Gambling Problems

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casino-dice.jpgI spent a recent column trying to take a different view of what it is that unites us all under the banner of "Ameritrash". But there's one particular unifying factor that I forgot, and while it wasn't really important to the argument I was trying to make there, it's interesting in its own right because it marks a near-universal point of agreement amongst AT fans. The point in question is simply that games need to have a good, solid dose of random to make them interesting. It's something we nearly all agree on - whilst some of us might have more time for abstracts or low-random euros than others, and whilst our tolerance of the degree to which random factors eventually influence the winner of a game may differ, we're united in believing that random factors lend too much fun, excitement, drama and dynamism to a game to be squeezed out in the search for some mythical perfectly balanced game.

It's worth noting that randomness takes many forms. Some are obvious - dice, for example. Others are either less obvious or have a greater or lesser claim to being subject to the whims of fate. Drawing cards or chits from a set is clearly a random factor but their effect on a game can be judged to some extent by card counting. I would argue that hidden information in a game is effectively a random factor, as long as the information hidden has a direct result on the game outcome, because it forces other players to make decisions on criteria that are unknowable to them and in effect that's no different than weighing up the probabilities of a successful dice roll or card draw. Games in which the interpersonal dynamics of the players feature heavily might also be considered random because people often make irrational decisions - defending a piece of useless territory on a world map, for example, just because they happened to enjoy a particularly memorable holiday there.

Just as randomness can come from many places so its impact on a game can take many forms. Rolling more dice ups the likelihood that the results will conform to a statistical average and thus make the game less random overall for those who base their strategies around these probabilities. A smaller deck of cards or chits will make it easier to memorise and track. Hidden information becomes less random if the game contains mechanisms to discover the information earlier on. The scope is huge, too huge to make delving into the various ways a game mechanic and a random factor can overlap. But there are two things we can say with definite certainty. The first is that a lot of random factors in a game in no way equates to the skill required for play - see Twilight Struggle for an excellent example of a highly random game in which good strategy still predominates. The second is that all forms of random factor are a form of gambling, and that's the focus of this article. Sorry it took three whole paragraphs to get there.

By a strict definition of gambling most board game sessions aren't actually going to qualify because they don't involve a material wager. However many of the games we like certainly do involve an immaterial wager: bragging rights. And the remainder of the definition fits perfectly because the wager has to be on an event of uncertain outcome. And again "uncertain" does not exclude the possibility of increasing your odds for success by making clever bets. The success of card counting teams in Vegas and the existence of "professional" sports gamblers who have an encyclopaedic knowledge of their choice sport is testament enough to that. This is of course analogous to deploying clever strategy in a game.

It should therefore come as zero surprise that I, for one, have found a very close link between enjoyment of AT games and enjoyment of actual monetary gambling. I have several friends who are not stereotypical "gamers" in any way but who enjoy a bet and who have taken to Ameritrash games like fish to water. Most of my regular gaming cadre are also very fond of small-scale gambling, placing tiny wagers such as a pound-per-player on the eventual outcome of a board game. Indeed during marathon gaming sessions when everyone has had too much to drink to handle anything with any serious weight of rules we often break into an impromptu session of low-stakes poker to end the evening.

In fact, I'm terrified by the idea of "proper" gambling with decent sums of money, possibly because I can recognise in myself the makings of someone for whom gambling could become a problem. But I do enjoy gambling for small stakes - I'm particularly fond of putting down one pound bets against ridiculous odds, trying to guess who'll be first to score in a football match. And I'm not entirely sure that it's the immaterial wagers available in a board game that aren't a big part of the charm that keeps me coming back for more. It'd help explain why it's so much more satisfying to play in a long-term, stable group in which bragging rights can actually mean something. Maybe it's true for all of us - maybe that's what we all mean when we say we enjoy "drama" in a game.

But whether you're gambling for material or immaterial stakes, one thing you have to learn is that gambling has two sides. You loose more often than you win, but if you do it right and you get lucky then the payoff can be huge. Some people have a hard time coming to terms with the idea of loosing - even loosing immaterial stakes - and this, rightly, puts them off gambling. This might seem obvious but what interested me about it, and what lead to the inspiration for this weeks' column, is it's relation to the actual experience of playing a board game involving gambling against one that doesn't involve some form of gambling.

See, in my experience, one of the curious things about low-random Eurogames is that they can be relied on to replicate a certain play feel time after time. The exact feeling or experience you get vairies with the game: the point is that any given game - we'll use Ra as an example because it's quick to type - will tend to feel the same over repeat plays, regardless of what different positions and strategies get employed across those games. Whatever your tactics, whatever tiles come out of the bag, the experience of playing Ra tends to push the same emotional, cognitive and sensory buttons every time. This certainly has its upsides - if you like it then it's a game you can bust out for casual play with a good idea whether or not it'll suit the situation or the company. It also means that if you play a Euro and hate it, chances are it's not something that will gradually unfold for you and demonstrate hidden charms if you try it again. And this sort of reliable precognition of how something is going to work out is, of course, the precise opposite of randomness.

Take the opposite sort of game. The sort of games we tend to love. The sort of games that require a whole cube of Chessex dice, multiple card stacks, a large group of plotting and scheming players and a theme that's liable to elicit a whole bunch of unpredictable reactions (gee, did I just inadvertently describe Arkham Horror?). This sort of game is not going to be the same each time you play it, not just in terms of it throwing up different events as you play through and evoke those random factors, but in terms of the game actually eliciting different feelings. Sometimes you'll feel elated, triumphant. Sometimes, put upon and marginalised. Sometimes even bored and fed up. Because, let's face it, in almost any game with random factors you're inevitably going to get sessions where nothing goes your way, where the fates aren't with you and for all the brilliant strategy you put in, every roll of the bones or draw from the deck is going to feel like a kick in the teeth. If you're playing a multiplayer conflict game then these sorts of experiences can be a horrible drag - you're locked into the game, with no hope of realistically winning or of having much influence on the outcome, but you're too polite to leave because you know it'll ruin it for your fellow gamers. And yet, in spite of the chance of this sort of outcome, multiplayer conflict games remain my favourite games. Why?

Because playing one is, in itself, a gamble, one with an uncertain payoff. Just like a gamble it can go badly wrong and leave you feeling depressed, and just like a gamble the result can be elating, brilliant, thrilling and memorable. It can also, of course, be an average, forgettable game session but with any good Ameritrash game, the odds of you getting a positive result are higher than the negative, and with the very best, the odds of getting a positive result are higher than those of even getting the average. Contrast this with your Eurogame - if you pick the title well, it's usually fun for everyone, but the chances of getting the gaming equivalent of a jackpot prize is virtually nil. There isn't enough variability in the game experience for that to happen.

And so, in a nutshell, it seems as though the small-scale differences in mechanics preferred by fans of the two genres of game actually have a corollary in the whole-game experience. When it comes to to the game experience, Eurogamers seem to be risk averse - they don't like to see gambling mechanics in games and so the games themselves have become low risk: you pick a game that's fun and you know you'll always enjoy it. Ameritrashers on the other hand thrive on risk (risk management is in fact one of my favourite mechanics) - they love to see lots of random factors in a game and as a result the game itself is a gambling exercise - you're trading away the certainty of having a good time with your favourite Euro for the chance of a great time with your favourite AT game, at the potential cost of having a pretty crappy evening if everything falls flat. This chimes for me with every complaint I hear about random mechanics in a game - that it can lead to early exits, boring sessions for one or more players, removes choice from the gamers. The Euro offers everything neatly wrapped up, controlled, predictable - not boring, or uncompetitive, but simply reliable.

In my experience, people who like to lead neat and tidy lives often, if you can coax them out of their shells for a night on the tiles, end up having a wild old time. They'll go back to those same tidy lives afterwards, but you'll find the next time you propose something daring - like maybe an evening in a casino - they'll be a little easier to convince, and they'll enjoy themselves a little bit more. And so things brings me to my final comparison between the world of gambling and the world of gaming. I seem to be seeing, more and more frequently, comments from Euro fans who've been lured into trying the wild ride of an Ameritrash title to the effect that they'd forgotten how much fun it could be. It's the same process as occurs when you persuade the uptight accountant from work to come on a drinking session. Come on, try it: you never know. You might just like it.

There Will Be Games

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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