Boardgame Basics: The Role of Luck in Games

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Most people probably take it for granted that a game will involve some level of luck.  Whether it’s rolling dice, dealing cards, drawing tiles, or flicking a spinner, you just sort of expect something in the game to depend on randomness.  But it’s also pretty normal for us to think that the outcome of a game should depend on who is better at the game, or at least made the best decisions throughout play.  So if both of these ideas are true, have you ever thought about how much luck is therefore “appropriate” in a game?

For Modern Boardgames, one of the most important elements is that choices matter.   These games give the opportunity for players to develop strategies and make decisions about how they will play, and if some random event totally derails or invalidates all the investment that they have made in the game, it can be quite frustrating.IMG_4708_edited_2

However, it’s not always the best choice to have a game with no randomness at all, for several reasons.  First, randomness is real. Real life is full of events and circumstances that we just can’t control, and reacting to the unexpected can be an exciting and challenging part of game play.  Second, randomness brings variability to a game.  This keeps a game fresh and can help it to have greater potential for repeated play.

Luck also works to even the field. In games with no randomness at all, the better player will pretty much always win.  That’s nice for the better player, but it can get very frustrating for everybody else.  Especially when playing with new players or children, it’s usually nice to have a game that both challenges experienced players by making them react to unpredictable circumstances while also giving new players at least some chance to catch up and have a shot at winning.

85435249670242smallLet me throw out two common examples at different ends of this “luck spectrum”.  Monopoly depends very heavily on randomness: where you move, what you can buy, who you have to pay, when the game ends… pretty much everything.  Chess, on the other hand, has no randomness in it at all; the only variability in the game comes from the choices of both players.  Monopoly can be very frustrating because you have very little choice or control over your fate, and it can drag on forever.  Chess is frustrating to get into because you will always be playing people better than yourself and therefore lose a lot… and frankly, it’s kind of boring,

But most modern boardgames live somewhere in between these two extremes, striking a balance between having some level of luck but still ensuring that choices continue to matter.  So, what factors then determine this “appropriate” balance?  In most cases, it all comes down to having an opportunity to prepare or account for the impact of randomness.  To wrap up this installment of Boardgame Basics, let’s look at three of the most common ways this can be done:

  • Granularity – Granularity refers to how small the bits are, and in this case, how big of an impact any single random event can have on the game.  For example, it’s usually okay to have a card game where you draw new cards each turn.  You then have the chance to see the cards, integrate them into your strategy, and make adjustments as needed,  But if you only drew one new card all game long, and what you drew made the difference between winning and losing, then you wouldn’t feel like your choices had any relevance at all.
  • Probability – Randomness is also more acceptable when you can make an educated guess about how likely certain things are to happen.  If you choose to go against the odds, then you’re putting yourself more at the whim of chance.  But you can also choose to be safer and pick the more probable choice.
  • Mitigation – This is often tied to granularity (and the scale of impact from the random events), but more specifically, this addresses the ability for a player to recover from a negative event.  If one unlucky die roll completely destroys your chance of winning, then you will become disinterested in the game.  But if there’s some way for you to overcome or “roll with” the impact of the event, you can remain engaged with what’s going on.

The next, and final, article in this series will cover the elements of Conflict and Competition in Modern Boardgames.
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Boardgame Basics

Part 1: An Introduction to Modern Boardgames
Part 2: Game Categories
Part 3: Theme and Setting
Part 4: Game Mechanics
Part 5: The Role of Luck in Games
Part 6: Conflict and Competition

11 Comments

  1. Mike

    An interesting concept that’s related to randomness is unpredictability. One of my favorite games is Castle For All Seasons. In it’s base form, there is no randomness, but until you can guess all of your opponent’s actions, there’s a great deal of unpredictability.

  2. Bryan

    Nice article. I tend towards 80% skill 20% luck I’d say. Sometimes I like a nice zero-luck abstract though. Heavy luck games I rarely enjoy.

  3. Chris Norwood

    Way back in my first “real” article here, I discussed Luck and Chaos in Gaming, where I got into a lot more detail about these matters.  Specifically, I defined “chaos” as the unpredictability of what other players will do (as you mentioned).  It’s definitely not actually “random”, but it can sure feel that way sometimes.

  4. Chris Norwood

    I’d say that the more I play Euro/modern boardgames, the less I can tolerate luck/randomness.  But in most cases, it’s not the inclusion of luck itself, but rather the lack of control or meaningful decisions that the luck may invalidate. 

    For instance, I had a total blast playing Space Hulk a couple of weeks ago, and that game is filled with random dice rolls.  But there was a deep enough theme and plenty of opportunities for tactical decisions that it didn’t bother me.  Plus, there are so many dice rolls throughout the game that you’re going to hit some good and some bad, and even though the game effectively came down to the roll of one die, it somehow felt “real” and meaningful nonetheless. 

  5. Chris Ingersoll

    Man… tonight might have been the first time we were SAVED in a game of Ghost Stories by the dice.

    Josh did not fail a roll. Ever. He was a smiting machine. His final roll against the (official) incarnation of Wu Feng, weakened by the Prayer Circle? THREE WHITES and an irrelevant result (go Strength of the Mountain!).

    He was touched, I tells ya.


  6. You’re welcome. I had problem with that myself and so I thought it might be useful to capture that online.


  7. Nice work from your side… have a nice time with yoru blog 🙂


  8. That games specified in here are my favorite. I enjoyed this ans I think you too will enjoy it. Thank You.

  9. Dominic

    Good stuff. Working on curriculum on a class and these will definitely help. thanks.

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