The question of whether luck is appropriate in board games is a subject of frequent debate. Those in favor say that chance adds more variability to the game, and strategy arises from being dealt a poor situation and being able to respond to it successfully. Detractors say that any game where it’s possible to lose despite being a better player is a bad one.
I mostly stand in the former camp, but for this essay, indulge me as I become that irritating person from your least favorite college class who has to be devil’s advocate for everything. In my opinion, the way designers discuss chance makes assumptions about players – about human beings – that aren’t true. Specifically, I’m talking about how “chance” is referred to as a single lump, ignoring that people treat different mechanisms for delivering chance differently.
The Medium Is The Message
A number of my college professors liked talking about Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher who raised the idea that the way in which a message is delivered is more important than the message’s actual content. My opinions aren’t as extreme as McLuhan’s, but I do agree that changing the way in which information is delivered will have significant effects on its reception. It’s why you’re not supposed to break up with someone by text.
I want to spend most of this article discussing this concept in terms of chance, but similar effects can be seen in many aspects of game design. For example, let’s say you have two choices, A and B, where A gives you more of a certain kind of resource. Now let’s say we have two situations:
Situation 1: If you pick A, you lose three victory points.
Situation 2: If you pick B, you get three victory points.
People who haven’t developed the cold, calculating logic that strategy game veterans eventually get will stay away from option A more often in the first situation, even though the net loss of points is exactly the same. Losing points signals that you’re not “supposed” to do that action.
Let’s look at three common ways games use chance and the way we percieve them as players.
Among more serious players, games with dice in them have developed a reputation of being too random to be fun. The few exceptions, including Castles of Burgundy and Roll For The Galaxy, give you a large number of ways to manipulate your rolls, meaning that there’s only a few situations where a bad roll can screw you over. Rather than argue about whether dice being “more random” is true or not, let’s look at some of the reasons this stereotype exists.
- Existing dice games: A majority of dice games, whether standalone or adaptations of a more complex existing property, are frequently very simple and luck-based. Of note is the dozens of reheated Zombie Dice press-your-luck games in weird containers picking up dust at your local game store.
- No card counting: Let’s say you have a deck of 30 cards, with 5 copies of the numbers 1 through 6 in it. If you draw a 4, you then have a slightly smaller chance of drawing a 4 on the next turn. However, if you roll a six-sided die instead, you have just as much chance of rolling a 4, maybe more if the die isn’t balanced well. There’s simply no way to predict how fortune will unfold.
- Feel: Rolling dice just isn’t as classy as drawing cards. It’s loud, messy, and them bones frequently roll off the table or end up tilted on a stray coaster or piece of terrain. Don’t even get me started on electronic dice.
Cards are cheap to produce, easy to fit in a box, and people loooooove them. That said, if we look at our 1-6 deck up above, there really isn’t a significant difference between drawing from than and rolling dice. So why do entrenched gamers tolerate luck more when it comes to drawing cards?
- System complexity: There’s only so much information that can be fit on a die. Decks of cards can be packed with details, and can be edited more easily (deckbuilding, etc.)
- Card counting: As mentioned under the dice section, if one card is drawn from a deck, it makes it that less likely for that card to show up again. Even though the actual difference is fairly low until you’ve gone through a lot of the deck, the way the probability changes is more in line with the “feel” of the audience.
- Hidden information: Excluding the use of screens, if you roll some dice, everyone gets to see the result. Cards allow you the use of hidden hands, letting your bluff your way even through a run of bad luck.
SIMULTANEOUS ACTIONS (aka Rock-Paper-Scissors)
This one’s tricky because it frequently isn’t categorized as an element of luck at all. A lot of games claim that because acting simultaneously opens up the opportunity to read your opponent and pick a counter, very little chance is actually involved. This may be true in some cases, but there’s no way someone can win a six-player game of Libertalia and claim with a straight face that it was all skill, baby.
- Doesn’t feel like luck: That said, simultaneous actions certainly don’t feel like rolling dice or drawing cards because you have 100% control over what action you pick. This applies double for when you get a good outcome because it makes you feel like a smart person who can read minds.
- Symmetry: Simultaneous action also prevents complaints that a player dealt a bad hand has no chance of winning. When the only “random” factor is what actions players choose, it allows complete symmetry at the start of the game.
The way I wrote this article may make it seem like I think that, in all cases, simultaneous actions>cards>dice. What I’m trying to get through, however, is that these are the ways that entrenched gamers – and I sincerely hope that any game designer is fairly entrenched – view these mechanisms of chance. As you design your game, look at it through two different lenses: How luck actually works in the game, and how luck appears to the players. This way, you’ll be able to (depending on your goals) sneak variance into a game that doesn’t want it too obviously or make a more strategic game exciting to even casual players. It’s another tool in a toolbox that always needs to be growing.