With a little bit of luck…

What do Terra Mystica and Tzolk’in have in common? Apart from being some of my favourite games of all time, together with Agricola or Puerto Rico back in the day, they lack the luck factor. As a player, I love luck-free games. As a designer? Not so much.

When the game’s all about players’ skills and abilities to predict the moves of their opponents, I will probably fall in love with it. I love luck-free games, as I am quite good at a lot of them – but not at all of them, which is why I also know the frustration of doing my best and failing completely. I used to be a strong advocate of luckless games, but for the past years I grew to tolerate, understand and finally love games with a random factor.

To those who love rolling them bones, I do not need to preach. You should know better how much fun it is to gather your spaceships and blow your opponents out of the sky (see Twilight Imperium, Exodus or Eclipse), to rally your troops, make your move and start shooting (see Memoir ’44 or Combat Commander) or to roll hard 20 in Dungeons & Dragons.

Take a look at a game like Voyages of Marco Polo or Castles of Burgundy now. You get your “bucket” (a big cup still qualifies as a bucket, right?) of dice, you roll, and then the fun begins. Every round you have to be prepared to deal with almost any possible combination of results. It’s hard, I know, but it is so fulfilling.

With all this in mind, I see four major advantages that games with a random factor share:

  • Firstly, baking a mitigated level of luck into a game will bring diversity even to a setup with no random elements. Think of Memoir ’44, where you can play a scenario countless times, and every time it will feel different. You can say the same about Terra Mystica, but the complexity level of the latter is the price to pay for this random-less replay value.
  • Secondly, making sure that at least a small part of what transpires within the game narrative is out of players’ hands makes the experience more pleasant for newer or more casual players. It’s not about taking skill out of the game, but it is about creating an option to blame at least some stuff on the dice, not to mention opening the door for memorable stories of truly epic rolls.
  • As a designer I try to always think about the player experiences during the game. About immersion, about the incredible moment when a player simply has to stand up and hold his or her breath for a brief moment, watching the dice roll or the cards being drawn in a slow-motion vision. Smartly implemented luck factor brings exactly that to the table. Do you remember such a play of yours? I’m sure you do.
  • Finally, a dash of the random levels the playing field a bit. After all, you are creatng a game that might find its way into a group with an Albert Einstein or, worse, with a Sheldon Cooper, who can not only outsmart the rest of the players, but also explain to them in details what they’ve done wrong every step of the way. However, if you insert the random factor cleverly, they (and every other player) will not only be challenging their opponents, but also themselves to beat the ods, and work their best with the hand they had been dealt.

With all of these in mind, I like the moments when luck plays its part. It provides diversity, it often makes all of us a bit more comfortable, and often it builds the epic moments we tend to remember for years. Simply put, when built into the game the right way, luck brings fun to the table!

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