This is an extract from The Board Game Family: Reclaim your children from the screen by Ellie Dix and published by Crown House in 2019.
Modifying the official scoring to reduce arguments and increase harmony at the table can work for many games. Let’s take a look at the card game, Rummy, for example. Rummy is a traditional set-collection game played with one or two standard decks of cards. There are lots of different versions of Rummy and the name is a sort of catchall for all the different variations. If you don’t know it, it is a great card game, simple to learn and easy to play with a range of abilities. You’ll find the rules of the version that I play with my family here.
In Rummy, players compete to get the lowest score. Unfortunately, if luck isn’t on your side, it is possible to get a very high score: you could easily score 50 points on a single round. If the leader is on 0 and the other players are in single figures, this can be pretty demoralising. If you hit 100 points, which might happen after two or three bad rounds, then you are out of the game and play continues without you. When you are familiar with the game, these scoring adjustments may be useful to keep the playing field more level for longer. You can modify other games using similar methods.
1. Use weighted scoring
Instead of totalling up the card values to give the score, award the first player 0 points, the second 1 point, the third 2 points and so on. Set a much lower endgame target – perhaps 10 or 15 points, depending on the player count. This keeps the field much closer together.
Most games with multiple rounds can be scored in the same way. If you’re playing Backgammon, for example, just award 1 point for a win, rather than adding up the score.
2. Introduce the ‘buy in’
Allow players who have gone bust by getting more than 100 points to ‘buy in’ at the next highest score. So, if the others are at 56, 43 and 12 points respectively, the busted player ‘buys in’ at 56 points. A mark is placed on the scoreboard to signal a buy in. Play continues as normal. Every player is allowed to buy in once, but as the game progresses the scores that players buy in at get higher and higher, reducing the advantage each time. It is certainly possible for the player who has bought in first to go on and win the game.
The ‘buy in’ works well for any game that’s scored within short rounds.
3. Set a maximum score
Cards are totalled as before, but high scores are capped, say, at 20 points. This reduces the damage that a very unlucky round can cause.
You can set ‘maximum damage’ for lots of different games. With area control and fighting games, this may fundamentally change players’ strategy, however, so maximum damage house rules should be agreed at the start of the game.
4. Use a joker
Every player is issued with a joker or wild card. This could be an actual joker from the pack, or some other token. Once per game each player may choose one round in which to play their joker. When a joker is played, that round doesn’t get added to the player’s score. Players can only do this once per game, so must pick when to use it wisely.
Jokers can be used to modify scores in all sorts of different ways in different games: to double points for a chosen move or to reduce losses.
5. Allow a ‘mulligan’
Once per game, immediately after the cards have been dealt, a player can choose to ‘mulligan’ their hand. This means that they forfeit the hand they have been dealt and take the next seven cards from the top of the deck. Each player can only do this once per game. Discarded hands should be shuffled back into the deck before play starts. You can choose to penalise players for choosing to mulligan by requiring them to draw a hand of eight cards instead, making it a little harder for them to play their whole hand out.
Any game with cards, tiles, dice, tokens, etc. that are all taken at random and visible to the player can use a mulligan. Switch out all your dominoes before the round starts or re-roll your Yahtzee dice once per game.
6. Deal a Rummy dummy
Each round, deal one more hand than the number of players. The extra hand becomes the dummy. At the start of the round, players are permitted to pay to use the dummy hand. Payment is made by adjusting their score. If a player selects the dummy hand, they immediately add five points to their score, and their original hand is shuffled back into the deck prior to play.
The dummy hand can be used in any game in which players start with a random allocation of cards or resources from a larger pool.
7. Introduce seasons
Instead of playing on when one player has gone bust, end the game at that point. Then score the game. As with weighted scoring, the winner of the game gets 0 points, second place gets 1 and so on. When you’ve scored the game, start a new one. When that game ends, you can add the score to the season’s standings. Seasons can play over a week, a month or any time frame you want. You can decide to close a season if one player becomes a runaway leader or is trailing a long way behind.
Use seasonal scoring for games that the family play repeatedly.
8. Secret scoreboard
Usually players openly share their score at the end of each round, but an alternative is to keep the scoreboard secret. One player keeps track of the scores (this is usually an adult, although it can be a child if they are particularly good at playing the metagame). Players reveal their score only to the scorekeeper. The scorekeeper may choose to reveal the scores at intervals throughout the game, but they may choose not to – only revealing the winner at the end. Busted players can continue to play as normal, without anyone (possibly even themselves) knowing that they are bust.
9. Beat yourself
Players compete against their own score from the last time they played instead of competing with each other. Yes, scores are recorded, but the important thing is considering your own performance compared to this time last game. How close to your all-time high score can you all get? We know that people will play on apps and video games for hours just trying to beat their own high score – losing doesn’t matter in this context. It is much easier to lose to yourself, clearly due to your previous brilliance, than it is to someone else.
10. No scores
Just don’t keep track of the scores. You play exactly as you normally would, you get the pleasure of winning a round or the frustration of a loss, but there are no overall standings. Each round is played just for fun.
Play about and see what works for you, then introduce successful modifications to your house rules. Of course, these ideas are not limited to Rummy and can be applied to many different games.