Luck vs skill is at the core of every board game.
Purely skill-based games are often described as abstracts. You could imagine Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty sitting above a waterfall, a game of Santorini (minus god powers) on the table in front of them as they analyse every possibility in their bid to place a worker high above the others.
Purely luck-based games are often described as “not games”. The difference between playing Snakes & Ladders and flipping a coin to determine a winner is not far off. Arguably, flipping a coin involves more skill, as the number of dice rolled in Snakes & Ladders is enough to counteract any specific “talent” for landing a coin on a particular side. In his novel series, The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan even pokes fun at this game. His version, Snakes & Foxes, is impossible to win without cheating. Only by realising that the only way out is by cheating will the players win (and so it is considered a diversion for children). In the same way, Snakes & Ladders is a thrill… right up until you realise that you have no control over whether you win the game or not.
Most games exist somewhere in between these two. “Euro” games tend to fall on the skill side, while “American-style” games often focus on luck and theme above careful consideration and forward planning. Still, even Euro games often use luck mechanics (such as the order that cards are drawn in Ticket to Ride) with choices in place to allow players to compensate for bad luck. But the most common “luck” generator, and the most ancient, is the six-sided dice.
Dice have been around since before written history, possibly begun as a method of fortune-telling. Senet was played in Egypt around 3000BCE, while Sugoroku was played in Japan (both racing games – ancient ancestors of Camel Up perhaps?). Romans used dice that bear remarkable similarity to our common pipped dice.
The two games I put in the title of this article (Star Wars: Destiny (Fantasy Flight Games) and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn (Plaid Hat Games)) are the same concept: a tactical card game with dice to introduce luck elements. But it is in how they order skill and luck that I find interesting.
Ashes was first published in 2015. In it, players build decks of cards in the traditional Magic: The Gathering sense, but they also build a pool of custom-faced dice. At the start of the turn, players roll these dice and spend them as resources to play cards, activate card abilities and trigger dice effects. They may also burn cards from their deck to change the symbols on their dice.
Destiny is a newer game (2016), but one that took the world by storm, selling through all of its stock as players bought boxes of boosters in search of legendary cards and lightsabers. Players begin with one to four heroes in play, each contributing one to two dice. Each dice side has a special ability (or a blank) and other cards can be played which add further dice to those heroes’ pools. Heroes are turned sideways to indicate use, and their dice are rolled. Then the dice are spent to effect a player’s strategy. Similar to Ashes, cards may be discarded in order to change symbols on the dice by rerolling.
There are two big differences between the two games, and one which makes me prefer Ashes.
In Ashes the primary interaction between players comes from their cards. You can even choose your opening hand, negating a common “luck” factor in card games where players rely on mulligans (redrawing hands) to find the strategy they like. As such, the game is highly tactical. In Destiny, you can mulligan your hand, but the primary interaction always comes from the abilities on the dice. If you roll no damage symbols (or you only roll symbols that cost resources when you are resource starved), you are unable to damage your opponent. Where Ashes is about mitigating or capitalising on your luck with clever strategy, Destiny is about playing a strategy that mitigates any poor fortune you might later have.
The second difference comes back to the point of the two games and that spectrum I talked about earlier. In Ashes, when you burn cards to change dice, you turn the dice to a side of your choice. Of course, this will always be the best side, as the sides exist on a scale of power (the best can be used as the second best and so on) and there are no “blanks”. In Destiny, on the other hand, you reroll the dice and the symbols are not interchangeable. There is no “best” side – only sides which benefit certain situations. And there are “blanks”.
You might roll incredibly poorly in Ashes but still pull out a win through clever play. But no matter how clever your play is, nothing will stop you from losing Destiny if all you roll are blanks.
There is a certain kind of thrill in rolling dice in Destiny. You never quite know what you are going to end up with, and your whole strategy can depend on that single, important roll. Yet the lack of certainty in any strategy, I think, makes it unsuitable for competitive play. Don’t mistake me, Destiny is a fun filler game. Ashes, on the other hand, is perfect for tournament play for that exact reason. The dice add an ebb and flow to match-ups, but ultimately, the game is about mitigating a bad throw.
What can we learn from this for game design?
There is a great article by Tiger Crab Studios (Part 1 and Part 2) that covers this in a lot of detail. Here I’m going to go into that in a bit less detail, but relate it back to a few choices I made for Lucidity: Six-sided Nightmares.
Luck adds a certain “thrill” to a game. When you are about to roll a dice, you get a shot of adrenaline. There is uncertainty on both sides and it leads to celebrations (on successful rolls) or mourning (on failed ones). Games such as X-Com or By Order of the Queen have used dice rolling for combat results rather successfully in recent years (though Risk made great use of it decades ago).
Skill, on the other hand, gives people a feeling of agency – any decision they make feels like a direct result of choices they have made. The more meaningful choice you give players, the more agency they will have, the more invested they will be in the results, the more they will care.
For the balance between the above two, I went further towards “luck” with Lucidity. Players have a lot of meaningful choice on their turn. They can choose which colours of dice to roll, which to put back, what order to activate abilities, whether to manipulate their dice as a result of those abilities, and whether to push on or rest (and if they rest, which dice to remove). On a meta level, players can change strategies mid-game if one isn’t working for them, making a further meta-choice.
When I describe the game design on Lucidity, I often say I “cheated” a bit with it. I created a game specifically designed to elicit that feeling of the unexpected, to give players those memorable moments of thrill. There are a lot of choices to make, and none of them are good. They are meaningful (they affect gameplay significantly) but they are all bad. Normally in a game, when bad things constantly happen to you, you put it aside and give up. By giving players a meaningful choice over which bad things happen to them though, players own their results rather than feel like they are being punished unfairly.
The Tiger Crab Studios article linked above also makes the point that a luck-based game will give a less skilled player the opportunity to win against a more skilled player. Depending on the kind of game you are making, this is also important. As I talked about above, a game intended for tournament play, competitive style, should not rest the ultimate decision of the game on luck. You don’t want a less skilled player to win – you want to reward a player’s investment in time and thought into the game.
A filler game, on the other hand, should be more than welcome to do so! A short time-of-play means players aren’t as invested in the outcome of the game. In fact, it is desirable for a filler game to rely more on luck than skill. Why? Because filler games are often used as gateway games to get new players into the hobby. And the last thing you want to do to a new player is crush them and make them never want to play again!
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?