What is luck as a game mechanic?
Luck appears through a combination of randomness and hidden information. Factors that you cannot predict with certainty. Without luck you could calculate the outcome of a game early and every choice is clearly right or wrong. Luck is often used in games. The most obvious example is the die. Every time you roll a standard die you have six different outcomes. Six different paths the game could take. Perhaps six different realities, such as in the Remedial Chaos Theory from the sitcom 'Community'.
In addition to the die, there are endless variations of randomness to think of. Consider, for example, drawing a card, a tile as with Carcassonne or a worker from your stock in Orleans. Often times, the actions of other players also affect your play. Although the other player can sometimes make tactical use of this, in many games this results in a form of luck. Take Robo Rally, in this chaotic and random game, each player makes a programmed choice of his next 5 actions (1 step straight ahead, turn left, take a step back, turn around, 2 steps straight ahead). These actions are all performed at once without you being able to change anything. However, if your robot comes into contact with another robot, you may end up off your predicted path. Then it is often no longer possible to predict where you will end up. It's the same with a game like Tiny Towns where you have to copy the action of your opponents, you cannot always predict which choices you will eventually have.
Go directly to:
– When is it not luck?
– Why is luck applied in games?
– Input randomness vs output randomness
– push your luck
– What to pay attention to when applying luck to your self-made game
– Influence luck
When is it not luck?
There are games where luck is not present as a game mechanic. Take the game chessfor example. It may feel like luck when your opponent doesn't see through your plan, but this is not luck as a game mechanic. There is no randomness present. Every player can see any part of the game at any time and make choices based on that. How the other player's actions can affect you in a game like Tiny Towns may seem similar like how it works in chess. What is the difference then? In Tiny Towns, each player has their own extra goal that is not visible to the other players (hidden information). As a result, you cannot predict with certainty what the impact of your choices on the other players might be. So an element of luck does exist there.
Why is luck applied in games?
Most board games do have elements of luck in them, but why? Luck ensures that the odds of winning or doing well are not determined by experience and skills alone. When someone participates in a game of Catan for the first time, they still have a chance to win, even though the other players may have more experience in the game. This is very important for board games. Losing feels less personal and can be attributed to luck, which makes the game more relaxed for many people. During a game of chess, the players can experience a lot of stress. And if there is a big difference in experience, the outcome of the game can be predicted in advance.
There are also games that enhance luck for the less experienced players. This is often important in party games so that everyone can participate. For one of the most famous examples we take a turn to the digital gaming world. In Mario Kart the items you can receive are randomised and therefor based on luck. However, if you are at the forefront of the race, you have the chance to win a selection of less good items such as a single banana or a green shield. If you're at the back, you get a little support from the game with a chance to receive a golden mushroom or the famous Bullet Bill, which will get you back in the race in one go. Without these luck elements, this game would be much more serious and therefore less suitable as a party game.
Input randomness vs output randomness
You can apply luck or randomness in two different ways. If you first roll a die and determine what to do with it based on the outcome, for example which way you are going to walk, then this is input randomness. You can determine your tactics after the luck factor has been applied. Its counterpart is output randomness. You first determine what you are going to do, after which you then apply the randomness to see if that actually works.
For the tactical importance of a game, the use of input randomness is recommended. As a player you are more in control, which means that you are less likely to feel 'screwed' by the game. It also helps in the feeling that YOU are playing the game and that the game is not playing you. However, it is not the case that you should not apply output randomness at all. Good use of output randomness can add value. This mainly concerns risk considerations. I can go for option A where I have 80% chance of success but only get 10 points, or option B where I have 20% chance of success but can earn 50 points. For example, this will be at 'push your luck'games frequently used.
“IN BLACKJACK, THE INITIAL TWO CARDS DEALT TO YOU ARE INPUT RANDOMNESS, BECAUSE THEY MUST HAPPEN AND YOU MAKE NO CHOICES THAT AFFECT THEM. IF YOU CHOOSE TO HIT, THE CARD YOU ARE DEALT IS OUTPUT RANDOMNESS BECAUSE IT IS A RANDOM VARIABLE APPLIED TO A CONSCIOUS CHOICE. ”
Push your luck
Push your luck games are primarily about a continuous risk assessment. Yahtzee is a textbook example of this. Do you take the risk to go for that full house with the chance that you will have nothing in the end? There are many games that apply a push your luck element more subtly. I love a game of Runebound, one of my favorite games. In this game, the odds for the players are often far apart. The affect of your actions in this game have an extreme impact on your position. If a player does well, he does really well, if a player performs badly, his chances of succeeding are reduced tremendously. This has everything to do with the push your luck element in the game. As a player, you have the choice to attack green (easy), yellow (average), blue (difficult) or red (very difficult) monsters. If you defeat an easy monster, your reward is also low. So you want to beat more difficult monsters as quickly as possible, but there is also the consideration whether or not that is such a good idea. If you lose you are immediately far behind in the game.
The great thing about Runebound is that you win the game by beating the red monsters. You also have the chance to encounter the dragon Margath who will win you the game if you defeat him. Alternatively, you also win if you beat three other red monsters. In theory, from turn one you have the option to attack and defeat a red monster. However, the chance that this will succeed is very slim. It's better to strengthen yourself by leveling up and collecting items before you take on this challenge. But if one player starts challenging red monsters, then the other players have to try it as well if they want to have a chance to win. Throughout the game, you are mainly concerned with improving your chance of winning at the end of the game.
What to pay attention to when applying luck to your self-made game
If you are working on developing your own game, you will also have to think about if and how you are going to apply luck.
- For which audience do you want to make a game?
- Should it be a fully tactical game in which luck plays a limited or even no role?
- Do you want to make a game for families with different levels of experience?
After you've answered these questions, you can determine which methods of luck you want to use.
For every type of luck that you use in your game, you have to play test frequently to balance it correctly. Luck is always linked to probability. By calculating the probability of the different outcomes, you can see how you can influence the chances of luck. You can find an interesting forum for this at Boardgamegeeks where people are happy to help you with these kinds of calculations.
Last week I did a playtest of a game by Chris Backe in which luck played an important role. To mitigate the impact of luck, you could influence the outcome of your die in this game, but never higher than the maximum value of the die. For example, if you as a player are allowed to put 2 above the value of your roll, the outcome of a 4, 5 and 6 is in a sense the same.
Influencing the outcomes of luck is always something that can take a lot of time for game designers. For example, keep in mind that with a die you have the same chance of a certain outcome with every roll. This is not the case with a deck of cards. Any card already drawn changes the odds for each subsequent card drawn. At the same time, a deck of cards is also less random. You can theoretically roll a 6 over and over with a die, whereas with a standard deck of cards you cannot draw an ace 5 times in a row.
You can also influence luck using the Law of averages. Take as an example the throwing of 2 dice instead of one. With one die you roll with an equal chance 1-6.
1 – 16.7%
2 – 16.7%
3 – 16.7%
4 – 16.7%
5 – 16.7%
6 – 16.7%
However, if you roll 2 dice, the luck percentages change, with an average throw being much more common.
2 – 2,8%
3 – 5,6%
4 – 8,3%
5 – 11.1%
6 – 13.9%
7 – 16.7%
8 – 13.9%
9 – 11.1%
10 – 8,3%
11 – 5,6%
12 – 2,8%
In this way you can greatly reduce the chance of extremes.
If you want to calculate the different outcome probabilities, but you aren't good at probability calculation just like me, then you can use this probability calculation tool which can help you tremendously.
Luck is important to create a playful element in games. A game should be a moment of relaxation and luck can certainly contribute to that. But beware, too much luck isn't good either. As a player you still want your choices to have had meaningful impact.