Hi. It's me again -- that guy that complains about worker placement and drones on and on about how important "unpredictability" is in board games and why it matters to me. I'd like to spend a moment focusing on that last one yet one more time. Now, I am well aware that most of you are tired of the subject, but since I'm the one with the keyboard and you're the one with the monitor I'm going to pretend for just a moment that this is all about me and that I actually have some level of control, and that's apt because it's going to be at the heart of this article: it's about control.
I haven't gotten a chance to get much gaming in during the past couple of months and more often than not when I sit down to write blog entries or an article it's a gaming moment that's driving the conversation. But as "luck" would have it, two things did happen recently that pushed me to assemble my thoughts on the L-word. One was a gaming session with my daughter which I'll get to in a moment. The other was just a simple question from my buddy Mike, someone I've gamed with for a couple of years --
"OK Einstein, just what is it about luck that's so damn important to you?"
As is generally the case, I paused before speaking. I like to choose my words carefully so that I can bring on an explanation that the listener can grok in short order. But this time the pause was longer than usual as I struggled to find a starting point. My thoughts on the subject had not yet fully coalesced, and Mike wasted no time filling in the gap.
"Are you kidding? You've been whining about this since . . . your birth, and here I give you a chance to just let it roll and you don't have anything prepared. I mean I wore comfortable shoes and everything 'cause I figured I was going to be here a while."
If Mike had asked me six months prior I likely would have rolled out the standard responses -- replayability, entertaining twists of fate, opportunities to go for a big win, the usual fare. It suffices. But I had come to realize that all of those are just shadows of the real issue. They're side effects, pleasant symptoms of a bigger concept, that I had just begun to fathom.
Fundamentally, and I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, luck is about control. As screwed up as it sounds, I've come to realize that unpredictable elements provide me with the opportunities I need to take ownership of my fate, regardless of how it turns out. That control (or more precisely the struggle to establish it) is as vital an aspect as any in my enjoyment of a game, and once I figured that out my cravings for titles like Warriors of God and El Grande and Battlestar Galactica suddenly became much easier to understand. They're games where you're on the edge of control.
"This is me, these are mine" is a part of this -- you need placement in the game, something you can identify yourself with. You need boundaries that defiine you. But I've had to broaden it, to expand its scope beyond that of pawns or soldiers or dollars tucked under the edge of the game board. It's not just about the physical presence of the game, it's about the path you take as the game executes, the journey. That is as much a part of yourself as the pieces, and that journey is defined by your options and how you choose to use them.
It is along this journey that luck gets the opportunity to exert its influence -- a varying wind that forces you to adjust your sails or to even change your heading. At times it lifts you to your goal. At times it blows squarely in your face, and I get arguments that this means you're not getting to play your game. That's not true. You are getting to play your game, you're just getting to play it in the presence of unpredictable forces and more often than not that's when skilled players really get the opportunity to shine. Strategies need to be shorter in scope, more flexible, designed to include contingencies in the event something goes heavily against you. This generally means that any preconceived plans you had when you sat down at the table are going to need to change, and on short notice. That strategy guide you found on the Internet? It will be woefully inadequate when the storm hits. This is when seasoned gamers show their depth of knowledge.
This observation isn't rocket science. We do this everyday in our lives, avoiding the traffic jam or juggling the family schedule. The way we handle adversity is a part of what makes us who we are. It's the nature of a complex system. At the boardgame table, were you the only one dealing with these influences you would be at a tremendous disadvantage. The game would be "unfair." But that's generally not the case. Games designed for our level of play include luck in the form of global effects that all must manage or individual luck with enough occurrences that a relatively well-shaped result curve is generally the case for all players involved. Some rolls are more critical than others, and that's fine; you should have contingencies for those as well. But every player sits down to the table knowing they will have to manage the whole package that the little microcosm on the table throws at them, even if it means they have a bit of a tougher play than the others. That's part of life too, and those that overcome greater obstacles end up that much tougher for it. Hard luck games are where you learn, and where you earn respect.
Now in tighter, more channeled games where unpredictability is diminished or completely removed, a problem arises that just gets my teeth grinding. If there is no chatter in the machine, if there's no unpredictable element that shifts the play a bit, there is a distinct possiblity that another player may have an opportunity to take ownership of you. If you make a mistake early in the match or don't understand the consequences of one of your actions (this is particularly true with a new player in a seasoned group, something that I specifically warn against with games like Puerto Rico) you may find yourself in a position that is unrecoverable not so much because of the inexperience or grievous mental error, but because the restricted set of options presented by the ruleset are fully-defined and measurable. It's possible none of the limited pathways available to you are viable. There's no calculated risk available to work with. With fully-defined games it's possible that your best action is a least-worst option, an action where your optimal choice scores you at most one point less than your opponent. You have a set of choices, but it just doesn't matter if all of them have a viable response or none of them are sufficiently bold to make a difference. That tight little sixty-minute game becomes 45 minutes of you marking time, losing as slowly as possible with one eye on the duffel bag of games next to you. When you've lost control, when you no longer have ownership of your own fate be it success or failure, the game is over for you.
How about Chess? No luck, but more possible moves than there are atoms in the sun. You can replay it a thousand times, and heck, it's almost inevitable that your opponent is as stupid as you at it, so there's plenty of opportunities to come back from bad play! Solution? Indeed a game with a broad array of permutations simulates luck simply by being so damn big in scope. Thirty years ago that was a pretty solid answer but very much less-so today. The communications revolution has meant that programmed openings and end-games quickly become well understood by the global fanbase for any game, and even those chosen few are quickly optimized. The permutations boil away to a very small set that are favored, and you're stuck with the same problem again. Sag's rule -- if someone uses the phrase "multiple paths to victory" to describe a game, it likely means there's about three, and a good chance somebody at the table knows all of them. Phllt. That's a shame -- a game is about discovery, not regurgitating a series of steps you found in a strategy guide. The easy solution is to stay off the Internet, but it's a pretty solid bet you won't -- you're using it right now. It's a part of our life, and if it's not part of ours, it's probably part of one of they guys' that we play with. Games that don't present a significant level of unpredictable outcome will become scripted in short order, and the tighter they are the quicker they'll reach that state. The play, once again, is no longer yours.
By removing everybody else's ability to maintain strict control of their game state, luck provides you with the ability to exert control over your own. You get to take your fate into your own hands. You get the ability to consider your own pathways to victory, regardless of how risky or how daunting, and decide for yourself what you choose to do. You get to play your game. That is what the L-word offers.
And this isn't just about me. The introduction of luck into a ruleset short circuits a host of other sins. I've already discussed how Resignation evaporates in the presence of ownership and control. But there's others -- Kingmaking evaporates. Runaway Leader evaporates. These flaws that eggheads pontificate about are fundamentally the children of strict control and predestination. If we are empowered with an unpredictable playing field, if we can take a chance and hope for a lucky break regardless of how late in the game or how far behind we are, we get the chance to kick and scratch and claw for a shot at that win all the way until the last play of the game, and we will. That's who we are -- anyone on this web site is looking for that epic comeback victory and we're not going to give it away if our head is still in the game on the final turn.
As these concepts were brewing within me I got to see it in action in real life. This was the second thing that happened to crystallize my thoughts.
I watched my twelve-year-old daughter's jaw drop open as her hit points drained from 100 to just 9 in a single blow. It was the second turn of a game called Power Mage 54. You haven't played it -- it's a self-published card game by a local guy and it's in the spirit of Bang. Comic-book superhero characters, tried-and-true weapons, defenses, and these multiplier cards that make every weapon that's nasty in the game even worse. The goal -- kill everyone else. The artwork ain't Madureira but it's serviceable, all in all a fine purchase for seven U.S. dollars.
In the face of such a bone-crushing twist of fate I was afraid my daughter was going to balk the game -- step away from the table because she was suddenly losing very badly. This is a problem I've had with her in the past and for far less difference in the score. But this was a public gaming session, and I had explained to her that you don't walk from a game with strangers and it doesn't matter how old you are. She agreed, and now was her chance to show what that meant. She was 9 very small points away from a truly stunning defeat. For you or me this would be no big thing, but to a twelve-year-old girl who things come easy to . . .
The game designer leaned in gave her the same advice I've given her a dozen times -- "don't panic, you may still have a shot at this" and she decided to keep her head in the game. This was change. Hearing the advice from someone other than Dad may have been part of it, but it may have just been time.
And something strange happened. The cards fell in a very odd way, such that one of the remaining three of us (me, my daughter, and a friend of hers) each got a hand of only one type of card. I had weapons -- largely worthless without multipliers. My daughter's friend had multipliers, completely worthless without weapons, and my daughter had heroes. Heroes have some special abilities that allow them to react to attacks or make changes to your hand. My daughter focused on dropping me first and succeeded. Then, as she and her friend battled it out four and six points at a time, she slowly clawed her way out of the mess she was in. The designer was coaching, but it was her hand. It was her options, her play. Ownership. What fate dealt her was her own, and she found a way to make it work. In the final play of the game her hero bounced the damage aimed at her back onto her friend, and she won the game with three hit points to spare.
I watched as she jumped out of her chair. This wasn't elation; she wasn't getting up to do the woohoo dance. She began walking circles, pacing, trying to manage the adrenaline in her system. She had controlled it while the game was on but now that the moment was behind her she couldn't sit still, she had to move around to sluff off the tension. It was like she had been rushed by a bear and survived.
Now most of you reading this would have been mildly happy with the win, or maybe pumped a fist in honor of the big finish, but this girl isn't a gamer. She dabbles a bit, and isn't very comfortable with the concept of defeat in any part of her life. Had the designer leaned over and said to her, "you're toast" or (even worse in my opinion) "you still have the card X in your hand you can box them out and trigger the end-game condition for the win" she wouldn't have given a damn about how things turned out. She would have sat there and shrugged as the game played itself for her. The fact that she needed to get a break, and that she needed to play her cards right to be in a position to capitalize on it if that break occurred, had to think on her feet and make it work, it gave her ownership. Nothing was predetermined -- there were no promises. But there was hope, she could play to win.
That's what comes into the mix when luck is available to change up the play. As the game comes to a close or you get farther behind you need to hope for bigger and bigger reversals of fortune, and for obvious reasons those become harder and harder to come by. But they can occcur, and that keeps you focused on you, playing your game, tending to your fate, worrying about your position on the board.
And that's why we play, isn't it?
Sagrilarus is a monthly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash.