The Case for History and Luck

I bought a nice dice tower a few years back. Not trying to flex, but I bought it because one of the most important components of nearly every game I own is a pair of dice. Now, some people don’t like their dice to just get dropped into a tower. They prefer the ting of the plastic hitting glass. Others like to see the dice tumble across the table. Still more have created their own felt lined trays that are nearly silent. For me, it’s the dice tower.

So, why talk about dice of all things?

Well, I’ve been thinking about the nature of our hobby in relation to other subsets within the broader hobby of boardgaming. In effect, what are the tastes that might make someone run for the hills. After all, we are now seeing boardgame luminaries like Rodney Smith and Candice Harris amplify the efforts of consim-specific voices and publishers. I’ll admit, I kinda like the attention on the hobby because it’s helping to de-stigmatize it.

I zeroed in on something that comes up from time to time in other strategy games: Luck.

The Case Against Luck

I get it. People don’t like to see their perfect plan crumble to anything other than a more perfect plan of their opponent. A test of wits! For them, dice are “swingy.”

The reality is a little more complex. By some people’s reasoning, games that limit the amount of luck are perhaps a more true representation of skill. After all, if a bad die roll can undo the coup de grace meant to bring down your opponent after hours of careful planning and cunning…then the game is deeply flawed. In fact, I would wholeheartedly agree with this point.

More subtle though is the insinuation that somehow designs that represent a calculated risk/reward without the need for dice are more mature. They represent a more thoughtful and careful approach where the small sample size of a single game doesn’t impact the overall outcome of play. After all, if the game is worth playing, then certainly it must be worthy of pitting the opponent’s rules knowledge, experience, cunning, and gameplay against each other without the need for chance.

There’s a lot to be said for this. Go, and to a lesser degree, Chess represent ancient games so gorgeously designed with nearly infinite replay that they have managed to remain relevant and culturally important in eastern and western societies respectively. These are games that take a lifetime to master, if one ever does, and are often used as cultural shorthand to point out the relative intelligence of their opponents. In pop culture, their inclusion quickly showcases any number of favorable traits for the character seen as adept. As a result, we have an unconscious bias to process games that lack a randomizing element as perhaps more of a “pure” game than ones that introduce dice.

The Case Against Luck

For me, the case is more straightforward.

Chess grand champions began getting regularly beaten by AI in 1996. Go masters succumbed to the same fate in 2019. Any game for which an AI can regularly and predictably beat even the best players in the world is not a game worthy of my hobby time. I appreciate that AIs aren’t out there just trouncing Chess players in NYC…the Chess hustlers are very real and they will take your very real money very quickly. lol

Instead, I suggest that games without luck are games that can be “solved.” I don’t want a game that can be solved. I want cards that might come out in a different order, dice, random events, edge cases, and all the other tools that create unpredictability and emergent narrative gameplay. In short…I want games that represent the swingy nature of history and conflict.

I want the messy results that create chaos and disorder from something resembling orderly planning. I want my brain to burn with the risk/reward calculations that are only made more complicated by the influence of dice. I want to briefly see my dice disappear into the blackness of my dice tower and in that moment for my heart to hope as they reappear and reveal their secrets. The utter despair is real too…and it’s how we weather it that makes for stories that we retell with friends even decades later.

In fact, luck plays a crucial role in our lives. The very act of being born is riddled with a cosmic luck that we cannot influence. To suggest that our games be orderly or somehow neatly laid out loses some of the tangy sweetness of victory and makes the defeat just that much more bitter. Instead, luck and the swingy nature of history go hand-in-hand. They’re to be celebrated.

Another game?

The good news, of course, is that we’re always on the lookout for “another game.” Whether you love games without luck or games that are lousy with it replete with “buckets of dice,” everyone wants to hear their opponent suggest “another game?” There is so much that pulls us together as gamers. A unifying bond of people who appreciate the power of adult play for both social bonding, competition, and learning. A sense of joy that we freely express in the articles, videos, social media content, conventions, and conversations held across tables at our favorite local game stores. It’s always about another game and I hope that if you fall into the camp where you DON’T like lucky and find it swingy…that you’ll give it a try and experience that moment of elation when things turn from okay to great or the chagrin as a well laid plan goes the way of mice and men.

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