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  • Analysis
  • Take A Chance - Luck, Chance & Randomness in Board Games

Take A Chance - Luck, Chance & Randomness in Board Games

T Updated
Take A Chance
There Will Be Games

Games of chance have been with us for millenia. Dice have been found in archaeological digs across the world, the oldest being those found at the Burnt City dig in Iran, thought to be from between 2800 and 2500 BC. Many civilisations have had games involving an element of luck, and ours is no different. Games of chance are mentioned in ancient texts from many civilisations and even referenced in the Bible.

We introduce chance into games through all sorts of methods: dice, cards, drawing tokens from a bag, or flipping a coin. Why are we drawn to these elements? I am no psychologist, but I can speak to my own experience. It is in those small moments just before the result is known that we feel a moment of trepidation and see a glimpse of hope. As the dice clatters across the tabletop, for a single moment all players are focused on it, a breath is drawn in quickly and released as the dice comes to rest. Our fate is decided in the passing of a single moment. It’s unpredictable. Exciting. Dramatic.

That’s not to say that games that are purely determined by skill can’t be exciting or dramatic, but they lack the immediacy of unpredictability that comes from the toss of a dice or the drawing of a card. Games that are purely deterministic, those lacking any random elements to determine the outcome, really require a greater level of familiarity to appreciate the drama of a given moment or strategy. Chess would be a great example of this type of game.

Much as I am not an advocate for Boardgamegeek, it can be a useful barometer of what those who are very enthusiastic about games are chatting about and putting in their collections. If you check out the top 10 of all time you will not find a single game that lacks an element of chance. By my reckoning the first time you do see such a game is Terra Mystica at number 16. Yet still the debate around elements of luck comes about from time to time, but is it really about that?

Some obsess about the true randomness of the mechanics we use, seeking perfect dice, fresh decks of cards, even going as far as putting cases on counters to keep everything feeling the same (I have even done this myself). It is thought by some that the imperfection found in early dice, sometimes very obviously biased, did not matter to those civilisations.

roman dice ar3113bExample of Roman Dice The way that Romans wrote about dice indicated that they believed their faith in the gods mattered more than the fidelity of the dice. Archaeologist Ellen Swift writes in her book “Roman Artifacts and Society” that “Dice potentially played an important role in conceptualizing divine action in the world”. Still we seek perfectly random results, when in truth we are trying not for perfect randomness, but for fairness in the results.

Randomness can certainly contribute to a feeling that you are being ‘done over’ by a game, that you are being treated unfairly. I admit that I can feel that sometimes, when roll after roll goes against me, or the next card I draw is just not quite what I am hoping for. I can get annoyed as much as the next person, feel that bad loser vibe poking through. Always I come back to the centre though and remind myself that those moments are in contrast to the sheer elation when chance swings your way.

We can look at a game at being on a spectrum of luck from pure input randomness to pure output randomness. The former means that you roll the dice then make a decision based on the result, the latter that you make a decision and then roll the dice to determine the outcome. Everyone has their own preference for where they sit on this spectrum, and for some the answer will be that they don’t. For myself I sit pretty close to the Output end of the spectrum, but I’ve played games right across it.

Regardless of its place on this spectrum, a good game will make you feel in control of the random elements, that you can bend fate to your will. In a game with high Output randomness this usually takes the form of making the probabilities easy to understand. Without that feeling of control, I do think elements of chance can be overwhelming. They can bury the soul of the game in an avalanche of bad luck.

Lords of VegasBaddabing

Lords of Vegas is one of my favourite games, and a great example of this feeling of control. Set in Vegas before it was the glittering monument to lady luck we all know, you are tasked with building a casino empire. Mechanically this is achieved through cards and dice, with the main thrust of the game being actions you can take, all involving the calculation of probabilities with dice and cards. Every roll can go badly or bend in your favour, but the odds are clear and can be manipulated. It is a game that shows you the strings of fate, looks you in the eye, and persuades you to push your luck as far as it will go.

Chance can be a leveller of sorts as well, and give hope to the inexperienced against the experienced. Take a game like Blood Bowl from Games Workshop, a fantasy football game where dice feature heavily in the resolution of actions. A failed result in this game can result in a quick reversal of fortunes as the game turn is handed to your opponent to exploit the hole the fates have punched in your defences. In doing so it teaches players to take the least risky actions first, only trying the high risk maneuvers as your plans coalesce.

Of course board games are not the only tabletop hobby that have embraced chance. Ever since Dungeons and Dragons came into being, Tabletop RPGs have used chance to represent the unpredictable outcomes of a character's actions. They embraced randomness as a natural outcome of playing in a world they wanted to imagine as alive, vibrant, and ultimately unpredictable.

RPGs can use dice and cards in lots of simple ways: to determine who goes first in a fight, how fast you climb, where you hit your opponent and how hard. They can do more than that though, and you will find lots of clever uses for them across RPGs. Dogs in the Vineyard sees you pairing dice to take actions, being countered by ever larger sided dice that are only available through acts of aggression and violence. Blades in the Dark, you knew I was going to mention it, sees a whole fight resolved with a single roll in bold, pulp style action. Savage Worlds uses increasing die sizes to represent better skills. The list is endless.

There are RPG systems that eschew randomness for giving a way to resolve situations through discussion. Point pools alongside more freeform methods or provide for a different style of play. The RPGs that have really stuck around though, that have stood the test of time, all of them embrace some element of randomness.

Of course there will always be people whose first criticism of a game comes down to the luck factor, however it manifests. For some the idea of anything being out of their control is unconscionable. That’s fine, there are plenty of deterministic games out there, but I personally believe they are missing out on some of the best that the hobby has to offer.

The other complaint that gets lumped in alongside the luck factor, is that of balance. While elements of luck can affect the balance of a game, they are not always linked directly. Their proximity can often lead to the analysis that the game is unbalanced if it involves certain types of luck, but I don’t honestly think that is true. Root is a fine example of a game that has luck elements in it, dice and card, but is widely regarded as one of the better balanced games out there. Balance is something I will perhaps revisit in another article.

For many our first game experience will involve dice, usually through some form of simple “Roll and Move” like Snakes & Ladders. Randomness is accessible, understandable, and above all leads to exciting moments. In order for tabletop games to grow, to appeal to a larger, and wider, audience, they need to be exciting. Drawing that card you needed, hitting the number you required, that moment as you pull exactly what you needed from the bag. There is elation in those moments, and I for one will embrace that every day of the week.

There Will Be Games
Iain McAllister  (He/Him)
Associate Writer and Podcaster

Iain McAllister lives in Dalkeith, Scotland with his wife Cath and their two dogs, Maddie and Gypsy. He has been a keen member of the local gaming scene for many years setting up and participating in many of the clubs that are part of Edinburgh's vibrant gaming scene.

You can find more of his work on The Giant Brain which publishes a wide range of articles about the hobby including reviews, previews, convention reports and critique. The Giant Brain is also the home of the Brainwaves podcast, a fortnightly podcast covering industry news that Iain hosts with his friend Jamie Adams.

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Articles & Podcasts by Iain McAllister

 

Iain McAllister
Associate Writer and Podcaster

Articles & Podcasts by Iain

 

 

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Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #320054 04 Mar 2021 14:24
I appreciate this. Long-time critics of Games Workshop's efforts are those that typically decry "randomness", embodied by literal handfuls of dice. But the key in those games and with all others that employ randomness (which is most games that aren't classic abstracts like chess or Go) is to hedge the odds of that randomness in your favor. In the case of WHFB, for example, it was about getting better at estimating distances and knowing that when your sledgehammer unit crashed in, if the dice didn't go your way, the response was going to be significant, so you had to have support nearby.

It extends to video games, as well, of course. One of my arguments against some of the base design in Hearthstone is that they're adding randomness (cards doing variable damage, generating random cards) on top of what is the essential randomness of all card games: the draw. If you don't draw the right cards, you have to make do with what you have. If you do, all is well. Adding more chaos on top of that is what they call "replayability" but if your game is good, it shouldn't have to depend on die rolls to make you want to play it again (unless it's craps, I guess.)

One thing I often appreciated about Columbia's (and others') block wargames is that a lot of the randomness/replayability is based on the fog of war inherent to the system; such that how players proceed is often the "random element" that the opponent faces. But, even there, there are still cards to be drawn and often dice to be rolled.

Good stuff.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #320057 04 Mar 2021 14:45
It's counter-intuitive, but rolling a single die is much more random than rolling a big handful of dice. Over the course of a game, the handful of dice will likely produce results in conformance with a bell curve, while the single die has an equal chance of producing each outcome on every roll.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #320062 04 Mar 2021 15:08
Can only +1 Jackwraith's comment.

Risk management and making decisions in the face of risk is a game skill, a really good one people practice every day in real life, and I loathe that the euro crowd has managed to label that aspect of gaming "luck" in popular parlance.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #320066 04 Mar 2021 15:31

Shellhead wrote: It's counter-intuitive, but rolling a single die is much more random than rolling a big handful of dice. Over the course of a game, the handful of dice will likely produce results in conformance with a bell curve, while the single die has an equal chance of producing each outcome on every roll.


The sum of the dice, of course.

It sounds pedantic, but I have been thinking for a while that there is a missed opportunity in game design with dice: Since increasing the number of dice (or increasing the sidedness of the dice, as well) increases the number of different combinatoric outcomes, it should be possible to use varying thresholds to model any distribution you want. It would be nice not to be wedded to the normal distribution...that also means we could model rare events, etc. in a different fashion. Should open up some game design space.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #320067 04 Mar 2021 15:33
^so pick the apriori distribution of outcomes you want in the design phase, *then* design a dice combination that creates that distribution?
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #320068 04 Mar 2021 15:39
Great article. I find my tolerance for luck based mechanics rests heavily on the amount of pre-luck work i have to do. If i spend 5 minutes pushing counters around and the end outcome of all that comes down to a dice toss then my rage at losing is directly proportional to the effort spent. The fault clearly lies with those lopsided, overpolished, and undoubtedly cursed gem dice instead of my sweet sweet gamescience precision bones that i left at home!

So i like dice chucking games that have almost no time before the roll or the roll isn't a binary win/lose (Stone Age, for example, let's you hedge your dice roll risk considerably by either loading up on villagers for a particular roll or investing in tools to raise the minimum value you'll get).

Conversely, games like Mage Knight are ALL planning, basically no luck, so even if i don't succeed i have no one to blame but myself.

The middle ground of "push your luck" games are a happy medium. In Yggdrasil you can play with no reliance on the dice at all, using Norns to back you if a dice roll doesn't go your way or vikings to ensure you will succeed without having to roll at all. I've found that leaning into the dice too much leads quickly to Ragnarok :) But proper planning allows the dice to be a nice push forward and never a surprise defeat.

For whatever i'm much less tolerant of blind bag or card deck randomness, even if i grok the randomness differences between those mechanics. The tumble of dice and the inevitable "off the table, across the floor, into a crack YES YES YES IT IS A 20 HOORAY!" moments are so worth it.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #320069 04 Mar 2021 15:58

Gary Sax wrote: Can only +1 Jackwraith's comment.

Risk management and making decisions in the face of risk is a game skill, a really good one people practice every day in real life, and I loathe that the euro crowd has managed to label that aspect of gaming "luck" in popular parlance.


Eurogamers often seem smugly assured that their games are better because they focus on non-random economic competition in historical settings, making their games seem more realistic and educational. But their games tend to offer a lot more open information than can be found in the real world. Risk management is a valuable and practical skill that can be acquired from playing non-euro games.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #320070 04 Mar 2021 16:00

Space Ghost wrote:

Shellhead wrote: It's counter-intuitive, but rolling a single die is much more random than rolling a big handful of dice. Over the course of a game, the handful of dice will likely produce results in conformance with a bell curve, while the single die has an equal chance of producing each outcome on every roll.


The sum of the dice, of course.

It sounds pedantic, but I have been thinking for a while that there is a missed opportunity in game design with dice: Since increasing the number of dice (or increasing the sidedness of the dice, as well) increases the number of different combinatoric outcomes, it should be possible to use varying thresholds to model any distribution you want. It would be nice not to be wedded to the normal distribution...that also means we could model rare events, etc. in a different fashion. Should open up some game design space.


You know, i was thinking about this the other day during a walk, ruminatingabout my long running idea of a pure dice chucking beer and pretzels level run n gun rpg.

Anyway, with differential colors you can get a lot of specific variability in dice. So a d6 has a black 1 (automatic failure) and a white 2-4 (50% miss) and red 5-6 (33% hit) for an average attack. But get a weapon enhancement to make the white numbers hit instead (going full auto perhaps) and you can adjust the hit chance in an easy, intuitive way that doesn't involve remembering to add a +1 or whatever (because you are drunk while playing :)

Scale this to a d8 (black 1 fail, white 2-5 50% miss, red 6-8 hit 38%), d10 (1 fail, 2-6 white 50% miss, 7-0 hit 40%) etc and you can create increasing weapon attack values for pistol/rifle/shotgun while still using the simple red/white color to count hits. Multiple dice added to the pool add additional predictable variability (hollow point ammo adds a d6 to your rifles d10, both hit on red, full auto on white but then you lose the d6 afterwards).

Anyway, just the chaos in my head.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #320071 04 Mar 2021 16:02
^^I would argue the sorts of full information decisionmaking you perform in a lot of euros are rarer in real life than the sort of partial information, risk management calculations represented by dice, card draws modifying your incentives, etc. That's everyday shit.

But this all taps into my perspective on the efficiency and feasibility of free market micro/macroeconomic rationality.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #320073 04 Mar 2021 16:30

Gary Sax wrote: ^so pick the apriori distribution of outcomes you want in the design phase, *then* design a dice combination that creates that distribution?


Exactly -- decide what you want to do, find a distribution that mimics that, and then create the dice combination/rules to make it work.

Too much of what we do in game design, and in applied statistical analysis in general is the reverse: figure out what we can do, determine the distribution that is related to that, and then answer a question that is maybe not even the question we are interested in....

Seems silly
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #320074 04 Mar 2021 16:33
Crack one of those giant books of just probability distributions. "Which one do you want, buddy?"
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #320092 04 Mar 2021 21:05
I have a certain Abba song stuck in my head right now.
thegiantbrain's Avatar
thegiantbrain replied the topic: #320321 10 Mar 2021 05:23
Thanks for all the kind words about the article folks. Input and Output randomness wasn't something I had come across before writing this and I think it is a really interesting thing to think about in terms of people's tolerance for random elements in their game. It's helped me hone in on what I like/ don't like about elements of chance.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #320326 10 Mar 2021 09:40
An article on this subject comes along on this site about once a year, and I think that's valuable. This one in particular takes a 10,000 foot view that offers a clearer picture than most of the broad concept.

As often as not I think the concept of risk management in our leisure time is a measurement of where we are in life and what we value, particularly in our view of the Self.

If you live in a world where you're out of control and in panic mode to keep your life or job on-track, an hour of firm ground may be what you find most refreshing. It may also be what lets you see yourself as a useful, successful, valuable person. That find-the-generally-agreed-upon-best-move action in a game, often done in conference with your opponents, can provide positive feedback when other parts of your life are not.

Conversely, if your life is slow and dull and predictable the opportunity to conquer the Vegas strip and pull off that big win by putting all your cash on one throw of the bones may be the escape more suited to you.

At some point I'd like to do a grand survey of hobby gamers, asking them questions about their lives and then about their gaming preferences and see if there is a correlation in one direction or the other. There may not be. This may be something I've just made up. But I'll tell you this -- on days when work has dropped a bucket of crap in my lap I'm much more comfortable with a game where there IS a correct move each turn, one that everyone at my table (except Chris) comfortably agree on.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #320331 10 Mar 2021 11:05
Sag, that is a fantastic insight about stability and risk management. I noticed a comparable dynamic many years ago in role-playing: the most obnoxious power-gamers tended to be people who weren't happy with life but also weren't doing anything to improve their life. They found it easier to embrace a fictional setting where the path to personal power was more direct.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #320339 10 Mar 2021 12:35
You are just destroying these boards with insightful posts right now, Sag. Incredible post re: metapsychology of what are or are not your "gaming values."
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #320346 10 Mar 2021 13:18
I dont know if they publish outside of industry circles (and maybe not even then) but i gotta think in the high dollar world of video game addiction loops this kind of psychologically matching gameplay mechanics and reward cycles with specific personality traits within the target audience is well documented thing. Other than maybe CCGs i dont know that anything in the boardgame space has the resources to hit that level of intentional player manipulation/exploitation.