What are the building blocks of a good board game?

An attempt to combine game theory and empirical "studies" to discover what makes a good board game. The blog goes through various different kinds of game mechanisms and ponders about games from quite a few viewpoints from types of randomization, over-the-table gaming, themes, learning curves, interaction between players etc.
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2. Types of luck

Antti Karjalainen
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My last blog post introduced luck in games. The main perspective was about the amount of luck and how increasing luck made games less stressful. This time we will take a look at how luck is implemented into games and how the different "locations" of implemented luck affect game play.

In this post I categorize games into five divisions based on how chance is included in a game. These are Beginning Luck/Ending Luck and Before Action Luck/After Action Luck/Changing Situation. These will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Beginning Luck: These games introduce luck into the beginning phases of the game. The player will then create their strategies based on his randomized starting position/resources. Usually this includes the differentiation of players based on the draw. Examples can be seen in R4tG’s starting worlds, Agricola’s occupations and minor improvements, Axis & Allies (if nations are drawn as opposed to selected) etc. In all the aforementioned games players have unequal starting positions from which they must compete against each other. In an extreme example, the start would be the only time when luck is used in the game, but at least I have never played such a game. Does a reader have an example game?

Then there are games which include luck in the first stages of the game, but do not create differentiation between the players. A good example of this is Dominion. Though the 10 Kingdom Card decks are randomized, they present all the players with the same strategic options and thus do not create an uneven situation. It is then up to the player to decide which of the drawn cards are worth his attention and which are not. Dominion could be seen as a rather pure example of Beginning Luck, while further phases of the game use low amounts of luck due to the deck building mechanism.

Ending Luck: These games have a high amount of luck concerning the end of a game, while the rest of the game contains relatively low amounts of randomization. To be honest, most of these games tend to be gambling orientated and usually bad games. A pure example of this would be Dice Chess, a game developed by a BGG member whose username escapes me. Maybe someone can remind me? For those who do not know what Dice Chess is, here is a short summation:

1: Play a game of Chess with your opponent.
2: Each player rolls a die. The winner of the Chess match adds 1 to his roll.
3: The player with the highest total wins.

Dice Chess was developed as an example of bad game design, where luck has plays too big a part. The problem with Dice Chess is not only the amount of luck included, but also the way it is implemented into the game. Luck plays too big a role in deciding the winner, while skill has very little effect. This has to do with my first post’s topic, but is also a perfect example of Ending Luck games. Other similar games are often played in casinos and are purely luck based. Slot machines do not care about the technique or skill needed to insert a coin or pull the lever. Even if a person were to stand on their head and pull the lever exactly 96% of its range of motion with their feet with trained reliability, it would have no effect on the result of the game. Some wise-ass will no doubt point out the futility of such skill in a chess game as well. Yes, it is an action done outside the mechanics of the game, but imagine how hard your opponent has to concentrate in order to perform well while you are flapping your legs in the air on the other side of the board. Ok, a bad example is a bad example, no way around it, no excuses =)

While no pure Ending Luck board games seem to be around, many games can be easily won or lost due to luck. Risk is a good example, as no amount of preparation can save a player when he rolls nothing but low numbers in a crucial battle. Admittedly a man advantage will increase the probability of winning, but as all Risk players know, it’s never guaranteed. By the way, I am in no way saying it should be guaranteed. So in Risk, while the game does not end per se, a badly lost battle can effectively shut out a player ending the game for him. A very good comment by Roland Wood was made to my last post regarding this aspect in games. While game duration will be discussed in a later post, the acceptance of Ending Luck can be proportional to the time and effort a game takes. As with Risk, Ending Luck will end a game based on bad luck without a way to recover. After a long game of 2-3 hours, it sucks to have a game fall apart because of one die roll (Blood Bowl, I am looking at you!).

Before Action Luck: The first two examples of luck had to do with the entire gaming experience from start to finish. Now we focus on a more tactical viewpoint. Games which introduce luck before actions are taken are quite common. Each turn they present the player with a randomized change in the situation, but allow the player’s actions to take effect without luck affecting the outcome. Kimble is a perfect example of this. A dice determines the tactical choices of a player. Tons of other old dice-based games have similar mechanisms. Dice are not necessary for this mechanism, however. Carcassonne is a valid example of a game where luck is used to determine the starting point of a player’s each turn, but will not affect his actions beyond that point. Games like Forbidden Island and Pandemic have players create the new situation through drawing cards to sink/infect parts of the board. Then the acting player decides and accomplishes his actions with 100% probability of success. Then the situation is changed once again. Rinse, repeat. The fact that sinking/infecting cards are drawn on the active player’s turn after the player’s actions is irrelevant. They could be drawn at the beginning of the next player’s turn with little difference to the flow of the game.

After Action Luck: These games present situations to the players without luck being a deciding factor. The players then make their choices and roll dice/draw cards to see whether their actions were successful. Risk is again a good example of this. Once a player’s turn starts, he can create new troops and decide where to attack. The situation does not change until all tactical decisions have been made. Then his dice rolls determine his turn’s outcome. As one of my favorite games of all time, Blood Bowl needs to be mentioned here. While being a strategic game, no one can deny the luck involved in the game. Good planning and sound strategy can take a player far, but after most choices in the game, luck is introduced to determine the ultimate success or failure. However, I must also point out that if board games were Blood Bowl teams, then Blood Bowl would no doubt be the Goblins!

Before and After Action Luck: Some modern board games combine the aforementioned categories to create hybrids. Red November has the players running around a submarine trying to fix as many hazardous situations as they can, while drawing new events at the end of each of their turns to create more chaos. Still every action has a possibility of failure depending on the precious time spent on the action.

Changing Situation: These games include luck, or changing condition while the player is making a turn’s tactical decisions. Last Night on Earth enables the opposing player to play event cards in various stages of the active player’s turn, changing the active player’s tactical choices/probabilities while he still can decide on a number of actions. While players do not compete as directly in it, Race for the Galaxy has a similar mechanism. In R4tG a player selects his initial phase to play out. All other players select their own phases or actions. Then all are revealed simultaneously to determine which phases can be played by all players, not just the players who chose the specific phases for themselves. The phases are played in a pre-determined order and the previous phases of the same turn can affect later phases (for example settle to produce). A good player should have some idea of what phases the other players will select and chooses his own phases accordingly. Munchkin also provides a ton of changing situations during a player’s turn as other players either agree to aid, or totally crush the active player’s attempts to win a fight against a randomized opponent.

Then let’s take a look at the statistics. First the Strategic level luck graph. Here I have given an N/A rating to games where there is no randomization, nor is there a way to lose the game with a single streak of bad luck. In those games losing is a process and does not come out of the blue. The Strategic level luck graph shows that good games come in all forms and I am happy notice no trend there. Mediocre games are again ruled by games with little luck involved, which can be seen clearly. While this is understandable in trivia games and the like, it lowers the excitement factor of many games. As in many of these games losing is a process, it can be seen coming. With little luck to turn the tables, this might lessen the gaming enthusiasm and be one of the reasons that said games are in the mediocre category. Winning is not important by itself, but seeing a loss a mile away is not fun either.

Then let’s analyze the Tactical level luck graph. Humph, no clues here either on how good games are good. Both graphs show rather steady amounts in each bar. The missing “Before and After Action” bar is no big deal, as those games seem to be rare anyway. I am more than willing to accept that I just haven’t seen a good game with that mechanism of luck. Many mediocre games have tactical level luck introduced before player action. This might have two reasons. The first is the fact that many older dice-based games limited tactical choices by having the player first roll a die. The other reason is from trivia games’ standard mechanism of drawing cards with questions/drawing assignments/explainable words etc. Bad games also show a lack of luck on both graphs, so one could make an assumption that in order to keep games interesting, there needs to be some chance for the losing player to turn the tables, however remote. Personally I feel surprisingly strongly about this.

PS: If someone is wondering “I wonder how Blood Bowl is seen by the author…” and is interested in seeing the exact ratings per game, I can add them to these posts as well. Who knows, after all the topics have been discussed and if people are interested, I might go through the more interesting games and discuss the topics related to individual games.
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