Luck and Chaos in Gaming

I’ve recently listened to the latest podcast of The Metagamers, which is on Luck and Chaos, and it got me thinking a little more about both what I mean when I use those terms as well as my feelings about how they affect game play.  So, now having a shiny, new blog of my own, I decided to get some of my thoughts down on computer-simulated paper.

So… what exactly do I mean when I refer to luck and chaos in games?  The distinction I tend to draw comes from where the “randomness” originates in the game:

Luck – randomness deriving from some game component itself, such as rolling dice, dealing cards, or blindly pulling tiles.

Chaos – randomness caused by the actions of other players that may or may not be predictable. 

Now, when I usually hear (and often use) these terms, they are almost always given a very negative connotation.  So on the most superficial level, gamers seem to hold randomness in low regard.  And of course, we’ve all been there in those circumstances when such feelings were forged, as a single roll of a die or last-turn card flip gave victory to one of our opponents when we rightfully deserved to win (or at least, so we say). 

But does anyone really think that all randomness should be removed from all games?  I doubt it, and there are several reasons why:

Randomness is real.  Real life is full of events and circumstances that we just can’t control.  We can’t (accurately) predict the weather and we can’t read other people’s minds.  So to have a game with perfect knowledge and perfect control is to have a wholly imaginary construct that in no way accurately reflects real life and that we can’t really relate to.  Reacting to the unexpected, both from other players and the game itself, is exciting, and the total loss of randomness can make a game pretty dry and boring sometimes.

Randomness brings variability.  In a perfect knowledge game, there are usually only so many strategies and solutions.  Replayability can be impaired if you can absolutely predict what that the results of your actions will always be.  Complexity (having a vast number of choices available) can help this, but in general, some level of randomness is required.

Randomness evens the field.  In games that are completely devoid of randomness, all the players have to rely on is their skill with and knowledge of that particular game.  Now, I know this sounds like a good thing (and it can be in some cases), but the problem lies in that rarely do we play only with people of equal skill and knowledge.  And this especially makes it hard to introduce new people to the game (because who wants to repeatedly play against someone who they have no chance of beating… Chess is a good example of this concept, by the way).  Randomness therefore helps to keep newbies in the game, plus it also forces players to think “on the fly” and react to changing situations, which does not necessarily require that they be fully intimate with the game itself to have some level of success.  This is especially true for children’s games and games intended for the “family”. 

Of course, I’m sure that there are other positive effects that luck has on games, but those are the ones that occurred to me as I sat down to write this.  But on the other hand, there are also situations in which randomness can ruin a game:

When you have no control at all.  There are some games where skill and knowledge of the game mean absolutely nothing, and the results are driven wholly by the random factors of the game.  Whether it be a traditional “roll and move” (or “flip a card and move”, a la Candyland) game, a card game that gives only the illusion of control (Fluxx, Phase 10), or a game where there is just so much going on with the other players that you have no way to predict what will happen, playing a game where you feel that your decisions are almost completely irrelevant also becomes boring and leaves you dissatisfied with the experience (win or lose).

When the impact of randomness is not in proportion to the amount of randomness in a game.  There are games where one or two big, random events tend to decide the outcome of an otherwise skill-driven game.  This is essentially the “granularity” idea that Jim Cote mentioned in the podcast, and it can also lead to a very unsatisfying gaming experience. 

So immediately, it becomes evident that a balance must be achieved with the inclusion of luck and chaos in a game.  What factors then determine an “appropriate” balance?  I think it all comes down to having an opportunity to prepare or account for the impact of randomness.  When randomness is part of a game, the players need to have methods of managing or mitigating the randomness.  In Settlers of Catan, for instance, players get to choose where to place settlements and cities, and their success in the game is related to the probability of those locations producing the resources they need (which is conveniently marked on each production number chit itself).  Of course, this doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it is still an opportunity to place yourself in a situation to make the best of the luck involved.  

On the other side, it’s also important to be able to “fix” your strategy when luck or chaos interrupts your plans.  When luck causes an effect that has an irrevocable and potentially catastrophic effect on the game, it can easily ruin it.  Instead, luck should create “wrinkles” that players need to work around or incorporate into their strategy.  This can also apply to conflict resolution (battles), but the results of such battles should still be “predictable”, particularly when forces are lopsided.  Personally, I think cube tower in Wallenstein/Shogun is a good example of this, because even if the randomness of the tower works against you in one battle, it literally “stores up” your luck that can be then accounted for in future battles.

And in the case of “push your luck” games, the whole point of the game is to make the best set of decisions to account for the random elements which form the central “challenge” of the game.  For instance, Ra is (to me) the perfect “push your luck” game.  All of the players have all of the same information and start with virtually identical resources.  They then must make a series of decisions to put themselves in the best place to account for the “random” tile draw and have the most points at the end of the game.  Randomness itself is the challenge of the game, and whoever best manages it will usually win.

Chaos fits in pretty well into most of the factors I’ve mentioned above, but is a little different in that it also involves a whole other skill set to master.  Dealing with chaos generated from the actions of other players is almost always predictable in some form or fashion (assuming that they are familiar enough with the game to know what is a good move and are acting in their own best interests).  So it is not truly “random”, it is just very difficult to account for, particulrly when several people under widely different circumstances are involved.  It instead brings into play a “social intelligence” factor to the game that many just write off as “random”.  But there are people who are very good at this skill (sizing up other players and predicting their actions), and one so skilled will consistently do very well in games which rely on simultaneous decision making and similar mechanics.  A lot of times, those very good at the “intellectual” side of gaming aren’t as good at the “social” aspect of these games, and they will discount such mechanics as “chaotic” because they aren’t very good at them.  

I’ve probably wasted enough time here, so I’d better wrap up. 

Luck and chaos exist on a continuum in board games.  And in many ways, this randomness is similar to “theme” in what they both bring to a game.  There are some games which are completely devoid of both (many abstract strategy games), but which can still be fun and entertaining.  There are also games which rely far too heavily on either randomness or theme (or both), and tend to end up with being unsatisfying and forgettable.  On the other hand, when the right balance is struck between these factors and the mechanics of a game, it can be a truly beautiful thing.  

But whether you like to play games with more or less randomness, remember what’s important… just play


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