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.