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I don’t like board games that rely on luck. These games provide little or no choice for players and without choice, players are unable to influence the progression and outcome of the game and may feel helpless. If you win a game of luck, you didn’t win because of your good choices. It is really a victory for the dice, not the player. It is hard to stay engaged in a game when you feel that you are just a passenger. You’re not playing a game; the game is playing you.

Randomness, however, is different to luck. You can have randomness within a game without it being dependent on luck. There are some ‘pure strategy’ games, like Chess and Go, where there is no element of randomness. Players learn how to play the game over time and develop mastery of the required skills the more they play. These games of pure strategy reward the most experienced players… and they will almost always win. The only unknown element in pure strategy games are the decisions of the other players. Fortunately for us, the unskilled masses, most board games contain an element of randomness.

Here’s why randomness is good: 

  • It increases uncertainty and excitement. Nobody knows how the game will play out.  
  • Players are prevented from adopting the exact same strategy and executing it in the same way over and over again each time they play.
  • Different (random) starting conditions create a new board or a new combination of powers which enables players to play the game in different ways each time they get it to the table. This increases replayability.
  • Acquiring different combinations of cards, resources or objectives during a game, forces players to keep reassessing the situation and altering their tactics to optimise their game play.
  • The changing availability of resources or actions encourages players to develop their ability to react and analyse situations on the spur of the moment.
  • Players that are new to the game have more chance of playing on a level playing field with more experienced players. Experienced players can’t have played every possible random combination, so their advantage is reduced and in some ways all players are new to each game: randomness is a good equaliser.
  • Players don’t know what cards or resources they’ll be able to access later on in the game, so games give rise to interesting decisions about how you plan for what may (and may not) become available to you.
  • Players learn about probability in action as they try to determine the likelihood of various outcomes.

Look for games where…

  • Luck, on its own, won’t win the game.
  • Players are able to make choices that influence how much they are affected by the element of luck: there is some element of risk mitigation. For example, Poker enables players to choose how much to push their luck, when to raise, when to fold. The draw of the cards is luck, but the decisions around bidding are not.
  • All players share the random element – the situation is exactly the same for all players. In many ‘roll and write’ games, for example, players will all use the same throws of the same dice. Each player chooses how to use the dice throw from the options available to them. No player can blame luck for their loss.
  • All possible random outcomes are equally valuable or equally likely to be wanted. Dice throws give different options, but one isn’t better than another. Each available card may be equally useful but will reward different strategies and combinations.
  • There are multiple routes to victory. The game is balanced enough to allow players who have opted for different strategies to each be as likely to win.
  • The random elements doesn’t affect your ability to fully participate in the game. Games where you must throw a certain number to get started, for example, should always be avoided.

I’m working on a game called Throw Down Your Coats. The first version of this game included no element of randomness at all. After I finished playing it with my son, Alfie, who had beaten me by a huge margin, he proclaimed, “This is the best game you’ve ever made! I’m never playing it again.” He had worked out what he calculated to be the winning strategy and had no need to play it again, he already knew he would win. So Version 1 failed. Guess what?  Version 2 included randomness.