Unintended Consequences of Minor Rules in Sports and Games
June 1, 2012 1:41 PM   Subscribe

What sports and games are now dominated by a minor or special-case rule?

In a number of games and sports, the way it is played now is dominated by a rule or means of scoring that appear to have designed for a special case, or to be a minor part of the game. For example:
  • In tournament-level Scrabble, the scoring of "bingoes" where all seven letters are used, getting a 50-point bonus, is the most important way of getting a high-score. According to Stefan Fatsis's book Word Freak, players hold back letters that are likely to lead to bingoes, and spend a lot time learning them. My impression is that this rule was designed to be a rare bonus not a part of day-to-day play.
  • In cricket, most dismissals are by catching the ball not hitting the wicket. It seems to me that the original design of the sport was primarily about defending the wicket, and that being bowled out was designed to be the main way in which players were dismissed.
  • In football (soccer), goals from "set piece" situations such as penalties are an increasingly important way of scoring, rather than being a way of dealing with occasionally aberrant behaviour. Also, the penalty shoot-out to resolve drawn matches provides an alternative strategy whereby a team facing a strong opponent can play wholly defensively to try to force a nil-nil result and get to the shoot-out where chance factors play a bigger role.
Are there other examples of this kind of phenomenon, where something designed to be a minor part of the game becomes very important as the game develops? Have I understood the examples above correctly?
posted by Jabberwocky to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (29 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The last minute end-game strategy of close games in basketball is dominated by intentional fouling and forcing the other team to shoot free throws.
posted by true at 1:48 PM on June 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

The majority of scoring in hockey takes place when someone is in the penalty box. But that isn't "minor", so maybe it doesn't fit your criteria.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:49 PM on June 1, 2012

I'm sure I can think of something better, but a reversed-engineered answer would be dribbling in basketball, which was a loop-holed way of avoiding the rule of not holding the ball while moving.
posted by General Malaise at 1:51 PM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Nice question. The Forward Pass in american football was a niche play to start.
posted by true at 1:51 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

In American football, one critical rule is that the game clock stops on an incomplete pass. The original rationale was that someone would have to chase the ball to get it back, and it wasn't reasonable to consume game clock time while doing that. Likewise, the clock stops when the ball carrier goes out of bounds.

This created the so-called "Two Minute Drill", a special way of playing which relied heavily on short passes, especially to a receiver next to the sideline. Whether successful or not, such plays only use a few seconds of game time. I've seen football games where the last "two minutes" took half an hour to play.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:53 PM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm not really up on gaming, but I have a strong impression that many multiplayer games are dominated by players who have mastered the emergent results of seemingly incidental game mechanics - things like rocket jumping in Quake and its lineal descendants.
posted by brennen at 1:53 PM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Bidding systems in bridge were a way to get around the 'no communication' rule during the auction.
posted by empath at 1:56 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll stretch the definition of "sports and games" and suggest the filibuster in parliamentary procedure.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:58 PM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

"Western style" slow derby was kind of a big deal in roller derby a couple of years ago, don't know if it's still a thing or not.
posted by gauche at 2:06 PM on June 1, 2012

"Western style" slow derby was kind of a big deal in roller derby a couple of years ago, don't know if it's still a thing or not.

Yes, it is.
posted by Lucinda at 2:08 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

where something designed to be a minor part of the game becomes very important as the game develops?

In both rugby and American football, the touchdown superseded the kicked goal as the primary method of scoring: under early American rules, a touchdown didn't earn any points itself, but entitled a team to a kick that, if successful, would score a point.
posted by holgate at 2:09 PM on June 1, 2012

Someone more familiar with the sport should chime in, but I believe in (foil) fencing there is a move that takes advantage of the electric sensing technology that is currently used in the swords and jackets. It involves whipping the tip of the foil around to tap the opponent on the back of the shoulder. In fact, wiki comes to the rescue once again.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:21 PM on June 1, 2012

Before 2005, if a regular season NHL game ended in a tie there would be a five minute sudden death overtime. If nobody scored during that five minutes, the game remained tied and each team got a point in the standing.

Since 2005 tied games go to 5 minute overtime, then to a stupid shootout that flushes the whole game down the toilet in favor of a one on one skill competition.
posted by usonian at 2:22 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

backseatpilot - it's known as the 'flick' hit, and is still very popular in both foil and epée (to the point where there is a 'Flickmaster' foil blade available), but not to the extent it was a few years ago. They revised the stiffness of blades and the length of time the point had to be in contact in order for a point to be scored to make flicking more difficult.

You can file that one under sports that USED to fit this description!
posted by fearnothing at 2:27 PM on June 1, 2012

In Olympic weightlifting you are allowed one minute to attempt a lift--in that minute you have to walk out on the platform from the rest area and complete it within the minute. However, if you request to have the weight on the bar raised--like by 1kg--the clock is stopped while the bar weight is changed. You're allowed to change the weight twice (or three times, don't remember). So it has become pretty common for lifters and coaches to eke out extra rest by requesting a weight lower than planned, and then incrementally raising the weight to the weight they actually intend to lift in order to stretch out preparation time.
posted by Anonymous at 2:31 PM on June 1, 2012

In baseball the rule allowing any player to be substituted at any time unexpectedly led to the development of the relief pitcher role. In the early days it was expected that unless there was an injury or similar serious problem, the starting pitcher would pitch the whole game (which is scored as a "complete game"). In the early days of the majors top starting pitchers would maybe have 60 to 70 complete games in a season. By the 1970s that number had dropped to 20-30 complete games, and these days it's rare for highest complete game total to break double digits. Also, teams have more pitchers on their roster to make room for more relievers, most of the exciting final innings of games are pitched by relievers, and some of the most talented pitchers in baseball work exclusively in relief for their entire careers.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:32 PM on June 1, 2012

In baseball, a pitch outside the strikezone counts as a ball. Four such balls and the batter takes first base, called a walk or a base on balls. The spirit of the rule encourages pitchers to throw hittable balls in the strikezone.

A side effect of this rule is an intentional base on balls. I don't follow baseball much, so maybe intentional walks don't "dominate" play, but Wikipedia says that heavy, record-breaking hitters receive given the most intentional walks.
posted by Boxenmacher at 2:43 PM on June 1, 2012

In Go, there's a rule that prevents the game from turning into an endless loop by forbidding the board to ever return to a previously held position. Because of this rule, a weird meta-game called a ko fight springs up all the time where the players go back and forth throwing out crazy moves in order to capture a particular stone without breaking the ko rule.
posted by theodolite at 2:52 PM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also Jeopardy! has a somewhat unique gameshow rule where the clue is always read in its entirety and contestants can only buzz in to answer after the host has finished reading it. The rule was originally added because they wanted viewers at home to have a chance to hear the question and guess at home. The end result though is that if most of the contestants know the correct responses to most of the questions, it becomes a test of who has the best timing on the buzzer rather than trivia knowledge. Contestants who are very bad at timing the buzzer have a huge disadvantage in the game that is not really apparent to the casual viewer.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:53 PM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

@burnmp3s I'd also chalk that one up to "used to be truer than it is now". Ken Jennings in his book, Brainiac mentioned that the game in which he lost he felt like the buzzer timing was way off from what he was used to. He freely admitted to having a great advantage over new players once he got the timing of the buzzer down, but believes that they ended up randomizing the time between Alex finishing reading and the light coming on that indicates that a player can now buzz in.

Contrast Jeopardy!'s style with Reach for the Top, where a question was once answered correctly after the host said a single word, "hydrologically" (Answer: Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, to the question "Hydrologically, these two Great Lakes actually form a single lake") and I think Jeopardy!'s style makes for better TV.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:37 PM on June 1, 2012

(Crap, I'm showing my Canadianness, I mean Quiz Bowl above.)
posted by Space Coyote at 3:40 PM on June 1, 2012

The overwhelming majority of American criminal cases are resolved by plea bargaining rather than at trial.

You may be interested in this wikipedia article about emergent strategies in games. It includes the observation that "combo" moves in beat-em-up games originated as an exploitation of animation lag.

In an admittedly abstract sense, civilization and technology amount to a set of now-extremely-widespread exploitations, by human beings, of the rules of a resource-accumulation game which other species were not clever enough to hack.

Terrific question.
posted by foursentences at 4:05 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Promotion in chess, generally of a pawn to a queen when it reaches the 8th rank, was intended originally to reduce the amount of stalemates due to lack of material. But it spawned something pretty huge and unbelievably complex called the Endgame in the process, and there are many many players who are known especially for being great endgame players.

I personally enjoy playing that way (by the rules), but I can see how in a certain light promotion is this crazy deus ex machina like going into turbo mode in a video game or something. I believe there are some folks who take issue with the rule, but in chess there is always someone who takes issue.
posted by TheRedArmy at 4:46 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Water Polo you're allowed to foul a player as long as they are holding the ball. If you're in the process of fouling them and they let go then the foul occurs. This leads to water polo players holding the ball and when pressed letting go and leaning/ducking into the fouling player to get the foul called (a free pass). This is now part of the normal fabric of the game (to the point where you can't play water polo without a ref).

Note this isn't the same as flopping in soccer, though my wife will tell you otherwise.

BTW I disagree with your set piece bit on soccer. Its one of the few times in the game where you can actually set a play but I don't see it as an "unintended" consequence. (But hey its your question ;-)
posted by bitdamaged at 5:28 PM on June 1, 2012

In Team Fortress Classic the concussion grenade was designed to be used to disorient enemies. But its strong blast and minimal damage means that a player can use his own to "conc jump" and reach otherwise inaccessible ledges.
posted by clorox at 7:21 PM on June 1, 2012

Not sure if these count, but:

In baseball, starting pitchers usually form a 5-man "rotation." The game is played almost every day, with maybe only a couple days off a month, and pitchers are routinely given 4 days' rest between starts. In the postseason, there are more frequent days off, to spread out games for TV, travel, and in case of postponements. All teams exploit this by reducing the rotation to 4 guys or even 3. This favors teams with "top-heavy" rotations and hurts those with deeper ones (since your back-end guys can't get likely wins against theirs).

In hold-em poker, it used to be you'd raise with only premium starting hands, but over time it was generally a good idea to also raise sometimes with "potential" hands like A-K, in the event your hand hits, this gets more money in the pot, and also forces opponents to put you on a wider range of hands. I'm sure there must be other poker examples.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:33 PM on June 1, 2012

I'd say the LBW rule in cricket is pretty important in determining the dismissal of batters through a judgement call of the umpire, especially tricky wrt a spin bowler
posted by jannw at 3:16 AM on June 2, 2012

In chess, stalemate (when the side whose turn it is to move is unable to make a legal move) is a draw. (You could easily imagine a version of chess in which not being able to move meant that you lose the game.) It sounds like a special case, but it turns out that endings with king + pawn vs king are totally decided by whether the defender is able to keep the player with the pawn from making progress without forcing stalemate. King + pawn vs king, in turn, being basically the most primitive endgame, is always lurking in the future as a possible position that could arise after trades, and whenever you're thinking of going into one of those positions you have to evaluate whether it'll be a draw or a win. Keep working backwards like that and you'll see that the stalemate rule has tremendous implications for chess play, even in the middle game.
posted by dfan at 12:46 PM on June 2, 2012

A few random video games:

Most speedruns exemplify this. In speedruns, players try to beat a video game as quickly as possible by taking advantage of obscure quirks and bugs. A few examples: In Half-Life 2, a physics quirk makes it possible to effectively "fly" by picking up a shipping palette, looking down, and jumping while walking forward. This allows players to bypass sections of the game. In Super Mario Brothers 3, it's possible (with a modified controller) to bypass certain walls by pressing left and right at the same time. In Zelda: A Link to the Past, you can use a similar wall-walking bug to skip from the beginning of the game to the final boss, and then another bug to kill the final boss without a weapon.

Super Smash Brothers Melee has a bunch of quirks that allowed skilled players to block, dodge and move in ways the designers never intended, which became important in tournament play. These bugs were removed in the next game, Brawl, but were so sorely missed that hardcore fans are working on modding Brawl to add them back.

Modern Warfare 2's Tactical Nuke, which is only usable after getting 25 kills without dying, was supposed to be a rarely-usable item. It turns out that, in objective-based game types, there's usually one player (almost always a sniper) that manages to get a 25-kill streak before someone can complete the objective. In some game types, tactical nukes end the game more often than not.

In Halo, you could make one-way teleporters unusable by parking a vehicle on top of the exit. Making sure a Warthog stays on top of the enemy's teleporter exit often a big part of the strategy when playing Capture the Flag on bigger maps.

In Halo 2, there was supposed to be a short wait between melee attacks, but you can get around it by switching weapons immediately after melee attacking. Close-range battles were often decided by who could do this the fastest. The game also had a bug that made it possible, by jumpinga certain way off certain objects, to do something called a "super-bounce," which can propel you to parts of the map players were never intended to be able to reach. Most of these areas are extremely high-up and ridiculously overpowered sniping perches, but it's so hard to get to them that many players considered this obvious bug to be a legitimate part of online play. Some people insisted that they were something Bungie had added to the game intentionally, and lot of hardcore players were annoyed when the fixed the bug in Halo 3. There was also a bug that made it possible to fly across whole maps by equipping the sword and locking onto an enemy while in the passenger seat of a jeep... again, this was fun and difficult enough to use that a lot of people thought it should stay in the game.

In Halo Reach, players who jetpack to areas that are "off-limits" when playing online will have ten seconds to return before getting killed. The idea is to stop players from using these areas, but many of these areas are very useful, so jet-packing players will often jump up to an off-limits area, wait there for 7 or 8 seconds, then jump back, now fully healed and ready to get the drop on someone.

...and back to that five-page research paper. Drat.
posted by Green Winnebago at 6:05 PM on June 2, 2012

« Older Early Newspaper Comic Strips   |   Can I afford this sports car of my dreams? Posting... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.