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Luck in Tabletop Games! Feeling lucky?

Never has the concept of luck been driven home to me more than recently when I have been designing my own tabletop games. What role does it play in the…well the game play? Does a game become weaker because of a dependence on random nature? Can this cause anxiety or fatigue? Should we rely on luck less? Make more of the choices ourselves? Be in control? I wanted to lay some of this out in this latest blog post as it is becoming a particularly important part of how I design games.

Making my way across a map...with only a die to guide me
With the design of Dark Force Incursion, I created a game that heavily depended on the roll of a dice. Every turn you are bound by the result of your roll and this leads you in a direction, for which there are a set of consequences. Is this too much to ask of a player to be so bound by a one in six chance? Yes, because how can they influence the outcome? This is what gamers will often strive for, a controlling element. I introduced the option of being able to choose the hex from which to roll and so you have some influence on your direction. For me this created another interesting aspect to the game play. Now the player had to decide on whether they would roll from a riskier position if he felt the reward was there. Narrowing down or increasing the odds of success. A game of chance. Partly. The player picks the lower of higher chance. But ultimately, they had to forge towards a goal, and this meant taking higher risks.

Play testers of Dark Force Incursion pointed this out. The element of risk was a mitigating one at times. It caused problems for progression. I felt that there is no doubt that this element of being out of control caused mixed emotions.

Then I began to think about luck in a different way. How was luck working here? As players we were investing our own experiences in the dice roll. What I mean is our play, or move, was that roll. It was ours and we invested in it, we took ownership. Strangely if we rolled a needed number then we would feel rewarded, we chanced it. I could see this demonstrated through many of the games I played and saw played. I fell into this trap as well. If I rolled myself out of a tough spot on the map, I felt rewarded even though it was just a sequence of randomised numbers. It did not matter; those numbers were mine, it was my victory. I looked beyond the randomness and was happy to win. On the other hand, if I lost then I cold blame the randomness or lack of control. I felt that in some respects the system had beaten me and therefore it was the system and not my skill.

Skill is not present though as it is all about random rolls. Although is it? We should ask our selves about probabilities. Can we play the probabilities game? What are the chances of the same number being rolled again? Is it the same? Well, I instinctively say no but is that true? I need a mathematician here. Something about it feels strange and unhuman. Surely, we cannot just keep rolling the same number even if every dice roll is not connected to the last one. I feel like I am running in circles here but that there is something about luck that has me trapped perpetually uncertain about the chances.

When I consider other games that are mainstream, I start to see the role of luck now that Dark Force Incursion has trapped me in the luck bubble. Look as Monopoly for example. We roll the dice every turn and this is our progression. Yahtzee is a dice game we yell about and hardly make any decisions other than where to place the numbers in a grid. In fact, Yahtzee is basically poker, which relies on a random dealing of cards, that pose a more complex set of results than rolling a dice. Luck exists in games on a massive scale and people, when successful, take that luck and call it skill. Or worse when they lose call the winner lucky, and they may have been for sure, but was it also skill?

So, are luck based games less effective? The less control over your go the more the process is discredited? I do not think so. For me it is about establishing a system or mechanic, as we like to call it these days, to give a particular result. When I designed the system for Dark Force Incursion, I knew that the results would be unpredictable. I designed the maps around this, allowing space for the randomness. Then I introduced land features which might assist in evening up the odds. It is about balance and allowing for luck to do that very think of balancing out. The luck mechanism, however it presents itself is frustrating, because on some level it makes us feel out of control and that is perhaps because it is so close to life that it is something we want to escape. But potentially some of our greatest achievements are due to luck. We just cannot avoid it.


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