Games of chance have been with us for millenia. Dice have been found in archaeological digs across the world, the oldest being those found at the Burnt City dig in Iran, thought to be from between 2800 and 2500 BC. Many civilisations have had games involving an element of luck, and ours is no different. Games of chance are mentioned in ancient texts from many civilisations and even referenced in the Bible.
We introduce chance into games through all sorts of methods: dice, cards, drawing tokens from a bag, or flipping a coin. Why are we drawn to these elements? I am no psychologist, but I can speak to my own experience. It is in those small moments just before the result is known that we feel a moment of trepidation and see a glimpse of hope. As the dice clatters across the tabletop, for a single moment all players are focused on it, a breath is drawn in quickly and released as the dice comes to rest. Our fate is decided in the passing of a single moment. It’s unpredictable. Exciting. Dramatic.
That’s not to say that games that are purely determined by skill can’t be exciting or dramatic, but they lack the immediacy of unpredictability that comes from the toss of a dice or the drawing of a card. Games that are purely deterministic, those lacking any random elements to determine the outcome, really require a greater level of familiarity to appreciate the drama of a given moment or strategy. Chess would be a great example of this type of game.
Much as I am not an advocate for Boardgamegeek, it can be a useful barometer of what those who are very enthusiastic about games are chatting about and putting in their collections. If you check out the top 10 of all time you will not find a single game that lacks an element of chance. By my reckoning the first time you do see such a game is Terra Mystica at number 16. Yet still the debate around elements of luck comes about from time to time, but is it really about that?
Some obsess about the true randomness of the mechanics we use, seeking perfect dice, fresh decks of cards, even going as far as putting cases on counters to keep everything feeling the same (I have even done this myself). It is thought by some that the imperfection found in early dice, sometimes very obviously biased, did not matter to those civilisations.
The way that Romans wrote about dice indicated that they believed their faith in the gods mattered more than the fidelity of the dice. Archaeologist Ellen Swift writes in her book “Roman Artifacts and Society” that “Dice potentially played an important role in conceptualizing divine action in the world”. Still we seek perfectly random results, when in truth we are trying not for perfect randomness, but for fairness in the results.
Randomness can certainly contribute to a feeling that you are being ‘done over’ by a game, that you are being treated unfairly. I admit that I can feel that sometimes, when roll after roll goes against me, or the next card I draw is just not quite what I am hoping for. I can get annoyed as much as the next person, feel that bad loser vibe poking through. Always I come back to the centre though and remind myself that those moments are in contrast to the sheer elation when chance swings your way.
We can look at a game at being on a spectrum of luck from pure input randomness to pure output randomness. The former means that you roll the dice then make a decision based on the result, the latter that you make a decision and then roll the dice to determine the outcome. Everyone has their own preference for where they sit on this spectrum, and for some the answer will be that they don’t. For myself I sit pretty close to the Output end of the spectrum, but I’ve played games right across it.
Regardless of its place on this spectrum, a good game will make you feel in control of the random elements, that you can bend fate to your will. In a game with high Output randomness this usually takes the form of making the probabilities easy to understand. Without that feeling of control, I do think elements of chance can be overwhelming. They can bury the soul of the game in an avalanche of bad luck.
Lords of Vegas is one of my favourite games, and a great example of this feeling of control. Set in Vegas before it was the glittering monument to lady luck we all know, you are tasked with building a casino empire. Mechanically this is achieved through cards and dice, with the main thrust of the game being actions you can take, all involving the calculation of probabilities with dice and cards. Every roll can go badly or bend in your favour, but the odds are clear and can be manipulated. It is a game that shows you the strings of fate, looks you in the eye, and persuades you to push your luck as far as it will go.
Chance can be a leveller of sorts as well, and give hope to the inexperienced against the experienced. Take a game like Blood Bowl from Games Workshop, a fantasy football game where dice feature heavily in the resolution of actions. A failed result in this game can result in a quick reversal of fortunes as the game turn is handed to your opponent to exploit the hole the fates have punched in your defences. In doing so it teaches players to take the least risky actions first, only trying the high risk maneuvers as your plans coalesce.
Of course board games are not the only tabletop hobby that have embraced chance. Ever since Dungeons and Dragons came into being, Tabletop RPGs have used chance to represent the unpredictable outcomes of a character’s actions. They embraced randomness as a natural outcome of playing in a world they wanted to imagine as alive, vibrant, and ultimately unpredictable.
RPGs can use dice and cards in lots of simple ways: to determine who goes first in a fight, how fast you climb, where you hit your opponent and how hard. They can do more than that though, and you will find lots of clever uses for them across RPGs. Dogs in the Vineyard sees you pairing dice to take actions, being countered by ever larger sided dice that are only available through acts of aggression and violence. Blades in the Dark, you knew I was going to mention it, sees a whole fight resolved with a single roll in bold, pulp style action. Savage Worlds uses increasing die sizes to represent better skills. The list is endless.
There are RPG systems that eschew randomness for giving a way to resolve situations through discussion. Point pools alongside more freeform methods or provide for a different style of play. The RPGs that have really stuck around though, that have stood the test of time, all of them embrace some element of randomness.
Of course there will always be people whose first criticism of a game comes down to the luck factor, however it manifests. For some the idea of anything being out of their control is unconscionable. That’s fine, there are plenty of deterministic games out there, but I personally believe they are missing out on some of the best that the hobby has to offer.
The other complaint that gets lumped in alongside the luck factor, is that of balance. While elements of luck can affect the balance of a game, they are not always linked directly. Their proximity can often lead to the analysis that the game is unbalanced if it involves certain types of luck, but I don’t honestly think that is true. Root is a fine example of a game that has luck elements in it, dice and card, but is widely regarded as one of the better balanced games out there. Balance is something I will perhaps revisit in another article.
For many our first game experience will involve dice, usually through some form of simple “Roll and Move” like Snakes & Ladders. Randomness is accessible, understandable, and above all leads to exciting moments. In order for tabletop games to grow, to appeal to a larger, and wider, audience, they need to be exciting. Drawing that card you needed, hitting the number you required, that moment as you pull exactly what you needed from the bag. There is elation in those moments, and I for one will embrace that every day of the week.
The Shape of Ancient Dice Suggests Shifting Beliefs in Fate and Chance. The Atlantic, 2018. The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/dice-dice-baby/553742/.