The Kludge

Have you ever been playing a game and your opponent does something that you did not expect? Not something brilliant, since you might have expected that depending on your friends, but rather something that you did not think could be done in the game. Your first reaction is typically to say, “Hey, you can’t do that!” to which they reply, “Yes I can. It states here in rule 7.05b that when this situation occurs and you have exactly this many pieces in play, you can do this.” Congratulations. You have just found a kludge.

A kludge in the game world has to meet several criteria. It has to be a conditional corner case rule, it has to not come up very often, and while not always required, the rule often involves a play pattern that is not present in other rules in the game.

Probably the most famous Kludge comes from Chess. There are several special rules in chess. Castling, Promotion of a pawn, and En Passant are all unusual rules. Out of these, En Passant earns the Kludge status. When I teach Chess, I will usually cover the first two special rules, but will rarely if ever cover En Passant. It is one of those corner case rules that rarely comes up in a game, a key feature of a kludge.

How do these unusual kludge rules evolve? I looked through a journal detailing my great great great great great great great great ancestor and I found the following entry from May of 1483. Perhaps it will shed some light.

Lord Elliott: You just moved your pawn two squares and moved past my pawn. That hardly seems fair!

Page Elias: But my lord. It was just last week that you declared that henceforth, all pawns could move 2 squares from the opening rank instead of just 1 square. I believe your rook was trapped and moving your pawn up 2 squares protected it, if my memory serves me.

Lord Elliott: Me thinketh it does not. Anyway, we can’t have pawns passing each other. That would be total chaos. Henceforth, I declare that if a pawn moves two squares passing another pawn, the passed pawn can move to capture the other pawn. I will now capture your pawn, and I believe I have checkmate in three moves. Your move.

Page Elias: But my lord, that seems like an extremely arbitrary rule. It is almost like you just made it up now after having a passing thought.

Lord Elliott: Of course not. I had always planned on adding that rule. It was not a passing thought at all. I shall call the rule “En Passant” It has a cool French sound to it, don’t you think?

Page Elias: But what if I move a rook or queen past a pawn in the exact same manner? Can the pawn capture that piece?

Lord Elliott: A pawn capturing a rook or queen. How silly! Now concede and back to the chamber pots.

Pawns already break the pattern of the other pieces. They are the only piece that captures in a direction other than the way they move, but the kludge comes into play with the capture by moving into an empty square, which occurs nowhere else in the game. You could argue castling uses an unusual move pattern, but it fails the kludge test since it comes up frequently at all levels of play.

Even the best selling board game of all time is not immune to the kludge. In Monopoly, most players know that you can mortgage properties and then buy them back for 10 percent more. Note that since the games are fairly long, most players will concede when they start to have to mortgage properties or they will often start making suggestions to do something else. However, the majority of Monopoly players have probably never encountered the rule for properties of a bankrupt player. The standard rule is that you are supposed to auction off the properties to the remaining players. I don’t think I have ever played with that particular rule. It was not taught to me when I was young and when I learned it later I thought it was silly and ignored it. I have not played Monopoly in several years since there are just too many superior board games out these days, but the last house rules version was that the properties just went back to the bank and could be bought if someone landed on them. There are no other times in the game when you ever auction anything, so it meets all of the criteria for a classic kludge. In fact, it is such an afterthought that the game does not even give you any details on how to do the auction. Do you auction them all together? Is it a silent auction? Who starts the bidding? These questions and many more would keep you up nights if you were not already up playing games anyway, and if you cared about Monopoly.

Luckily most games these days avoid the kludge. You will still see the occasional game with the odd, If X and Y happen, then do Z instead of what you would normally do, but this classic kludge language is not often employed. Most modern day kludges are intended to stop a particular behavior that would otherwise detract from the game. Baseball is notorious for having a bunch of rules designed to stop particular behaviors, and several of them could be argued to be kludges, but talking about baseball kludges would be a whole separate article.

Many games have variants that simply remove this or that rule. For example, in Hearts most players play that you cannot through a point card on the first trick. There are many variants of hearts, including a version where you can play point cards on the first trick. (This is actually the classic rule, but so many play with the “no blood” variant it has been supplanted.) These variations create a different play environment, and essentially define the new game. If you know that a point card can be thrown on the first trick, you probably tend to pass clubs more often and alter your passing strategy in other ways. Since it will often come up, this type of rule would not be a kludge. However, if you added a rule that if you collected all the face cards, you got an extra 5 points, it would probably qualify as a kludge. It would not come up very often and on many of the hands that it did, the player would end up taking all the tricks and shooting the moon anyway and the existing scoring already accounts for it. This is the reason that the more elegant variant of the Jack of Diamonds rule is generally used, where you get -10 points if you collect the jack during the round. It comes up every game reliably, so it is not particularly kludgy. It does, however, extend the game time out by about 60 percent, since it reduces the average scoring on the round from 26 points to 16 points.

In general, if you are designing games, look at every rule you add in and look especially hard at conditional rules. If it doesn’t come up at least once every couple games, consider streamlining the rules to eliminate it. I had one other critically important thing that I wanted to say, but only if it would not take the column past 1200 words and not reiterate a previously detailed point, and only if it would be able to be written without using any vowels.

-Mike Elliott


16 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. herbig,

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Chess, but after writing a quick chess applet this year for a class demo, a student raised his hand and asked “what about the passed pawn move?”

    In my entire life I had never even heard of en passant and it never came up. I was actually convinced it was a regional rule (I’m currently in the Philippines) and told my student as much. Wikipedia later proved me wrong.

    Maybe I just haven’t played enough Chess.

  2. Nice article Mike! It could be very useful to game designers – there are frequently times when these rough edges appear in games.

    Perhaps some fine tuning of the idea of ‘kludgy’ might not require it to come into play frequently but to affect play frequently. For example, a game where you win by eliminating the other side or getting 10 victory points – where in practice you seldom got 10 victory points >might< not be kludgy, since without that rule the games nature might change and become too defensive. That is – the threat of the rule might make it much more influential than it at first seems. Pawn promotion in fact – might be that very thing. I don’t consider the rule kludgy despite the fact I seldom have pieces promoted in my games.

  3. MikeElliott,

    I usually never consider alternate victory conditions as kludgy. Usually they are there to stop some form of stalemate that might occur in the primary victory condition.In the 10 VP example it is probably to stop some sort of “turtling” behavior where one side goes defensive and cannot be directly eliminated.
    The Magic “decking” rule does not come up very often, but I have had many sealed games over the years where it stopped what had devolved into a huge stalemate. Here it does not usually even affect play unless you happen to run into the occasional milling deck, but it serves to limit game time so although very few players get decked, I would not consider that a kludge either. A lot of alt victory conditions are “mercy” rules, such as winning if you get over 10 runs ahead in an inning in softball. In some cases, the “mercy” is for both players, who would otherwise be playing an infinite game.

  4. Sin,

    So I can see and agree where alternate victory conditions normally built into the rules can bypass the ‘kludge’ classification, but what about more obscure win conditions? For instance, to use Magic again, take accumulation of poison counters, a condition (once) self-contained within the context of the cards granting the counters themselves. If specific creatures are not blocked or damage a player, depending on the card, that player gets from one to two poison counters, and loses the game if they accumulate ten. In a game where the pieces can bring in variations to the traditional rules structure, can those overarching rules modifications be considered a kludge? In card games we do have the golden rule regarding card text, but do you think that adherence to that can lead us into design space where certain decisions are technically innovative but have to be inherently ‘kludgy’?

  5. MikeElliott,

    When you have games like trading card games where the rules expand, you often get kludge rules every now and then. Poison is one I would consider a kludge. The precision required to balance a replacement damage victory system against a standard damage victory condition is generally going to result in the new condition either dominating the old one or being worthless. Any time you are adding new mechanics and rules to a game, you will eventually end up with a rules system with several kludge rules. In trading card games, these are inevitable due to the constant pressure to create new and interesting mechanics and card interactions. I have never lost a game to poison, but I know dozens of people that love the mechanic despite its corner case status. So yes, when you add several mechanics and pages of rules to a game every year, you get some kludge rules, but it is a necessary evil in this case to keep the game system evolving and fresh.

  6. Isaac Romsdahl,

    One of the most frustrating parts of playing Monopoly with new people is discovering everyone else uses house rules you aren’t familiar with.

    For your information, the rules of Monopoly use auctions at 2 times. The first is if a player refuses to purchase a property he or she lands on, then the property is auctioned off to the highest bidder. The second is when someone loses, all of his or her property is also auctioned off piece by piece in the same way.

    Both of these rules have always existed, and I believe are clearly explained in the Monopoly rulebook, which is a document apparently often thrown out with the packing materials and sales literature when opening the box.

    Auctions are a necessary part of Monopoly, to keep the game moving more quickly towards the inevitable conclusion, and to keep other players from flipping over the table at the 8 hour mark or somehow mutilating themselves with their little pewter dog.

  7. Isaac Romsdahl,

    oh, and I also had never, ever heard of “en passant” until this article. Will try to use this new chess tech at next opportunity.

  8. Sin,

    Yeah, en passant was something I discovered in a middle school chess book; imagine my surprise when my high school chess club, including the organizing instructor, denied its existence and disallowed its usage because it clearly didn’t fit.

    Interesting perspective on the nature of necessary evils in order to keep an evolving game structure dynamic. I don’t necessarily disagree, but it does lead to my next question: What are your thoughts on game systems that add new “sides” or factions with their own subsets of mechanics and conditions to their games; when trying to make a new player role that is trying to be equal to the ones the game was previously built around, are there some pitfalls you would recommend to watch out for to keep these new roles from ultimately getting marginalized towards “kludge” status?

  9. Mellowcow,

    Could we possibly get some Go love in a future article? :D
    And I wonder if you see any future in similar territorial games where each piece has a much lower value than the patterns created with them.

  10. Lawrence,

    Can a kludge ever be a Good Thing? Are there examples of these arcane corner rules enriching gameplay and encouraging players to research further into the game’s rules to gain an advantage?

    I can think of occasions when in reading about or watching Magic I’ve found a player’s use of corner rules cases to produce plays that I found admirable, surprising, thoughtful rather than ‘rules-lawyerly’… but perhaps I would have felt differently had I been the opponent.

    Things like the (now eliminated) float-mana-into-draw-step trick, or PVRD’s much-repeated but little known trick of reactivating a mutavault to reset to 2/2 (arguably just smart play rather than a kludge).

  11. MikeElliott,

    Yes. There can be good corner cases as well. In many games, these types of corner cases are easter eggs, like the secret cow level from Diablo. Trading card games have dozens of pages of rules once they get beyond a couple sets, and whether a particular rules interaction is a kludge or an easter egg is often in the eye of the beholder.

  12. Dre,

    Ah I never called these kludge… I called them clunkiness. :P

    This is a very interesting topic of game design, one that I very rarely see discussed.

    Some culprits of kludge I find is lot is usually when it comes to tiebreakers for some board games. If at the end of the game the results of a tie, often you have to compare off resources such as points, cards, life points, battle victories, etc. They usually chain from important elements to less and less important and more arbitrary counting, and at it’s very worst, completely exhausts a list of countable items and then has something like “flip a coin” to determine a winner.

    Haha – yeah that is one that gets me as well. One tiebreaker should suffice – and there isn’t anything wrong with a tie game either, as long as it doesn’t happen all the time!


  13. jamessooy,

    I believe Kludges change the environment of any game for the worse. I think by definition they are not well known, and so punish newer players. Anytime a game feels random and arbitrary skilled players will drift from it. I also believe the term “kludge” refers to rules that don’t fit the game they belong to. When games employ many seemingly minor rules, players know to look for them – but if the game is based around a few core mechanics, and only strays in corner cases, your kludge is born.

    The latest revision to the Magic rules was done try to eliminate such.

  14. This definition of “kludges” is interesting. I like the original author’s point about being aware of them and their consequences, and how those consequences can negatively (or positively!) effect your game.

    Generally I agree that the more detailed a game is the more likely that a kludgy corner case or oddball rule can be an enjoyable asset rather than a detracting element.

  15. Lowinor,

    There is delicious irony in the lack of awareness of the auction rule in Monopoly — not only is it a standard rule of the game, but it serves to both make the game more interesting *and* resolve faster, the two biggest complaints about the game in the first place.

    As far as en passant goes…

    Before I get into a screed that comes across as horribly elitist, let me say I consider myself to be an intermediate level chess player. I’ve played the game for twenty-six years (although only reasonably seriously for about half of those), read several books, memorized several openings, spent many hours working out new (or, at least, not published…) opening lines, played on a high school state championship team, and was later offered the position of coach of said state-championship winning high school chess team.

    So, I’m pretty familiar with the game. And as I said, I consider myself an intermediate player. I’ve met lots of people who are far better than I (and Gary Kasparov is a really nice guy).

    To be brutally honest, if en passant (or even piece promotion, as another commenter mentioned) rarely comes up, the reason for this is most likely that you’re a beginner level player *or* seldom play anything beyond a beginner level player. And once you’re used to endgame strategy at the intermediate level, en passant really ceases to look particularly kludgy, and more of an integral portion of the game.

    The core reason for en passant is that the pawn’s double initial move — a rule added hundreds of years ago to speed up the opening of the game (and, really, make the game more interesting) has a side effect of compromising the integrity of pawn structures in the endgame. As a result of the double pawn move, it becomes possible to create a “passed pawn” in some situations without removing an opposing pawn in an adjacent file (or giving that pawn the opportunity to capture). En passant simply allows the adjacent pawn to move as if the previous move had been a move of a single square instead of two squares.

    In my opinion, at least, that’s a more elegant way of stating the rule — “A player may move a pawn two spaces on that particular pawn’s first move, but if there are opposing pawns in adjacent files, they may capture it as if it had only moved one square for the opposing player’s next turn”.

    Really, if anything is particularly kludgy, it’s treating en passant as a separate special case instead of an integral rule of the initial pawn double move.

  16. Doug S.,

    In Monopoly, if a player is driven into bankruptcy because he or she landed on a space that charges more rent than the player has cash, the player who owns the space gets everything the bankrupt player has. It’s only when the bankrupt player owes the money to the bank (because of landing on Luxury Tax or a similar space) that you auction off their property.

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