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Risky Games - Playing to Win vs Taking Risks
Let's start by looking at the risk-loving player....
I normally don't win, at least not when I play with my games group. That's not a problem and I still have a lot of fun, whatever the outcome. In fact, I sometimes create some extra excitement by not playing it too safe. I actually really like games where you can gamble and create huge point swings. However, I know many people who play to win and who will always play it safe. So in this article, I thought I'd compare the different approaches.
Die rolls are better because the roll will tend to be more dramatic as it is discretely random every time, whereas the card flip draws upon a finite pool of cards that are subject to card counting. If we have already seen all the high-value cards flipped recently, we don't have any hope that this card flip will give us a high-value card.
In my early gaming days, I was playing with a really smart group of gamers, and nearly all of them were much better at math and probabilities. So I tended to go for the high risk plays. If they paid off, it was glorious. If I failed, it was still memorable. I'm older now and better at calculating and managing risk, so I tend to play more cautiously but still take the occasional risks.
For example, the co-op game Yggdrasil allows you some risk taking on die rolls to defeat/push-back an enemy. However you can largely mitigate ANY risk by collecting elves/vikings to add to your roll. I've found that playing the game works best when using elves/vikings to ensure success on EVERY roll and taking risks with a 33-66% chance of failure is almost certain defeat. But since you have to fish for vikings and there are only so many elves the risk mitigation is a gameplay strategy in and of itself and it works pretty well.
Somewhat adjacent strategies like the "let them starve" strategy in Stone Age, where a player takes a -10 VP (IIRC) loss EVERY TURN he can't feed his people so instead focuses exclusively on VP generation from huts and technology are HIGH RISK, but not really "risky", though if the other players work together I think they can easily thwart the risk taking player. This, I think, is key game balance, the high risk strategy needs to be easily countered by observant players, though this is not quite the same as a "risky" strategy of an all or nothing type game play moment.
But I think we can all agree that its the moments when someone is swinging for the fences, it's all on the line, that we remember. No one reflects fondly on that time they never moved and just ground out 1 VP/turn and somehow still won.
On our podcast for Lords of Vegas we pumped the audio into an AI interpreter (which I don't have a lot of respect for) and it pumped out the following phrase for the show notes -- "The Risky Strategy of Risk Mitigation". That turned out to be pretty doggone profound considering it came from a machine, and it got me thinking, because it was just a summary of what the four of us had taken much longer to describe. In Lords of Vegas, taking risk isn't merely a possible way to victory, it's virtually required in order to win. It's certainly required against worthy opponents, and though I'll surely agree that knowing how much risk to take and when are a form a risk mitigation, it's not an effort to circumvent it. It's an embrace of the risk because it's the very nature of the game. There's no tokens you can add to your die roll, no approach to play that avoids the need for luck. Accepting risk in the game is a measured response to conditions on the table, not a wild fling in the hope that something crazy will happen. You're down by six, you need to take control of a casino, that means rolling dice and getting a break on the result. The only paths to victory involve taking risk, though the choice of which risk is yours.
This is about as fitting a system as possible for a game about a gambling town built in the desert for no other reason. James Earnest (noted game design bomb-thrower) and Mike Selinker (of Axis & Allies fame, another title that displays this embrace-risk-or-die feature) should be lauded for going so far off the reservation at a time when "risk mitigation" was all the rage in the hobby gaming market.
One of the guys I record with will come right out and say that he doesn't like dice. He wants card draws instead, or he wants dice where you get to choose which side comes up by purchasing modifiers. He wants to play Monopoly by rolling four dice and picking the two he likes. But that's because he's an eliminate-risk guy. That's not risk. That's result-selection.
After all that whining I guess my point is this -- the title at the top, Playing to Win vs Taking Risks, makes no sense, or at least it shouldn't. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive, and in my opinion never should be. Good games present risk as opportunity, not a consolation prize.
Shellhead wrote: I want to make a distinction between assessing risk and mitigating risk. To me, there is a crucial difference between knowing the odds and taking calculated risks versus being able to directly alter random results. The first is dramatic, while the second is bureaucratic.
Exactly. One is embracing the risk and using it to your favor, the other is rejecting the risk and avoiding it whenever possible. You're emphasizing the emotional outcome, but it's both an intellectual distinction and an emotional one. It's damn good gaming when it's done right, and there is just a thrill and a half when you thread a couple of needles on a single turn and pull off something that you shouldn't have been able to.
I didn't mean to come down hard on your article Oliver, and it may be that I simply missed the point you were trying to make. But in a game like Lords of Vegas taking risks is not disengaging from the favored path and taking a flyer. It's likely optimal. You're making a calculated decision to pursue a luck-filled approach because it's the best option available to you. You have goals you need to meet, and you're not going to meet them by playing it safe, even if you're in the lead. If you play conservatively you're going to lose. The people taking risks are going to beat you.
It's more interesting gaming, and as Shell has pointed out twice, it's much more exciting gaming. Control what you can, work with what you've got, have contingency plans. Keep moving forward at the edge of your control.
More games need this. It's a very underutilized part of the space, perhaps with the exception of traditional wargames where it's arguably the dominant feature.