Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More on luck

I recently posted on the idea of randomness in games, and I confessed to being one who likes a little luck in the mix.  I think serious game hobbyists tend to frown on such things - the term "Ameritrash" in reference to luck-heavy games is inherently pejorative - but I think that's silly.

A game with no luck involved isn't really a game.  It's difficult to think of anything (other than a direct physical contest) that would even qualify as a game with no luck - you're reduced to something like arm wrestling, the 100 meter dash, or weightlifting.  But even those activities have some luck - the fastest runner might trip, or the strongest lifter's pants might rip at an inopportune moment.  OK, but suppose we have a game that's entirely devoid of luck - is it any fun at all?  Only if the activity itself is fun, and even then, it can be a stretch.

Chess is often cited as the end-member of luckless games.  Of course, there's still technically luck - the chance that an opponent might not see a move, or fail to predict a board setting seven moves ahead.  I suppose at the lofty heights of the grandmasters, this becomes less common, but a human mind can only contain and foretell so much, so there's still the element of luck - you need your opponent to fail before you do, and when that happens is not all under your control.  But there's no built-in randomness, so the luck factor is minimized.

Tic Tac Toe is actually parallel to chess in this regard; it's just simplified.  Unlike chess, where the variety of moves and outcomes complicates gameplay, there's always a best move in Tic Tac Toe, and it's trivial to figure out what that is.  So, there's no luck at all.  Except that the only way to win is when somebody screws up and doesn't make that best move, and you have to be lucky for that to happen.  But nobody wants to play Tic Tac Toe once they've mastered it. I'd argue that's because the element of chance is gone from it.  Imagine a Tic Tac Toe variant where you flip a coin before moving, and you only get to make a move if you flip heads - a much more interesting game, with more replay value, although largely luck-based at that point.

Let's look at the other end member - 100% random luck.  The coin flip, or high card cut, or a slot machine, or a lottery ticket.  There's no element of skill at all (although like the luck in arm wrestling, I suppose there could be a tiny bit of skill at the margins, if you're a good card shark or die roller or coin flipper).  All of these pure luck games are totally boring, and not really games at all.  They're not worth playing, because they're pointless.  They only work if there's something else interesting going on - money riding on the outcome, or perhaps another kind of stakes - spin the bottle, anyone?

So, if luck in games is a spectrum from none to all, where none is Tic Tac Toe and all is a coin flip, then both end-members are trivial and uninteresting, and the only fun place lies in between.  Contests like arm wrestling, chess, and darts may be out on another dimension entirely - where skill is involved, and the fun comes in proving yourself more skillful than the other players.

In boardgame design, then, there's a sweet spot, although exactly where it is will vary for different folks. Enough skill that skill determines the outcome most of the time, but enough luck that a less skilled player has a shot at winning.  It's tricky to find that spot, but the best games leverage luck against skill to create something better than either alone.

No comments:

Post a Comment