Booyah Buddha: The “Spirit of the Game” Conundrum

While talking about rules in tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs), the concept of RAW vs RAI is a common point of contention. RAW stands for “Rules as Written”, doing your best to read the rules in a vacuum, not influenced by any assumptions of how things SHOULD work. RAI stands for “Rules as Intended”, not just taking the words on their own, but putting context to them and using the meaning behind those words that the writers were trying to convey. RAI almost always trumps RAW, especially when the designer steps in to clarify what the rule means.

Although this discussion usually comes up in RPGs, the RAW vs RAI factor can also have a place in boxed board and card games. However, in some theme-heavy games there is a related issue that can come about which is rather unique to board games: The Spirit of the Game.

The “spirit of the game” (or SotG so I don’t have to keep writing it out) is a set of assumptions of how a game should be played using a combination of RAI and theme. For example, if the goal of a game is to work together to eradicate horrible diseases from the world like in Pandemic, it would be against the SotG to do nothing during your turn just to let the diseases spread more. Why would you do that?!


Tabletop RPGs don’t need a SotG because that’s something that’s already baked into the system; it’s flexible from campaign to campaign based on how the group wants to play. With boxed games, though, the story isn’t as flexible so agreeing to a set SotG can help enhance a rich theme and keep things on track.

With that in mind SotG, in my opinion, is not the same as following the Rules as Intended. RAI is a mix of Rules as Written, common sense, and clarifications from the designer. The SotG is going the extra mile, letting an interpretation of a theme dictate elements of how a game is played. It is much more abstract than RAI and can therefore get into some very contentious situations.

Sometimes I think that the assumed spirit of a game can go a little too far to the point of trying to dictate how people should play a game, even if the rules are being followed to the letter. Some people may even say that you’re playing the game “wrong” even if they don’t know you or know how exactly you’re playing. A personal example of this comes from a game that I’ve been playing a lot of since late last year:


Gloomhaven is a game of epic scale when it comes to game design. The game is HUGE! If you haven’t played or heard of it, the game is a long campaign-style dungeon crawl with some “legacy” elements (changing, destroying and/or unlocking content as you play). It is a cooperative game with a number of rules in place for the sake of balance and to help cut down on “alpha gaming” (something which will likely be a subject for a future post).

One such rule is that money and items can never be exchanged between characters. As Gloomhaven is a very thematic game, the creator gave a thematic reason behind this rule: You are a band of mercenaries who are adventuring for their own individual gains and motivations. Related to this, each character receives a personal quest when the character is created. Once the personal quest is finished, the character is retired the next time the party goes to town and the player creates a new character.

Well, when the starting characters in my group’s party were nearing retirement at a similar rate, we decided that we wanted to retire all of our first characters at the same time. My character completed his quest and the other three characters were within one or two scenarios of completing theirs. So instead of breaking up the party member-by-member, we decided to just not go to town again until all of the characters in the party had finished their quests.

By the rules, this is 100% legitimate. You only retire when you go to town, so if you don’t go to town, you don’t retire. However, when I talked about this plan online, multiple people scoffed at the tactic, saying that it goes against the “spirit of the game.”

Since you’re playing mercenaries who are just in it for themselves, why would some of them choose to keep adventuring once their goal is complete? You’re not friends or anything!  


And really, I felt that crossed the line a bit. There can be a heavy story/roleplay aspect to Gloomhaven. My group isn’t as heavy into that part of the game as some, but we still enjoy those aspects to an extent and had a perfectly logical reasons for what that initial party did. I mean, they were still on the road and just because they are all “in it for themselves” doesn’t mean that they can’t be friends to some degree.

The backstory of the game doesn’t say that you all hate each other and just begrudgingly work together. Honestly, that’d be kind of ridiculous. Why wouldn’t these people grow at least a little attached to each other after facing life and death situations together? Why wouldn’t they be willing to stay on the road a little longer to follow a thread of events and help out their comrades?

Now, I did gain some interesting insight when I talked about this online, but the people who pretty much just said “it’s against the spirit of the game so you’re playing wrong!” really boggled my mind. I feel that this adamant stance on the subject would have been even more offensive for a group that was really into the roleplay aspects of the game. Who are they to tell people how to roleplay and how their characters should act? Especially if it doesn’t go against the rules!

So where am I going with this? Well, when you’re playing a thematic game, it’s usually nice to keep the SotG in mind. It can help get you into the proper feel for the game as designed by the creators. However, SotG should not be set in stone. It should be flexible and warrant a more sensitive “common sense” check than simple RAI. Does the way you play still follow the rules? Does your play style still feel natural and appropriate to you? Does it feel like you’re not exploiting any major loopholes? Then go for it!

One of the great things about tabletop gaming, even in boxed games with mostly set rules, is that there is a great amount of flexibility in how exactly you play the game. You can be super serious about roleplaying, or you can let the theme be simple window dressing. You can be hyper competitive, or just enjoy the process of the game. If you’re following the rules as intended by the designer, you are still enjoying that designer’s vision when playing that game. Enjoy your games and don’t let others force you into a box; that’s just where the components get stored.

The Booyah Buddha has spoken!

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