One item that is synonymous with board game are dice. Dice add elements of chance to games. Why is chance such an important element within board games and how do designers use it to foster better games?
Sweat painted itself across my brow as I clutched a pair of six-sided dice in my hand. A seven would see me claim victory, anything else and it was unlikely I’d get another turn. We were playing Catan, and a seven would activate the robber which would let me steal a card of my choosing.
I shook my hand, and let chance spill on the table. It was indeed a seven. I had prevailed. I cheered, others around the table groaned. A parade was held to celebrate my superior settling skills. Everyone drank wine!
Stopping for a minute to entomb in writing one of the rare victories I have had over my wife and our regular gaming group. So often games can come down to the drawing of a card or the role of a dice. Why does the act of adding unpredictability into a game give us such pleasure?
There are of course board games that don’t use chance at all. Chess for example, is a purely strategic game. All of the information is known by the players on the board and your ability to win is based fully on your skill. The vast majority of tabletop games out there however involve chance to a lesser and greater degree – most commonly in the form of dice rolls and cards.
What does chance bring to the table?
Humans are forever weighing up the pro’s and con’s of situations and making decisions based on their estimations. We are quite comfortable dealing with uncertainties, in fact it is often those uncertainties that keep us engaged and entertained. The world might be a pretty miserable place if we could always predict what was going to happen.
When a designer adds chance to a game, they are creating uncertainty. They are forcing players to make an analysis of the situation. To weigh up relative outcomes and make a call on what to do, the player is choosing from a more interesting set of options.
Since there are unknown elements, the choice becomes more complicated, and more compelling. Almost paradoxically, by not knowing the outcome for certain, players are more invested in the game. The more players are able to invest in a decision and outcome, the more they will enjoy the experience.
When we add chance to a game, we naturally add tension. Players may spend time tweaking the perfect strategy, but discovering if that strategy is ultimately going to come to fruition creates moments of drama.
As much as it gives the person who is winning the opportunity to prevail depending on chance, it gives those about to lose a glimmer of hope to hold on to.
Being able to rest the end result on the draw of a card or the roll of a dice creates a moment that would otherwise be impossible if your were just using pure strategy.
To suggest that games that don’t contain chance are not repayable is obviously not true. Chess has managed to stay fairly popular over the last 1500 years without chance 🙂
Chance does however, create more repeatability because players encounter more unfamiliar scenarios by virtue of the unpredictability of the game. If a game is purely strategic and doesn’t offer enough diversity through it’s mechanics, players may find an optimum path to victory that they use every time. Chance negates this effect as lady luck can mean that even a less optimal path can end up being the right one.
Players are also forced to deal with the consequences of chance. This will put them into situations they didn’t expect. Playing a war game for example, you may attempt an attack on the enemy. If you have amassed your forces and know the exact outcome of the fight, it is very easy to plan a clear path to domination.
However, with the inclusion of dice rolls that can create variance, you may be forced to deal with an unexpected outcome or fail your offence all together and have to re think your strategy.
Preventing Players “Figuring A Game Out”
Why does Tic-Tac-Toe lose it’s appeal so quickly?
Because it is a game that can be solved very quickly.
It relies on an extremely small number of dynamics and possibilities. Once you have “figured everything out” it becomes difficult to get any real pleasure of the game – in part because the next optimal move is always known
Now again, there are games that can be solved and still offer a lot of entertainment. Chess, to return to the old faithful, is solvable. There is always an optimal path to take to ensure victory (or at least stalemate) but the numerous move option and ever changing board setup make it much more difficult to solve.
If we include chance in a game, we prevent players from being able to solve the game, because some elements remain a mystery to the player. Even if the player were to make the exact same decisions, they may lead to different outcomes due to the inclusion of chance.
Should You Chance It?
Ultimately, how much chance you include in a game depends as much on the player experience you want to create as anything else. The inclusion of chance immediately creates a lot more diversity and dynamism into the game – and this can be a good or bad thing.
When considering if I want to include chance within a game, I always try to consider how much control I need as a player in a given situation. Would I feel frustrated if chance lead to failure in this instance, or would it create excitement that I was just one small move away from pulling off something great?
When tweaking your game, doing an exercise of 5 whys may lead you to the inclusion that creating some uncertainty (including chance) or reducing the uncertainty (removing chance) will have a beneficial impact on the game. Simplification of mechanics may not necessarily remove the need for chance, but they may change the way that it is presented e.g. cards rather than dice.