This Is How We Do It

If you’re playing Scrabble at our house, you play the house rules.

Illustration | Joey Guidone

A few summers back, my daughter Marcy and her brand-new husband Basil spent their honeymoon with our extended family in Ocean City, New Jersey, in the second-floor duplex we’ve rented for the last two weeks of August every year since Marcy was born.

Somebody should have warned Basil.

On their first night there, after supper, we brought out the Scrabble board. “Who’s in?” I asked, laying out the little wooden trenchers.

“I am!” Basil said gamely, claiming a seat at the dining room table. Marcy and my cousin Pam took the other two places. We drew our first tiles and began to play.

Our Shore Scrabble games predate even Marcy, who just turned 28. The battered original box in which the board and pieces travel to their annual beach vacation is barely bound together by duct tape and rubber bands, but we won’t buy a new set. This one has notes on the inside of the box handwritten by my mom, who died in 1981: our highest aggregate score ever (in her lifetime, anyway); highest score on a single play; a particularly lofty final tally by Pam’s mother, Phyllis, also now deceased. Every summer, opening that timeworn box is like raising a veil on long-ago Augusts when my Mom and Dad and Aunt Phyllis were still with us and there was never a cloud in the sky.

Of course, Basil doesn’t know any of that.

The game proceeds at our usual summer snail’s pace, punctuated by us hushing one another when the weather forecast comes on the Channel 6 news, plus trips to the kitchen for another beer or more pretzels. Even so, it’s faster than back in the day, when we had to coax toddlers back into bed between moves. There’s a brief but intense flare-up, though, when Basil plays the word “qi.” Pam lodges a furious protest:

“What the hell is that?”

“You know. Qi. The Chinese life force.”

“It’s not an English word,” Pam says dismissively.

“It’s in the dictionary,” Basil notes, pulling out his phone to show her. Marcy shoots him a pleading look. She’s a social worker, with a master’s degree in defusing tense situations. But she’s also spent her whole lifetime around Pam. “What? It’s in the dictionary,” Basil says again, rather like Moses showing the tablets to the Israelites and patiently explaining that these laws got put there by God.

Here it is — the first of many such moments married life will pose for Marcy. “Um. We … we don’t play by the dictionary,” she explains to her new husband. “We play by the house rules.”

“What house rule says a word that’s in the dictionary isn’t a word?” Basil counters.

After a pause: “We have to agree that a word is a word.”

Basil looks at her, then sits back in his chair. “Are there any more of these house rules you maybe should tell me about?”

As a matter of fact, there are.

My family has been playing Scrabble together at the Shore for so long, with such mutual agreement on how to play it, that none of us thought to mention the ways in which our game diverges from the rules on the lid of the box until Basil encountered one. This got me curious, and I started asking around. It turns out that house rules aren’t at all unusual. Most families have variations embedded in the games they play. This magazine’s design director, Jamie Leary, told me that when he and his brother played Monopoly growing up, he could only buy the properties on the cheap half of the board — the one with Baltic and Virginia — while his brother could only buy the sides with Marvin Gardens and the Boardwalk. Neither he nor his brother remembers how this house rule came to be, but they agree on the result: Jamie won much more than his brother did, which speaks volumes about slum landlords.

A fellow editor here, Brian Howard, says his family awarded extra points in Scattergories for answers in which more than one part began with the letter on the die — like “Woodrow Wilson” for the Presidents list. Turns out that’s not an uncommon hack. Another house rule: When my friend Christy’s family played Uno, if you didn’t have a card you could play, you drew one more card and one card only. “My friends all played that you kept drawing until you got something you could play,” she remembers. “I actually don’t know which is the correct way. But I can’t imagine that my father didn’t read the rules. He’s so anal-retentive about things like that. I have to believe that everyone else was wrong.” Hi, Dad! (For the record, Christy also remembers playing flashlight tag, only in her hometown in Tennessee, it was called “German Spotlight.” “My friend Michael played it, too, and he grew up in Chicago,” she says somewhat defensively. “There was a lot of stuff that was culturally insensitive then.”)

When I began researching house rules, I discovered something else: While I’ve always thought of childhood games as timeless, I was thinking of the ones I played as a kid — Candy Land and Monopoly and Mouse Trap and The Game of Life. They all still exist, but there have been a lot of new ones since then. Gen-Xer Emily tells me about two, Skip-Bo and Rummikub, that her family loves and I never heard of. My own millennial kids had Don’t Break the Ice and 13 Dead End Drive. But Marcy and her brother Jake were on the tail end of the board-game era; more formative childhood pastimes were The Oregon Trail and The Sims. You can’t dick around with the rules of computer games — which perhaps has contributed to my children’s generation’s punctilious adherence to even absurd rules, like the ones barring microaggressions on college campuses. No doubt The Sims seemed infinitely more creative than The Game of Life when it debuted in 2000. I’m not at all sure it was.

When I ask my friend Mary whether she had house rules for board games, she snorts. “I grew up in the city,” she tells me. “We didn’t play board games. We played in the street.” Her sneer is palpable: You suburban twits. She has a point: On the cul-de-sac in Doylestown where I grew up, we played kick-the-can or hopscotch in the street occasionally, but there was never any traffic. It was a big deal when the mailman came by.

Mostly, we played board games, which grew up, just like we did, in the suburbs. This was because they required a minyan, a quorum of at least four kids of roughly the same age, which is something every suburban neighborhood had. My husband Doug, an only child who was raised in the wilderness of Conemaugh Township, Somerset County, didn’t play board games growing up. He still doesn’t really get the hang of them. I can’t tell you how many times during the Pictionary craze early in our married life he’d still be laboring to outline a fence while an opponent would be putting the finishing touches on a sketch of Old MacDonald’s farm complete with barn and cow.

America’s suburbs were intended to hammer home the notion of stability. They were supposed to be boring, full of houses that were all laid out in the exact same way. If this meant you were stuck playing Clue with the same three kids every day after school from first grade to senior year, well, that was the cost of beating the Russians to the moon.

No wonder we made up our own rules.

The first game hack I remember was one my big brother David came up with. For our Monopoly board, he built four precisely lined, elliptically curved oak-tag sections of train track that connected the railroad spaces to one another, so you could hop from, say, the Reading to the Pennsylvania line if you wanted to. (He grew up, no surprise, to be an architect.) I asked him recently: Why the tracks? “Good question,” he emailed back. “As far as I can tell from this distant remove, we all wanted to be Jay Cooke or Cornelius Vanderbilt.” I knew who Vanderbilt was, but I had to look up Jay Cooke, the financier in the 1870s of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Dave’s regard for olden-day railway magnates apparently runs deep.

Some game changes are born of necessity rather than invention. An intern in our office, Haley Weiss, grew up with a defective Game of Life spinner. “It was manufactured incorrectly and didn’t quite fit,” she reports, “so when we realized it always jammed, we started playing with a die instead.” This made for longer games, since you can only roll up to a six on a die, whereas the regulation Life spinner goes up to 10. (Speaking of The Game of Life, an Internet wag has published new rules for it geared to millennials. Example: “You can no longer begin on the career path. You must go to college. Borrow $100,000, which you will never pay back.”)

But Monopoly is, far and away, the most-hacked board game of all time. Common variations include having to go around the whole board once before you can buy property; getting paid $400 if you land right on Go (as opposed to the usual $200 for passing it); making Chance cards optional; and allowing fellow players, not just the bank, to make loans.

Some Monopoly house rules are so ubiquitous that people have no idea they’re not printed on the inside of the box, which just goes to prove that no one ever actually reads the rules. (Who would? They’re so long.) We always, always played that if you landed on Free Parking, you collected all the money from the kitty in the middle of the board. You know — the kitty, where you pay your penalty for landing on the Luxury Tax space, or for drawing the Community Chest card that makes you shell out $50 for a doctor’s fee. Only in the real rules, there is no kitty. You pay that money to the bank. There is no Free Parking pot.

What’s curious about this particular house rule is that it makes an already interminable game even longer. The goal of Monopoly is to have your opponents run out of money. If they keep getting free money from the kitty, things just go on and on and on until Dad hollers that it’s bedtime, goddammit to hell, and he means now!

As the third of four kids, I have my own theory about where the kitty rule came from. I think it was devised by older kids to trick younger siblings into participating in an incomprehensible game. Monopoly says it’s for kids eight and up, but the concepts involved — bankruptcy, rent, empire-building — are awfully sophisticated. Whereas if David told eight-year-old me, “If you play with us, you can win all that money in the middle of the board,” I’d be in.

Last year, an artificial-intelligence computer system developed by Google beat a human world champion at the 2,500-year-old board game Go, taking four games out of their five-game match. Such programs had already handily beaten us at chess and checkers and Othello. They’re working on Monopoly, for which, meanwhile, guided by what he calls “an inherent sense of justice,” an AI guy named Johan van der Beek has been running algorithms to try and balance out the game, which has some built-in inequities — like, whoever goes first has a serious edge. The van der Beek tweaks include jacking up rents on some undervalued properties — the utilities, for example — and lowering construction costs on others that are overpriced in terms of ROI, such as — gasp! — Boardwalk and Park Place. His research also calcifies the old-school hack that nobody can buy any property until one player has passed Go, to eliminate the go-first advantage. “Everyone playing the game should have an equal chance to win,” van der Beek told computer-developer website The New Stack in explaining his changes. “Otherwise, it doesn’t feel right.”

When you come down to it, I think most house rules for board games have this salutary intention at heart — evening out the odds. I know our house Scrabble rules do. That’s why you can’t sashay into our game and win with a bunch of bullshit two-letter words like the ones in the Official Scrabble Dictionary, which we long ago disowned. It’s also the impetus for the biggest change, as Basil found on his honeymoon when he triumphantly laid his last tile on the board before anyone else had. “I win! I get all the points you guys have left!” he announced, only to meet his bride’s abashed gaze.

“We don’t give extra points for going out first,” she told him.

“Why not?”

“Well — you went out first. You win. Why should you get extra points on top of that?”

Basil considered this. “Do you at least subtract the points everybody else has left from their scores?”

“Not until we’ve all played as many letters as we can.” She studied the board, popped an S onto the end of REGRET, and gave herself another eight points.

“That’s not right,” Basil said.

Give it time, son. Hey, we’re family. If we won’t try to make a harsh world a little less harsh for one another, who will?

Published as “This Is How We Do It” in the August 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.