics are. They are the foundation for base game mechanics and rule mutation. Over the course of the game though the cards can take precedence over the core rules.

    The Dvorak players have created more than a few decks to start games off with. There are decks about mediaeval warfare, hacking, horror, science fiction, abstract and a Dvorak version of the board game Candyland.

    Like the Nomic and Magic fanatics, Dvorak players have worked out ways to play real time over the Net. This opens up the pool of potential players to just about anyone with a modem and Net access. It also opens up the development process to more and varied collaborations.

  • This is the initial set of rules for Nomic. It consists of two categories, immutable rules and mutable rules. Immutable rules cannot be changed, unless they are first "transmuted" into mutable rules. Mutable rules may be altered without this first step.

    Immutable Rules

    101. All players must always abide by all the rules then in effect, in the form in which they are then in effect. The rules in the Initial Set are in effect whenever a game begins. The Initial Set consists of Rules 101-116 (immutable) and 201-213 (mutable).

    102. Initially rules in the 100's are immutable and rules in the 200's are mutable. Rules subsequently enacted or transmuted (that is, changed from immutable to mutable or vice versa) may be immutable or mutable regardless of their numbers, and rules in the Initial Set may be transmuted regardless of their numbers.

    103. A rule-change is any of the following:
    (1) the enactment, repeal, or amendment of a mutable rule;
    (2) the enactment, repeal, or amendment of an amendment of a mutable rule; or
    (3) the transmutation of an immutable rule into a mutable rule or vice versa.

    (Note: This definition implies that, at least initially, all new rules are mutable; immutable rules, as long as they are immutable, may not be amended or repealed; mutable rules, as long as they are mutable, may be amended or repealed; any rule of any status may be transmuted; no rule is absolutely immune to change.)

    104. All rule-changes proposed in the proper way shall be voted on. They will be adopted if and only if they receive the required number of votes.

    105. Every player is an eligible voter. Every eligible voter must participate in every vote on rule-changes.

    106. All proposed rule-changes shall be written down before they are voted on. If they are adopted, they shall guide play in the form in which they were voted on.

    107. No rule-change may take effect earlier than the moment of the completion of the vote that adopted it, even if its wording explicitly states otherwise. No rule-change may have retroactive application.

    108. Each proposed rule-change shall be given a number for reference. The numbers shall begin with 301, and each rule-change proposed in the proper way shall receive the next successive integer, whether or not the proposal is adopted.

    If a rule is repealed and reenacted, it receives the number of the proposal to reenact it. If a rule is amended or transmuted, it receives the number of the proposal to amend or transmute it. If an amendment is amended or repealed, the entire rule of which it is a part receives the number of the proposal to amend or repeal the amendment.

    109. Rule-changes that transmute immutable rules into mutable rules may be adopted if and only if the vote is unanimous among the eligible voters. Transmutation shall not be implied, but must be stated explicitly in a proposal to take effect.

    110. In a conflict between a mutable and an immutable rule, the immutable rule takes precedence and the mutable rule shall be entirely void. For the purposes of this rule a proposal to transmute an immutable rule does not "conflict" with that immutable rule.

    111. If a rule-change as proposed is unclear, ambiguous, paradoxical, or destructive of play, or if it arguably consists of two or more rule-changes compounded or is an amendment that makes no difference, or if it is otherwise of questionable value, then the other players may suggest amendments or argue against the proposal before the vote. A reasonable time must be allowed for this debate. The proponent decides the final form in which the proposal is to be voted on and, unless the Judge has been asked to do so, also decides the time to end debate and vote.

    112. The state of affairs that constitutes winning may not be altered from achieving n points to any other state of affairs. The magnitude of n and the means of earning points may be changed, and rules that establish a winner when play cannot continue may be enacted and (while they are mutable) be amended or repealed.

    113. A player always has the option to forfeit the game rather than continue to play or incur a game penalty. No penalty worse than losing, in the judgment of the player to incur it, may be imposed.

    114. There must always be at least one mutable rule. The adoption of rule-changes must never become completely impermissible.

    115. Rule-changes that affect rules needed to allow or apply rule-changes are as permissible as other rule-changes. Even rule-changes that amend or repeal their own authority are permissible. No rule-change or type of move is impermissible solely on account of the self-reference or self-application of a rule.

    116. Whatever is not prohibited or regulated by a rule is permitted and unregulated, with the sole exception of changing the rules, which is permitted only when a rule or set of rules explicitly or implicitly permits it.

    My friends and myself are currently playing a game of Nomic over Facebook. It is intended as a reasonably experimental game, as well as a serious attempt at playing. I thought I'd log our rule changes and such here, to give an idea about just how the game is played. This is (I believe) the first time any of us have ever played Nomic, and we are playing it online, so please bear with us while we get stuff sorted out.

    • 17 August: Thread created, game begins. (Players will be known here by Players A-F to preserve anonymity. Player A begins. I am Player C.)
    • 20 August: Player A introduces Proposal 301: players shall only have a limited time to vote on new proposals, if no vote is received then the player who did not vote will be assumed to have abstained. The responsibility of keeping track of time is up to the Timekeeper, appointed as Player A (as soon as the rule takes effect, of course, as per Rule 107).
    • 25 August: after some discussion, the proposal passes unanimously. Player A receives 10 points as per Rule 202.
    • 29 August: Player B introduces Proposal 302: players making any spelling or grammatical errors shall have points deducted from their tally, provided that someone spots the mistake before it is corrected. Should contention arise, the matter shall be referred to the High Chancellor of Spelling and Grammar, to be appointed before each round (but beginning with Player C).
    • 31 August: after plenty of discussion, the proposal passes unanimously. Player B receives 11 points.
    • 1 September: Player C introduces Proposal 303: should any player need to leave the game for a lengthy period of time due to a personal emergency etc., he may request that the game be put on temporary hiatus; requests to be allowed or denied by consensus. (Otherwise, rule 301 still applies.)
    • 4 September: Player C accuses Player B of a possible grammatical error. A smaller discussion is held regarding proper use of spelling and grammar. (The "charges", as it were, are dropped during the discussion.)
    • 5 September: Player D makes a grammatical error and loses 1 point. Player A makes a spelling error and loses one point. Proposal 303 passes, with one abstaining vote. Player C receives 10 points.
    • 13 September: Player D withdraws from the game.
    • 23 September: Player E introduces Proposal 304: the transmutation of Rule 112 from immutable to mutable.
    • 27 September: Player F makes two grammatical errors and loses 2 points. Proposal 304 passes, with one abstaining vote. Player E receives 10 points.
    • 23 October: Player F introduces Proposal 305: a slight modification of Rule 112 to read the following: "The state of affairs that constitutes winning may not be altered from achieving n points to any other state of affairs. The magnitude of n points and the means of earning points may be changed, however an infinitely large amount of points always leads to a win. Rules that establish a winner when play cannot continue may be enacted and (while they are mutable) be amended or repealed."
    • 24 October: Proposal 305 passes unanimously. Due to another spelling error, Player F receives 13 points.
    • 1 November: Player A introduces Proposal 306: to give official recognition of the game as "N Nomic", and to let its founders "be enshrined as such to be forever remembered and immortalised for as long as this game shall exist." In doing so, he makes a grammatical error.
    • 6 November: Proposal 306 passes, with one abstaining vote. Player A receives 11 points.
    • 10 November: Player B introduces Proposal 307: all posts ending in full-stops must be followed by a post that is written in limerick form. Failure incurs a one-point penalty.
    • 16 November: Player B withdraws from the game. Proposal 307 is concurrently withdrawn.
    • 19 November: Player C - the Chancellor of Spelling and Grammar - makes a spelling error and loses two points. (In true bureaucratic fashion, he later blames the mistake on Windows.)
    • 23 November: Player C introduces a new Proposal 307: an alteration of rule 209 to say "a maximum of 35 mutable rules" instead of 25.
    • 29 November: Proposal 307 goes down. Player C loses 10 points.
    • 30 December: Player E introduces Proposal 308: new proposals must be made within ten days of the previous turn ending.
    • 4 January 2010: Proposal 308 passes unanimously. Player E receives 17 points.
    • 5 January: Player A invokes Rule 303. The game is put on hiatus for at least the period 6-19 January.
    • 23 January: On return, Player A promptly makes two grammatical errors.
    • 3 February: Player F withdraws. After a short discussion, the remaining players decide to discontinue the game. The result is yet to be decided; however, if points lead to victory, certainly Player E will be victorious.

    The game continues...

    Current scores: Player A = 18; Player B = 11; Player C = -2; Player D = -1; Player E = 27, Player F = 11

    Nom"ic (?), a. [Gr. , fr. a law, custom.]

    Customary; ordinary; -- applied to the usual English spelling, in distinction from strictly phonetic methods.

    H Sweet. --


    Nomic spelling.

    A. J. Ellis.


    © Webster 1913.

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