To this day, I still remember the round of UNO with my old youth group in which one poor soul had to draw +26. The stakes mounted, and we held our breaths as player after player stacked Draw 2s and Draw 4s and the buck had to stop somewhere.

Not only could you stack penalty cards, you could reverse or skip them, you could “cut” a yellow Draw 2, for example, if you had an identical card, thereby causing one or more players to miss a turn. You could cut a blue 5 with a blue 3 and a blue 2 (a move known as “add cut”). And, most importantly, every player had to touch their nose whenever a red 7 was played, because if you were last, the penalty was to draw 2 cards.

Isn’t that how everyone played? Surely.

Not so, says UNO. As in, the people who invented the game.

Photo credit: Simon Ray.

But aren’t house rules the way we play games?

I can’t play UNO anymore. I find it mind-numbingly boring without those youth group house rules. It’s slow and predictable. It’s painful.

If you think about it, that’s the way a lot of us feel about religion. We look at the Bible (or Torah, or Qu’ran) as a rulebook and decide we have a better way to do life. House rules win.

Nor is playing “house rules” with life something only unreligious people do.

Within the church – and hey, if I’m honest, within the bounds of my own life – we often bend rules, invent rules, ignore rules. Sometimes so much so that we change the entire object of “the game”.

At what point does a house rule become heresy? At what point does a rule variation break the game? And are our rules ever better than the original ones?

You could say that the way my friends and I played, we weren’t even playing UNO anymore. Just some kind of mutant game. And because we’re all playing our mutant games, we get frustrated at each other. I mean, who hasn’t been at a board game night and sat broiling on the inside while some basic or cursory detail was debated. We might even have witnessed a total dummy spit at some point.

Photo credit: Robert Coelho.

One time, we brought out Carcassonne and discovered the group was split as to whether we were allowed to place a field edge next to another field edge (or something along those lines – I actually don’t even remember). No-one got hurt on this occasion as my side of the debate sighed and said, “Okay, let’s play your way.”

Another time we played Codenames and I endured several painful rounds of teams choosing just one word at a time. Yawn and ouch.

It’s disturbingly easy to be self-righteous about this. And that’s the thing with house rules – they unite the few, and divide the many.

Often the world feels like a giant board game in which no-one agrees on the rules (apparently not even scientific ones like human activity changing the climate).

It’s kinda funny how deep the metaphor runs. I guess a game is a microcosm of life – it is, in fact, its own little universe with its own scientific and social laws.

Photo credit: Felix Mittermeir.

Take chess. The laws of gravity in a chess board dictate that knights, rooks, bishops and pawns can only move a certain way. The politics of it decrees that you kill the king to win.

Going back to UNO, this universe’s geography is made up of colours, numbers and other symbols performing predictable functions. Meanwhile, social norms (maybe) tell you not to peek at other people’s cards, and to use a Draw 4 against the player with fewest cards rather than a player with a fistful of cards.

The makers of UNO have established that Draw 2s and Draw 4s are not stackable. But I bet millions around the world are continuing to break the laws of physics.

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  1. Just had a game of Tehillah UNO with a couple of guests who came over for dinner. Yep, taught them the rules and people really enjoyed the challenge.

    Last time I played with Tehillah, they were dividing and subtract cutting. It’s the company you play with that makes the game. The great thing about seeing my guests playing UNO were they were ready to make their own rules to the game too.

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