Lady Luck, Part 2

Last post we discussed how the way luck is incorporated in a game can cause feelings of futility and even infuriate players. We play the game but we don’t feel like our strategies will bear fruit due to randomness.  Your best laid plans are ruined because the expected payout of your higher probability options is losing out to the lower probability options that happen to freakishly occur more often. This is the nature of probability.

There are some ways randomness can be incorporated in a more controlled manner. For example, Kingsburg does this very well. Players roll 4-5 dice each turn, combine the totals on any number of dice rolled, and then take turns allocating their dice combinations on an unclaimed space to gain resources. The board comes with spots from 1 to 18 giving various resources.

Taken from Kingsburg rules.

Taken from Kingsburg rules.

For example, if I rolled 3, 4, and 5. I can combine the 4 and 5 and place it on the 9 slot, leaving the 3 for my second placement assuming 3 has not been taken. This mechanic, while it has randomness, makes it manageable. The player can take what is rolled and try to optimize the payout to the their needs. The astute reader would realize that higher numbers on the board gives better rewards. As a result, the game designers based player turn order on the total of dice rolled and begins with the player with the lowest total. I find small rules like this very considerate because players with low rolls are “slightly” disadvantage. To compensate, they have been allowed to get first claims on resources. Kingsburg is a game with good randomization, yet I don’t get to play it as much as I would like. That’s because in my group of friends there is one particular person who rolls very high numbers EVERY SINGLE TIME. You know those people who roll double sixes in Risk several turns in a row. Yes, one of them. Call it devil’s luck, horseshoes, magical contracts or what have you. When one has above average rolls in a game like this, they will naturally take the lead.

Randomization is fun in games. People like the unexpected stroke of luck. The pleasant surprise when things went better than you thought or when Lady Luck noticed you. At the same time, we also want a certain degree of control over our maneuvers in games. The ability to allocate actions and resources after randomization gets rid of the frustration that comes from your turn being dictated by a single randomization device. We are used to dealing with things in life based by making do with the “hand” we’ve been dealt. It is only when there is nothing you can do about the surprises that we throw our hands in the air and begin cursing. The same applies in games – futility is a terrible feeling.

What are some of the best randomization mechanics you’ve seen in a game?

Lady Luck

The element of chance has long been intertwined with the evolution of games. Many of our modern devices used for randomization had a long history behind them. For example, dice is believed to be invented around 24th century BC by the Mesopotamians. Playing cards originated 9th century China. The first deck of cards that resemble a modern poker deck was first seen in Egypt and was called naib. Even to this day, a deck of cards and a handful of dice are still the most common randomizing devices in board games.

In modern board games, there are two frequently voiced opinions about games:
1) There is too much left up to chance. “OMG! RNG hates me today!”
2) There is a complete lack of an element of chance. “What are we playing? Chess?”
It seems that there really is no pleasing people. If there is too much chance there will be complaints that all your toil throughout the game to execute a strategy has been destroyed by Lady Luck. If it is absent, some people will say the game is too… bland. But is there a middle ground?

Let’s take a look a some games involving dice. We will use Settlers of Catan as an example. I’ll be honest and say that while many of my close friends have very fond memories of this game, Settlers is one of those games where I will definitely complain too much is left to Fortune. Each turn, players roll two 6-sided dice and the sum of the dice total determines which buildings activate and produce resources for the respective players. Expansion happens by building roads to new locations for settlements which produce more resources. Simple enough. Looking at the numbers, one would expect 7 to be rolled most often, with 6 and 8 being second, followed by 5 and 9, and so on and so forth. Such is the nature of dice where there are games where I see people where they have not received a single resource in 10 turns or more and they placed their buildings to produce on 6 and 8. There was a fan made computer version of Settlers before its entry into the console arcade market that kept track of the roll distribution. In one instance, I’ve seen 6 roll less than 11. <insert favourite facepalm meme> Yes, it is true the law of large numbers should eventually take hold and the roll distribution should become more normalized. However, a typical game of Settlers less than 100 turns and freak dice scenarios are bound to happen. To the credit of the designers, they eventually released a deck that simulates a perfect dice roll distribution. This means eventually your 6 and 8 buildings will produce the number of times one would expect of them. Yet, for some reason I have yet to meet people who play Settlers with that deck. People still seem to favour their dice. What’s up with that?

From this example, we can draw some conclusions. Players like some chance elements because it makes for a more interesting game, but they also want to “control the chance” to some degree. People dislike the feeling of futility especially when playing games. We run into enough situations in real life that makes us feel that way, why bring this into our entertainment? Next post, we will explore more on the psychology of luck in games and how certain elements of game design can make chance entertaining instead of being frustrating.

New Member

Introducing our new member – James Ng! When I first started this journey of designing games six years ago, if my memory doesn’t fail me, he was one of my first testers. I still remember the game was so unbalanced it couldn’t even reach the end condition properly. Since then, it has been a long journey forward and he tested many variations of my design. From now on, James will be our community representative. So this is a good opportunity for an introduction and a short interview. Here we go!

1. What kind of board games do you like and why?
I tend to like most worker placement games that I have played. I like the feel and planning that comes into making the most of your workers in order to plan for a future goal. It always feels satisfying to see a plan come to fruition. I guess that is the case with a lot of good strategic board games, and one that those of types of board games should try to promote in their players.

2. You’ve helped a lot with game design, how do you feel about it?
I think game design can be a very interesting job. It’s an open box and there’s so much you can do to accomplish your goal. A game also has many goals to carry out. Fun to play, interesting, engaging, interactive, etc. It can be challenging to make sure your game checks all those boxes.

Personally, I wouldn’t say I am an expert in terms of game design. My experience with it comes from just playing many games (like most people). It can be hard as a game designer to get out of your own perspective to see your game from the outside. That’s what you want though, because you want the game to be fun for a group of people, not just you. Not to mention, working on a game can give you bias towards it and how it plays.

3. What are you currently playing?
I haven’t had the opportunity to play as many board games in recent times. But my girlfriend had recently bought a set of Machi Koro after playing it at a friend’s house and liking it. So I’ve been playing that with her and her younger sister. It’s an easy to play game to relax on. If I get the chance to find people to play with, I’m also always up for a game of Stone Age.

4. Will you consider a career in the games industry, board game or otherwise?
I do love to play video games and board games, not only for the fun they have, but to see how game creators make and improve different aspects of their game genres. I also appreciate them as a creative outlet and interactive medium (unlike movies and books).

In terms of being part of the industry as a career, I’ve never really considered it, as I can’t really imagine myself finding a role in it. Though if given an opportunity that suited me in the industry, I would definitely look into trying it out!

That’s all for now! We will hear from James again soon enough. On Friday, we will begin discussion on Lady Luck in games.

Return from Hiatus!

Wow! Time sure flies.

It has been almost two years since my last post. Nevertheless, I remain committed to the dream of producing my very own board game. Many things are happening in the near future. Over the absence, the board game I have been working on is near completion, which we shall unveil more at another time. We have a new companion joining this journey who will be introduced later this week. I am also looking forward to releasing more content on game design and board games in general, so please look forward to it. On Friday, I want to share some thoughts one of the most touchy issues in games – that is how people feel about Lady Luck.