Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On The Role of Luck

A lot of times when I'm talking to friends about games, I'll find myself saying that I prefer a game where skill will win out over luck (over the long term).  Because I don't like luck in my games because I'm not a very lucky person.  Or so I tell people.

The truth is more complicated than that - because I am a lucky person, when I step back and take a closer look.  It's just that my luck is only good outside of the game itself.

No.  Really.

I've never broken a bone.

I've never been in a serious car accident.

I found my wife via LiveJournal's random user function.

For the Super Bowl, I won a pizza party from Garlic Jim's via Twitter.

In other words: I'm a very lucky person in general.

Until I have to touch dice. Or rely on card or tile draws. Or spinners. Or any other in-game randomizers. Dice hate me. Cards hate me. Tiles hate me. Tokens hate me.

And yet I find myself loving Rise of Augustus - isn't that just Bingo with a theme added?  That's what I hear from a lot of players.  And the answer is "No."

When playing Bingo, you just mark the numbers as they come.  And if you have the same  number on multiple boards, you mark that number multiple times.  And every number has exactly the same probability as every other number.  It is 100% luck-driven.

With Rise of Augustus, not all of the symbols are created equal.  There are more Crossed Swords than there are Chariots, for example.  So - at the start of the game - players can choose to play "boards" with more common symbols (and lower point values) or they can try to get more points with the lower-probability boards.  Or you can try to get a mix of them.  Then, when a symbol comes up, players can decide which of their active boards to mark - do you complete the easy one right away or do you work towards completing one of your more difficult boards?  Then, once you complete a board, choosing which replacement to grab is an issue.  On top of that, there is a question of when to grab the numeric bonus tiles.  And, of course, there are other bonuses to work towards as well - you need to keep track of what your opponents are working towards and how close they are so you can change course (or go for those attack cards).

There is a surprising amount of strategy involved. And while they won't win every time, a player with good strategy will beat a beginner most of the time.  And that, for me, is where luck belongs.

Games which are completely without luck have a reputation for being dry - and they can be. Luck provides for small surprises in gameplay. Even games like Le Fantôme de l'Opéra - which I love - can be dry without the small kick provided by luck. I love the mystery of which characters will be available this turn and can I use that to my advantage (or to your detriment).  I've seen "luck-free" modifications, but they annoyed me because they just didn't play well. They removed that little bit of randomness that meant every game was a little different from the preceding game.

So I like a bit of randomness - but I don't like games which are mostly driven by randomness. But - with far too few exceptions - I also don't tend to like games which are completely luck-free.

Even Dungeon Twister has a little bit of luck - the room layout.  I'm not saying that I'd dislike the game with a static layout, but I would probably like it less. In fact, the more I think about it, the less I think I'd like it.

It's a tricky balance, that of luck vs skill.  And the line will be different for every player. There are people out there who enjoy Fluxx.  I don't understand these people, but they do exist.

I'm just not one of them.


  1. those randomizers keep entropy in check, ae. it's natures way of balancing the stuff of being.

  2. I just found Rise of Augustus and enjoyed the game. Unlike bingo after the first bingo you can choose how much randomness you want to depend upon to play the game. When I play with people who don't game very regularly they prefer games they seem to prefer games with a high degree of randomness tot balance against the players who know the tricks of the game. I guess it's like rubber band physics and power ups in kart racing it is perceived to balance the play field.