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Chancery Lane

A game of competitive rule invention inspired by Mornington Crescent
Tuesday the 28th of January 2014

Download a PDF of this ruleset (87k)

Played on the London Underground map, the aim of this game is to be the first player to reach Mornington Crescent. Players take turns to move around the board, optionally adding tokens to it, and may spend their veto chips to veto other players' moves: in doing so, they will gradually build the rules for how the game is to be played.

Grandmasters recommend an ironed TfL teatowel, although a paper map and some small gaming pieces or map pins are acceptable, and the game can easily be adapted to any city's subway or metro map (even those that lack a station called Mornington Crescent) or any network of nodes with distinguishing features. The game optionally uses a pool of any miscellaneous gaming components you have to hand (poker chips, beads, dice, coins, etc). The game can provably take up to nine players, and may work with more.

Although the game bears some superficial resemblance to Mornington Crescent, and exercises some transferrable skills, the two games are very different, with distinct tournament structures and governing bodies, and should not be confused.

Setup


A game of Chancery Lane in progress.

Place the London Underground map in the middle of the table. Each player takes a pawn of their choice and two veto chips (or three chips, in a two-player game; one chip each if playing with six or more). Place a shared pool of miscellaneous tokens near to the board.

A random player is selected to be the starting player, and begins the game by placing their pawn on any unoccupied terminus station (a station at the end of a line). Going clockwise, other players do the same.

The starting player then studies the board and thinks of a movement restriction rule which would prevent any player from moving directly to Mornington Crescent on their first turn, announcing this rule to all players as a “variant”. (eg. “This week we're playing under Stovold's third amendment, which means players cannot change lines mid-move.”) Suggested variants are listed as an appendix.

The “variant” rule becomes binding, and the player to the left of the starting player then takes the first turn.

Taking a turn

On your turn, you may either:

If a player moves their pawn, each of their opponents (in clockwise order) has the option to veto that move by spending a veto chip. When someone vetoes a move, they must casually but clearly explain the rule which makes the move illegal (eg. "slow down, you moved more than five stops there!") - this rule is invented by the vetoer at the time of vetoing.

When this rule is put forward, any player may overrule the veto, either by spending a veto chip of their own (in which case both of the spent veto chips are lost) or showing that the rule is prohibited (described in the next section; in which case the rule's proposer gets their veto chip back). When a veto is overruled, the original move is immediately put back up for a fresh veto round.

If a veto rule is not overruled, it becomes binding for the remainder of the game and all future moves must obey it. The now-illegal move is taken back in its entirety, and the player who made it makes a replacement legal move in its place. (This move also has a veto round as before.) Once a legal move has been made, the player's turn ends.

Example: In a four-player game, it is Cryer's turn. His pawn is at South Acton, and the only rule in effect so far is that the first letter of a player's starting station must appear in the station they are moving to.

Cryer announces a bold move to Mornington Crescent. Neither Rushton nor Garden choose to veto, forcing Brooke-Taylor's hand: he discards one of his veto chips and reminds Cryer that they are playing under Regency rules, and that starting on one side of the Central Line and ending on the other - "striling" - is inappropriate. Cryer accepts this, takes back his pawn and instead moves from South Acton to Oxford Circus, tacitly verifying that a move that ends on the Central Line is not "striling". Brooke-Taylor nods, nobody chooses to veto this new move, and the turn ends.

The rules now in effect are that the first letter of a starting station must appear in the destination, and no move may cross the Central Line.

If a player ends their turn at Mornington Crescent, they win the game.

Dubious and ambiguous rules

Players should attempt to work together to clarify rules upon their creation, as much as possible, ideally in conversation and without going so far as actually writing them down.

"Marble Arch."

  "No, no, this is Ruttsborough '58, you can't change lines like that."

"Like what?"

  "You ended on a different line to the one you started on!"

"Oh, of course. But I can leave a line mid-move and return to it?"

  "Well, naturally!"

Rules created by vetoes (and the initial “variant” rule) should obey the following protocols:

If a rule breaks any of these protocols, then it is considered dubious and any player may choose to prevent the rule from being adopted, at the time of its introduction, at no cost. (Players are free to wave through a complex or potentially deadlocking rule if nobody raises an objection.)

If the phrasing of a rule is realised to be ambiguous on the turn it was created, then its creator must clarify it. If the ambiguity is not realised until later in the game, players should take a vote on how to resolve it, with the player whose turn it is breaking any ties. This resolution is binding.

Veto rules can only apply to moves, never to passes. A player always has the option to pass their turn.

If a new rule would prevent a kind of move that had already been performed in earlier turns – preventing movement south of the river, when much of the early game played out there - this doesn't matter. Thematically, the vetoer can simply explain that the game has now somehow reached a phase or a state - “don't forget we're in croup” - where such moves are no longer legal.

Tokens

Optionally, a player may add (but not remove) a single new token of their choice to any station that their move started at, passed through or ended at. Any such token addition is automatically permitted (unless it is vetoed) and other players are free to repeat it, but these tokens can have no actual effect until a veto rule refers to them.

Example: Garden moves to Dollis Hill via Holland Park. He announces that he is placing a wooden cube on Holland Park and that this "blocks" it, but should not explain what a "block" is.

Rushton later plays a move that passes through Holland Park, but Cryer vetoes it observing that Rushton has blatantly just moved through a blocked station. There is no alternative route that does not pass through Holland Park, so as a replacement move, Rushton moves elsewhere via Willesden Green, and puts a "block" cube there, next to Cryer. Cryer could choose to veto this move on the grounds of its block placement, explaining some overlooked restriction on when and how blocks should be placed, but declines.

Created rules are permitted to refer to tokens which do not yet exist. (eg. “Mornington Crescent is out of bounds until Neasden has been revanched.”) Any unexplained reference to a station having a particular quality should be taken as meaning that the station must bear a token of that type, to have that quality.

For tokens with several possible orientations (such as dice or matchsticks), that orientation is initially unregulated, and may be referred to and/or restricted by veto rules.

If a certain type of token is used up during the game - some tokens may even be unique - then it can no longer be added to the board.

Style

In terms of delivery, a game of Chancery Lane should be undertaken as if its players are actually playing under an existing set of rules, and merely reminding one another of the details, or arguing over their nuances.

Instead of telling your opponent that you're imposing a rule against moving to stations that start with the same letter, admonish them for forgetting to apply a Webster shift and point out how obvious it is that Neasden and Northolt start with the same letter. (This also means that when you want to refer to the rule later on - usually when someone else has broken it - you will already have a shorthand term for it.) It may seem strange if a veto rule would have affected earlier moves, but didn't - if players have been crossing the river all game, but suddenly there is an objection to a player crossing the river to reach Mornington Crescent - but this is easily explained by some aspect of the game having changed since then. ("We've gone into extra time now, you can only cross the river at London Bridge. Keep up!")

If you realise that a rule is ambiguous, ask someone to remind you how it works, or to clarify which year's ruleset you're playing it under.

Strategy

Generally speaking, a veto should only ever be employed when a player is attempting to move to Mornington Crescent, and a tactical player should always move to Mornington Crescent whenever possible (even if this might sometimes seem a little gauche) in order to force a veto.

Veto chips can be the key to the game: if your opponents spend most of theirs and leave you holding a majority, no further rules can stand in your way of Mornington Crescent! There's barely ever any reason to veto a rule if a player further around the table could veto it instead; force them to spend the token.

Be careful to ensure that your veto rule solidly prevents a win, even if the vetoed player retakes their move differently. Using your last veto chip to explain that Tottenham Court Road is en passant will do you no good if your opponent can simply retake their move along a different route via Holborn and King's Cross, to victory.

Deadlock

The most complex restriction on an invented rule is that its addition to the game should not "deadlock" a player - it must not make it theoretically impossible for them to win. This is mainly intended to stop uninteresting rules of "of course, a player at Dollis Hill can only ever move to Dollis Hill", but requires a strict definition for those exploring the edge cases.

A player is deadlocked if there is no theoretical way that they could ever reach Mornington Crescent, assuming that:

For example, a rule of "a player at Dollis Hill can only move to a different station if another player is at Dollis Hill" would not make it impossible for a player at Dollis Hill to move, but if all opponents were being obstructive, they would refuse to help the player out by joining them at Dollis Hill: the player would be deadlocked. Similarly, "you may only move from Dollis Hill if you roll a six" would create a deadlock, as a hypothetically unlucky player would never roll a six.

A rule that "with the exception of Mornington Crescent, players may not end their turn at closed stations", with players placing markers on the board to close one station per turn, might make it impossible for a player to reach Mornington Crescent if they are carefully blocked at every turn, even if they play their best possible game in response, but they must prove this to the satisfaction of other players when the rule is created.

In practice being deadlocked is not always serious, as your opponents will have to balance playing obstructively against winning the game themselves, but if a single player objects to a potential deadlock, this is enough to overrule the veto.

A rule that causes a deadlock must be proven at the time of its addition to the game. (It's up to the players how seriously to take the proofs; if you're having to overthink it, the rule is probably complex enough to be employed strategically against anyone.) If players only realise later that a rule is able to cause a deadlock, then the rule stands, unless it has made it impossible for any player to win the game, in which case players may modify or remove the offending rule. Agreement on such a change must be unanimous; if none can be reached, the game is abandoned as a stalemate.

If a new rule would cause an already-deadlocked player to become deadlocked in a different way (ie. even if the original deadlock were avoided by opponents moving differently or better numbers being rolled, the new deadlock could still occur), that new rule is still considered to deadlock that player.

Appendix: Suggested variants

This is a list of suggested opening rules for the starting player to announce. Those marked with an asterisk may not be suitable for all maps and board openings, as some players may still have a route to Mornington Crescent; check before declaring.

Playing online


Playing Chancery Lane on a Google Drawing.

The game can be played in any form of online text - live chat or slow email - so long as players are careful to ensure that they're all looking at the same map. For clarity's sake, it may help to state each move as, for example, "Baker Street to Edgware Road" rather than just "Edgware Road", so that players don't have to cross-reference each move against the player's previous one.

We've also had some success playing Chancery Lane on a Google Drive Drawing; paste your map of choice into the drawing (making sure to resize the canvas underneath to fit), and let invited players place "Shapes" of their choice onto it, which can be dragged and repositioned. Add a box in one corner to list the playing order and pawn colours, and to track veto chips. The game conversation plays out in the comment thread to the side.

The veto process isn't entirely suited to online games, so you'll probably want to play (at least in the early game) under the house rule that during a veto round, each player is considered to pass automatically if a later player has a veto token remaining. The endgame may need to proceed more carefully.

If you want to arrange an online game or leave any feedback, try Chancery Lane's Facebook page:

Chancery Lane was developed in 2013, and put online in January 2014. The last update was July 2014, framing the veto-overrule system and formalising the idea of "dubious" (but still acceptable) rules. Playtesting is ongoing; thanks to Dom Camus, Martin Griffiths, Guilherme Töws, James Wallis, the Tooting Rollers and the London Playtest UK group. Drop me a line if you've played it and have any feedback.