The pros and cons of luck

While maybe not strictly a mechanic (looking at you luck plays greater or smaller roles in a lot of games, from dice-rolling to card-draw to who goes first in a game. I know players who hate any chance in their games and relish the 'test of wits' of games where there is complete information. Likewise I know players who find things dry and tedious with the excitement of the unknown.

I thought I'd list some examples of what I personally like and dislike about luck/chance in games:

Variable set up - These are randomised aspects to a game that generally aim to increase how fresh a game feels each time you play it. This could be a randomised map built out of tiles, a random starting hand of cards or maybe a different combination of point scoring objectives for each set. Now, this is often the most welcome for many players, all the chance is known before the game starts so it makes people feel like they are still in control and just have to do the best they can from the start. I personally think is generally a positive although I know some games that really benefit from having a very set starting point to either ensure balance or because it gives the game a lot more character. The downside of random set up (depending on the game of course) is that whatever it is that is randomised, for example map tiles, have to all be interchangable and fairly equal. This can lead to a more homogenous map with less extremes, which can be fine but some games really excel by controlling the set-up.

Dice-rolling/chance in combat - this is often the part of a game that will be luck-based if nothing else is. I think this is often makes sense as there are few certainties in fighting/war so it works thematically. While a lot of games give you the chance to stack the odds in your favour it does mean occaisionally the plucky underdog can win the day. I do like this, as it gives everyone hope and keeps people engaged as a battle with a foregone conclusion is rarely enjoyable for either side. That said two of my favourite combat rules in games are from #Cry Havoc and #Rising Sun neither of which feature any luck. They however keep things exciting by having multiple potential objectives within the battle. You don't know what your opponent is trying to achieve so that mystery and uncertainty is still there.

Preventing Analysis Paralysis - Now I am prone to a bit of AP in board games, I relish trying to figure out efficient moves and long term strategies. However, what I think a little luck in a game can do is make it impossible to truly know what the 'best' move is and as such cuts down how much you can plan and slow a game down. One thing I often struggle with in abstract games is that ususally whoever thinks the most will win so short of any time the game is incentivising you to spend ages planning. However, when you can't be sure what cards will come up or how a dice-roll will turn out you can't plan the future in detail and have to go for broader strategies.

Having enough chance for the odds to balance - I think this is really crucial in heavier games that involve chance. If a game has dice that have significant impact on the game (say for combat) but you only roll them twice the whole game then that can feel very swingy. However, if you roll those same dice a hundred times then it is likely that over the course of the game the odds will balance out and while you might get unlucky at a key moment you will also likely get lucky at other moments to soften that blow. Finding that balance in a game I think is really important. my best example of this theory going completely out the window was playing #Burgle Bros. and rolling 34 dice before managing to roll a single 4. Not sure which diety I angered that day but it was hilarious.

Random events - I think these often split people, these are usually cards drawn randomly from a deck at various points in the game which either have an immediate or ongoing effect. These usually apply universally but obviously can impact some player more than others depending on their specific situation. I know people to have become quite bitter when a random event throws their plans out the window and I can absolutely sympathise. However, I think if random events can't have the capacity to impact the game then they can become quite blunted and might as well be dropped (as I am sure some people would like). I think it's important in these games to make players aware that events can have an impact and to build a more robust plan or risk the consequences, that way I think you can keep the excitement of the unexpeced while also having players only having themselves to blame if they get caught out by one and hopefully not getting upset. However, I am a little on the fence about these.

Markets - In many many games, you get cards for your tableau or deck from a market of a hanful of cards draw from a much larger deck. Now this can be fustrating if all the cards are useless to your plan/engine or if the card you really wanted appears just after your turn and there is no way to stop your opponents grabbing it. While this can be a bummer, I do like the challenge of trying to build something out of less than ideal pieces, being flexible about what  want my engine to do. I guess the only thing would be if the game sets you up to need certain card to do well and you just never get it. Or if some cards are significantly better than others in all circumstances.


Of course there are myriad ways in which luck impacts games. What do you tihnk of my list? What are some of your favourite/least favourite aspects?


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3 months ago

I love this list and agree with the vast majority if not all of it.  I am not a huge fan of games based on luck and so #Candy Land Game, #Yahtzee, or even #Dice Throne do not peak my interest much or my interest (say as in Dice Throne) is tempered somewhat.  

Games with luck that allow you to push your luck #Diamant, #The Quacks of Quedlinburg, or such I am a little more ok with but they still aren't my favorite games.  Those a more of a controlled adjustment strategy #Orléans or #Dice Forge I enjoy a bit more.

Other games such as the luck involved in drawing cards in #Gloomhaven or #Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island that mimic the randomness of battle or wildlife are great and in both those cases the random nature impacts everyone (seeing as they are co-op games).  Even the luck of a drawn encounter card in #Scythe is mitigated by the balance across all encounter cards.

There are several games where I have felt that luck was not necessary and house ruled something to remove it. #Everdell: Spirecrest allows you to draw three cards from a seasonal deck at the end of each season and place them randomly at the bottom of the board with the first being free, the second costing a little more, and the third costing the most.  This seems arbitrary to me and so the last play we drew five, pick one, and place the others on the bottom of the deck.  In #Maracaibo is makes more sense to reveal all the privilege buildings at the beginning because there are 8, you randomly draw 4, and there's already enough luck with card draw throughout the game that revealing one each decade seems unnecessary. 

Two other games I've found luck workarounds are #Wingspan and #The Isle of Cats.  In Wingspan we draft cards at the beginning of the game with each player starting with 7 cards, drafting until necessary and discarding down to 5 (at least) by drafts end.  This gives everyone a fair shot at a solid opening hand and not ending up with 5 birds that don't play well in the first couple turns.  In Isle of Cats I divide the cards into green cards (baskets), purple, brown, and yellow cards, and blue card (lessons) stacks and each round we start the draft with each player getting three green, and choosing two or three from each of the other stacks.  THEN we draft.  This eliminates a whole round with NO extra baskets (unless you draft them that case your loss).  

Great topic/mechanic choice!

3 months ago

The drafting idea for #Wingspan is really good, I may steal that the next time I play

3 months ago

That said, I haven't played a lot of these games, but I agree that very high luck games can be frustating (especially if they are longer games). That said, being at the mercy of dice or card-draw can often be exciting and in longer games with a lot of chance, getting to the point of that last die roll makes or breaks you takes a heap of skill too.

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