Rules are funny things. They can be very difficult for players of games to digest, but the games themselves wouldn’t exist without them. I’ve wanted to write about this for a really long time, because the topic of rules is one of my favorite things to discuss. I’m fascinated by rules. When they work, I want to know why. When they don’t work, I want to know why. I’m compelled to understand both the “spirit” of a rule and the “letter” of it, and only rarely are those two things the same.

Rules are a hot topic this week thanks to this past weekend’s divisional round of NFL playoffs, so I finally find myself with a good opportunity to discuss some of the nuances regarding why some rules drive people insane, why they’re worded the way that they are, the differences between legality and sportsmanship, and why it’s more difficult than people realize to just “fix” a seemingly bad game rule. This will be discussed within the context of NFL football, but we’ll also examine how these same principles apply to board games, and any game for that matter.

Let’s start by establishing what the ideal rule is. An ideal rule is one that is interpreted the same way by all the players, observers, and referees (should any be present) involved. It is also one that successfully prevents “corner cases,” or situations in which the rule is put at odds with itself in a rarely-occurring circumstance. It should be aimed at maximizing a game’s fun factor while minimizing potential dullness and keeping the playing field level. Perhaps most importantly, it anticipates all the ways in which it will be used by players of its game. It’s worth noting that in most cases this is an ideal that is almost impossible to achieve, but that’s the gold standard nevertheless. For a rule to meet that standard, all the stars have to align. The sad truth is that situations inevitably exist in games that are very, very difficult to put in plain language, and sometimes the poor sap who is tasked with writing the game’s rules has his hands tied by the infinite complexities of reality and the human capacity for creativity.

As a longtime player of Magic: The Gathering, I tend to think about this in terms of “basic” and “comprehensive” rules. Knowing the basic rules of a game will let you play it. Knowing the comprehensive rules of a game will let you play it precisely, and therefore “for real.” With Magic, as with football, the basics are not hard to digest and the “basic” rulebook is not overwhelming. It takes a couple of minutes to explain how the game works to a new player, and they can then either play it or watch it and have a pretty strong understanding of what’s going on and why the events taking place are significant. However, if you try to introduce someone to the game of Magic via the comprehensive rule book, you will get a much deserved blank stare in return, and they are not likely to ever attempt playing the game. A game’s basic rule book introduces you to the “spirit” of the rules; the comprehensive one introduces you to the “letter.” Here’s an example from the basic rule book concerning spell casting, the most basic play you can make in the game:

“To cast a spell, take the card you want to cast from your hand, show it to your opponent, and put it on the stack. (The stack is the game zone where spells live. It’s usually in the middle of the table.)…Now check what the spell’s cost is. Tap your lands to produce the mana necessary to pay that cost, and pay it. Once you do that, the spell has been cast.”

Even without knowing all the terminology in play, this seems like a pretty easy concept to grasp, and it is. Now, here’s what the comprehensive rule book has to say about this same subject (read through if you like, but the main reason this passage is being included is to demonstrate the difference in both speech and the sheer volume of words used to make the same point; I’ll see you again at the end):

601. Casting Spells

601.1. Previously, the action of casting a spell, or casting a card as a spell, was referred to on cards as “playing” that spell or that card. Cards that were printed with that text have received errata in the Oracle card reference so they now refer to “casting” that spell or that card.
601.1a Some effects still refer to “playing” a card. “Playing a card” means playing that card as a land or casting that card as a spell, whichever is appropriate.

601.2. To cast a spell is to take it from where it is (usually the hand), put it on the stack, and pay its costs, so that it will eventually resolve and have its effect. Casting a spell follows the steps listed below, in order. If, at any point during the casting of a spell, a player is unable to comply with any of the steps listed below, the casting of the spell is illegal; the game returns to the moment before that spell started to be cast (see rule 717, “Handling Illegal Actions”). Announcements and payments can’t be altered after they’ve been made.

601.2a The player announces that he or she is casting the spell. That card (or that copy of a card) moves from where it is to the stack. It becomes the topmost object on the stack. It has all the characteristics of the card (or the copy of a card) associated with it, and that player be-comes its controller. The spell remains on the stack until it’s countered, it resolves, or an effect moves it elsewhere.

601.2b If the spell is modal the player announces the mode choice (see rule 700.2). If the player wishes to splice any cards onto the spell (see rule 702.46), he or she reveals those cards in his or her hand. If the spell has alternative or additional costs that will be paid as it’s being cast such as buyback or kicker costs (see rules 117.8 and 117.9), the player announces his or her intentions to pay any or all of those costs (see rule 601.2e). A player can’t apply two alternative methods of casting or two alternative costs to a single spell. If the spell has a variable cost that will be paid as it’s being cast (such as an {X} in its mana cost; see rule 107.3), the player announces the value of that variable. If a cost that will be paid as the spell is being cast includes hybrid mana symbols, the player announces the nonhybrid equivalent cost he or she intends to pay. If a cost that will be paid as the spell is being cast includes Phyrexian mana symbols, the player announces whether he or she intends to pay 2 life or the corresponding colored mana cost for each of those symbols. Previously made choices (such as choosing to cast a spell with flashback from a graveyard or choosing to cast a creature with morph face down) may restrict the player’s options when making these choices.

601.2c The player announces his or her choice of an appropriate player, object, or zone for each target the spell requires. A spell may require some targets only if an alternative or additional cost (such as a buyback or kicker cost), or a particular mode, was chosen for it; otherwise, the spell is cast as though it did not require those targets. If the spell has a variable number of targets, the player announces how many targets he or she will choose before he or she announces those targets. The same target can’t be chosen multiple times for any one instance of the word “target” on the spell. However, if the spell uses the word “target” in multiple places, the same object, player, or zone can be chosen once for each instance of the word “target” (as long as it fits the targeting criteria). If any effects say that an object or player must be chosen as a target, the player chooses targets so that he or she obeys the maximum possible number of such effects without violating any rules or effects that say that an object or player can’t be chosen as a target. The chosen players, objects, and/or zones each become a target of that spell. (Any abilities that trigger when those players, objects, and/or zones become the target of a spell trigger at this point; they’ll wait to be put on the stack until the spell has finished being cast.)
Example: If a spell says “Tap two target creatures,” then the same creature can’t be chosen twice; the spell requires two different legal targets. A spell that says “Destroy target artifact and target land,” however, can target the same artifact land twice because it uses the word “target” in multiple places.

601.2d If the spell requires the player to divide or distribute an effect (such as damage or counters) among one or more targets, the player announces the division. Each of these targets must receive at least one of whatever is being divided.

601.2e The player determines the total cost of the spell. Usually this is just the mana cost. Some spells have additional or alternative costs. Some effects may increase or reduce the cost to pay, or may provide other alternative costs. Costs may include paying mana, tapping permanents, sacrificing permanents, discarding cards, and so on. The total cost is the mana cost or alternative cost (as determined in rule 601.2b), plus all additional costs and cost increases, and minus all cost reductions. If the mana component of the total cost is reduced to nothing by cost reduction effects, it is considered to be {0}. It can’t be reduced to less than {0}. Once the total cost is determined, any effects that directly affect the total cost are applied. Then the resulting total cost becomes “locked in.” If effects would change the total cost after this time, they have no effect.

601.2f If the total cost includes a mana payment, the player then has a chance to activate mana abilities (see rule 605, “Mana Abilities”). Mana abilities must be activated before costs are paid.

601.2g The player pays the total cost in any order. Partial payments are not allowed. Unpayable costs can’t be paid.
Example: You cast Altar’s Reap, which costs {1}{B} and has an additional cost of sacrificing a creature. You sacrifice Thunderscape Familiar, whose effect makes your black spells cost {1} less to cast. Because a spell’s total cost is “locked in” before payments are actually made, you pay {B}, not {1}{B}, even though you’re sacrificing the Familiar.
601.2h Once the steps described in 601.2a–g are completed, the spell becomes cast. Any abilities that trigger when a spell is cast or put onto the stack trigger at this time. If the spell’s controller had priority before casting it, he or she gets priority.

601.3. Some spells specify that one of their controller’s opponents does something the controller would normally do while it’s being cast, such as choose a mode or choose targets. In these cases, the opponent does so when the spell’s controller normally would do so.

601.3a If there is more than one opponent who could make such a choice, the spell’s controller decides which of those opponents will make the choice.

601.3b If the spell instructs its controller and another player to do something at the same time as the spell is being cast, the spell’s controller goes first, then the other player. This is an exception to rule 101.4.

601.4. Casting a spell that alters costs won’t affect spells and abilities that are already on the stack.

601.5. A player can’t begin to cast a spell that’s prohibited from being cast.

601.5a If an effect allows a card that’s prohibited from being cast to be cast face down, and the face-down spell would not be prohibited, that spell can be cast face down. See rule 707, “Face- Down Spells and Permanents.”

That’s right—both of the above examples amount to the same rule. A rule’s spirit is usu-ally easy to understand, so it’s fair to ask why people go to the trouble of churning out miles of terminology to further explain something no one has any questions about to begin with. There are, however, a few good reasons for doing this. The first is to encourage uniformity in how the game is played (we’ll get to how this all applies to football shortly, I promise). If you read through both examples, you might have noticed that both passages refer to something called “the stack.” The stack exists because there are bound to be instances of players wanting to follow and apply the same basic rule at the same time. What happens then? The basic rule doesn’t say. In an informal setting this isn’t much of a problem; two players who are only familiar with the basic rules are capable of coming to their own decision about how it should work, and the rule itself is actually pretty intuitive so there’s a good chance they’ll get it right anyway. Either way, the game will still be fun and it will come to a satisfactory conclusion for all involved. That’s fine for a small group of people in an informal setting. But as soon as you throw actual competition into the equation, things require a bit more explanation because if the competition is going to be fair, then everyone needs to come to the same conclusion about how to handle a case that the basic rule doesn’t address; enter the comprehensive rules. You see, understanding how the stack works and why it exists is crucial to understanding many more naturally occurring things about how rules are supposed to work in any given game, for the simple reason that every game uses a stack, including professional football. Don’t believe me? Remember not so long ago when it was a hot trend in the NFL for coaches to tell the referee before hand that he wanted to take his timeout in the infinitesimally small window of time right before the ball was snapped to the holder on a field goal? That “tactic” almost always resulted in the kicker having to kick the same field goal twice, whether he made the first one or not. That’s the stack at work. It manages what hap-pens in the bits of time that are too small to fit a word into, among other things. Without it, there is chaos, and that’s what makes it necessary. Taking this one step further, without comprehensive rules there can be no stack, and that’s part of what makes them necessary. Everyone has to know how all the words in the basic rule are defined…for instance, if the rule includes the word “catch.”

This helps explain why a rule that, in spirit, says “a completed pass is when one player catches a ball thrown past the line of scrimmage by another player” turns into an awkward, sluggish behemoth of words that includes this little gem:

“Item 1: Player Going to the Ground. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.”

The above is, of course, the rule that (allegedly) applies to Dez Bryant’s “non-catch” in the fourth qfootball1uarter in the game between the Cowboys and Packers, as stated in the current NFL rules. If the ideal rule is one that is interpreted by all parties the same way, then this rule is an absolute nightmare. Since we’ve already established one reason why the wordy, comprehensive version is necessary, we won’t take issue with that here. I don’t think that the rule itself is bad, really; I think that, like most rules, the spirit of it is pretty easy to get behind. It is, however, a badly written rule, and this is where all the trouble comes from. I would argue that this rule, taken in its entirety, is saying two different things, which is the single worst thing a rule can do. If you separate the first sentence from the rest, then Bryant didn’t make the catch since he clearly lost control (assuming we all know how that’s defined) of the ball in the process of contacting the ground. Now separate the last sentence from the rest, and what do we hear? Sounds like a catch to me, since he pretty clearly had “control prior to the ball touching the ground.” Maybe the NFL has decided that the first part of the rule supersedes the last part, but that doesn’t fix the problem that wording like this presents. When the wording of a rule leaves a double standard, it becomes entirely too easy to violate the spirit of that rule, which is ultimately the only thing that matters in the spirit of competition. It looked like a catch. It felt like a catch. Everyone knew it was a catch. Yet by the letter of the rule, it was not a catch. Part of the cure for situations like these is for people to understand that it isn’t the rule itself that needs fixing, but its presentation in the rule book. Before we get into what it takes to really fix something like this, though, let’s take a look at one more big reason comprehensive rules are such a necessary evil.

It’s an example from the same weekend in the NFL, this time from the game between the Ravens and Patriots. The situation is described here:

Comprehensive rules exist because people like this exist—people who will do whatever they can get away with to win at the expense of sportsmanship. Was what the Patriots did legal? Yes. Should they be penalized? No. Do they know what they did, despite not openly acknowledging it? Of course. These people are proof that a basic rule book is not enough; a basic explanation of the rules leaves obvious and numerous opportunities for players of a game—any game—to hear what they want to hear and violate the rules while staying well within the written boundaries of them. I’m talking to you, Guy Who Rolls the Dice as Quickly as Possible During a Game of Monopoly to Avoid Paying Rent. football2Speaking from direct experience, I can tell you that those individuals drive anyone who has had to write or create a rule set for a game absolutely insane. We have to do our best to anticipate every minute little way our rules will be bent or manipulated and include more rules to spell out the fact that no, you can’t just reach across the table and take the other guy’s money for no reason. Comprehensive rule books are full of things that shouldn’t have to be said, but they do have to be said for the simple reason that winning is more important to many people than the game itself is, which is the height of bad sportsmanship. Comprehensive rules are there to keep the playing field level, and as you can see, sometimes even they aren’t enough. Getting a victory by seeing how much you can get away with seems strange to me, but I digress. The point is that those of you out there who are upset about the call that robbed Dez Bryant of his catch, or any frustrated Magic players out there who get fed up with fighting the hundreds of details concerning how the stack works have the likes of the New England coaching staff and their star quarterback to thank for it. Those people are the reason wordy, cumbersome rules have to exist.

There’s no universal cure for this; it has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. A lot of people are upset about the Bryant call, and rightly so. But whether you’re right or not, it’s one thing to say a rule needs to be changed—it’s something else entirely to actually change it. There are a lot of things to consider when trying to figure out how to change a rule that doesn’t work. They’re worded the way they are for a reason, after all. Chances are that at some point the rule in its current form averted some type of disaster. I’ve found that the best place to start is to set aside what doesn’t work for a moment and imagine a few situations in which the rule’s current wording is necessary, usually most easily accomplished by examining some extremes. Let’s take the Bryant case above.

Right away we can see a good prevention. In its current form, the rule very effectively prevents the opposite of the Bryant case from happening; they won’t likely call a dropped pass a catch. Imagine a situation in which a receiver lays out for a ball, undefended. He’s airborne, there’s no chance he lands on his feet, and there’s a defender coming to touch him down at the precise moment he lands. He catches the ball with his hands in midair with his arms outstretched, and lands horizontally on the turf. The impact of the landing jars the ball from his hands at the same time he’s touched down by the defender. Should that be a catch? Let’s notice a few things here. First, there are people who will want to argue that this is a catch. Don’t kid yourself; those people are out there, especially if it’s the difference between a win and a loss for the home team. They’ll call it a catch on the grounds that the guy had clear possession of the ball and went to the ground without losing it, which is true. He technically lost it after his contact with the ground; in order for the ground to jar a ball from your hands, you first have to contact it. It’s a very small, immeasurable window of time, but an important one. Something has to come first in order to make a ruling, and given that the ball coming loose is a direct result of contact with the ground, it only makes sense to say that the ground was contacted before the ball popped out. Which, in turn, means that he was down by contact and the play was technically over before the ball came loose. The existing rule keeps this argument from happening, which is a good thing. When put in stark terms, it’s pretty easy to see that the receiver should have to “maintain control of the ball through the process of contacting the ground.” Maybe in a perfect world, we would make one rule for Bryant’s situation and another for mine. But practically, that’s impossible. Even if it wasn’t, the result would necessarily be more rules with more words, which is exactly what I hear everyone losing their heads over in the wake of these unfortunate events to begin with. What gets lost in times like these is that the current rule usually has a pretty good success-to-fail ratio, and it really doesn’t make much sense to change it based on the outcome of a single play, no matter how pivotal.

Okay, maybe we don’t necessarily want to change the wording, but we watch that play again and we still feel like that should be a catch according to the rulebook. It’s a catch, we decide, in the spirit of the game. This brings us to the next step of rule change: we have to ask the question, “How can we phrase this so that the outcome is palatable in an identical situation?” Or, in this case, “How can we phrase this so that the outcome is a completed pass?” Well, given that Bryant didn’t “maintain control of the ball through the process of contacting the ground,” that’s obviously what has to go. But, right away we can see the danger in taking that out of the rules. We’d cure one problem only to cause a dozen more, like chasing a leak on a damaged roof. If we don’t require players to maintain control through the process, we’re going to start calling a lot more dropped passes, “catches.” No one wants that, and it certainly isn’t good for the game. That feels even more wrong than robbing Dez Bryant. This all brings us to the fact that the real issue here isn’t whether or not Bryant maintained control; he clearly didn’t. The issue is whether or not he established control prior to making a “football move” (a term which appears nowhere in the NFL rule book, I’m told). Oh, these are murky waters indeed, and a different conversation. But for our exercise here, we’re accepting that the catch was never actually completed. Anyone with eyes can see the ball coming out at the end of the play. So, back to the issue at hand—is there anything we can do to improve on the currently existing rule in question? I would suggest a simple separation of the first sentence in the rule from the rest. That first sentence should be the rule, and the rest of it should be sub-ruling, indicating the overall greater importance of that first, perfectly reasonable sentence. The sub-ruling would apply in the appropriate situations, and while we still haven’t found a way to give Bryant the catch, we have all but killed the debate over whether or not it was one. For those of you keeping track at home, it was not.

Finally, let’s examine the overall mess we have on our hands, because it illustrates the kinds of non-rule-related issues that can cause rule-related problems. As I mentioned, I think the wrong rule was brought into question for this discussion, and that never helps. The argument will never cease if not all involved understand what the other side is even arguing, and this appears to be a classic example. If we move the discussion to whether or not he had possession before making a “football move,” then we have to define “football move” and “possession,” and accept that no matter what our conclusion is, a referee is going to make a subjective call based on what he sees at a hundred miles per hour. Not an ideal situation, but it’s the only one possible.

Hopefully you’ve seen that even if a game rule lets you down, the solution usually isn’t as simple as “fixing” it. Sometimes, there’s nothing there to fix. But just for kicks, here’s some homework…we didn’t really address the “football move” angle of this thing; try on your own to define what a “football move” is and find a way to give Bryant the call without causing a disastrous effect on the rest of the league. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with.

One Comment

  • Very good point made here. Competition necessitates well defined specific rules which it seems ultimately have no end.

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