As I started to get more serious about the board game hobby, I learned a number of amusing terms for different kind of games. One that I enjoy quite a bit is “Ameritrash,” a seemingly-derogatory phrase for games that a) have tons of little fiddly bits, b) have a strongly developed theme, and c) rely heavily on luck. There are more detailed descriptions of the term, of course. The opposite game style is “Eurogame,” which is generally a) tightly constructed, b) focus on mechanics and play more than conflict, and c) use balance far more than luck.
While a developed theme is a big deal for me, and I love the little fiddly bits, I think the reliance on luck is the biggest divider between the two genres. While you can have bad luck in Settlers of Catan, the statistics of the dice rolls generally work out okay, and any failure you have in covering the various resources point back to your poor choices in the land-grab phases of the game. By contrast, you can do everything right in Last Night on Earth, have a couple bad rolls, and find your hero being eaten for dinner.
So how do you decide when to rely on luck in your game? I’d suggest three questions:
Is it thematically appropriate?
Figures an Ameritrash fan would focus on theme first. But really, luck amps up tension because you don’t know how things are going to come out. In Last Night on Earth, which prompts players to imagine their characters in a zombie film scenario, luck plays a huge role. It’s a common staple of the zombie movie for a character to do everything right, to beat back a zombie horde, only to get bitten on the ankle by a zombie laying under an overturned bookshelf.
Other games have themes that accommodate virtually no luck. In Mammut, players are part of a primitive tribe, just returned from their hunting expedition, sitting down to divvy up the results of the journey. They take turns taking piles of goods, either from the communal pot or from one another, until each has a share. This system relies on hardly any luck at all (except for the handful of mystery tiles in the pool and the player’s secret amplifier card). This fits the theme well, as the scenario doesn’t involve a narrative where surprise or mystery would be part of the tale.
So designers should ask if the luck they’re building into their game fits the theme they’re using.
Is it about skill and strategy?
Some games reward skill and strategy to the detriment of nearly everything else. Games of perfect information, such as Chess, provide all the possibilities to players up front, and all moves are made in public. Other games use complete information, meaning that you know all the things your opponent could do, but can’t always see what they do, or may have some options arrive by chance (such as a card that determines possible game states but appears randomly). Battleship is an example of a game of complete information.
Games that rely on luck have an inherent information gap. Neither player knows how a dice roll will come out, or which card will be at the top of the deck. Additionally, games like Magic: The Gathering or Android: Netrunner have the additional issue of mysterious game elements — each player has information about elements in the game (her own deck) that are missing from the other player. Games like this usually achieve balance through statistical averaging (the ‘best of three games’ rule, for instance, mediates the ‘luck of the draw’ aspect of CCGs).
So designers should ask how much they want to reward skill and strategy in play. Should newbies have to grasp lots of complicated interconnections among many different features to compete with veterans? Should one or two moments turn the whole game?
Does it add fun to the game?
Of course, this is the most subjective question to ask. Some people find the churning-gear machine analysis of 7 Wonders intriguing and interesting, while others delight in the Elder Sign moment when a beleaguered investigator rolls the one crucial result on her last die to fulfill the task and prevent Cthulhu from waking and destroying the Earth. So it might come down to taste.
But we’ve all played games where the dice just aren’t on our side. For example, after a particularly bad game of Elder Sign, my daughter refused to play the game for months. She only recently realized (or admitted to herself) that it wasn’t because she didn’t like the game, but because she’d had such a bad experience that one round. We hadn’t kept the theme strong enough to offset the sour experience of luck going against her.
The question a designer should ask is: can the player do anything to change the game if the dice aren’t working in their favor? If the answer is no, then that player is probably going to have a crummy time of it.
What’s the right balance of luck and strategy? Which games do you think master this balance best?