Tuesday, May 23, 2006

No Dice

Dice have fallen into disfavor among Eurogame designers, with singular exceptions such as Settlers of Catan.

But these designers haven't eliminated all chance in favor of pure strategy. Ignoring random elements, which I define as elements that change initial play but thereafter allow all players equal opportunity to win, luck remains a factor in these games.

It appears that most designer's intentions are to choose a "some luck" route. Gone are the dice or cards that completely determine what happens to you, such as in Monopoly and Sorry. Instead they add luck elements that determine how just a few things happen, while the remaining aspects of the game are chosen directly by the player.

It is as if the game is split into two sets of parts: the parts of the game where you simply do things as you choose, and the parts where you flip or draw and see what happens. The theory is that a greater proportion of non-luck actions to luck-actions correlates to a more strategic game. Also, that if the luck elements are of minor effect, or occur early in each round, then they serve only to change the flow of the game and do not greatly determine winning or losing.

In practice, designers are more or less successful in implementing this theory. But they do go wrong. And not only because they don't perfectly implement the theory, but because the theory itself has a hole in it.

Using this theory as a guide, poorly implemented games are the ones where the card draw or flipped tile can result in a swing of points far in excess of any similar action performed by skill alone. If the element is optional, then you would be foolish not to take it because someone else will and then win without much effort. If the element is required, same difference.

The hole in the theory, however, applies even when the point swing from the luck elements are not excessively large. It is when the skill elements of the game are not strong enough or challenging enough to produce a sufficiently large point differential between closely skilled players.

If the decisions are basically trivial, all players are going to choose functionally equivalent paths and end up within a point of each other. That part of the game may have added theme or fun, but can be eliminated as far as affecting the outcome of the game. The effect of the remaining element, the luck element, is now greatly amplified and overshadows that of what can be acquired by skill.

One wonders if the simple elimination of dice may have blinded some designers to this fact. Instead of dice we have action cards, tile flips, cube towers, and so on. They look neat, and their results may be non-intuitive. But the game needs to be solidly designed, first. A bunch of action cards that tell you what to do is no better than a bunch of dice rolls that tell you what to do.

Yehuda

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