Get Lucky

Review Corner Writers

Posted by Review Corner Writers on Mar 1, 2016

“The luck element”. “Dicefests”. “You may as well roll a D6 to determine who wins.”

Common comments like that show that game players have an odd relationship with Lady Luck. Some can’t stand even a whiff of the winds of fortune while others- like your Review Corner Editor-in-Chief- love die rolls, card flips, chit draws and even good old fashioned spinners. With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner (or at the end of the rainbow, as the case may be), I asked our writers to share some of their favorite games where having a four leafed clover in your pocket or the proverbial “luck o’ the Irish” is as important as having a good strategy. Me, I love to see the chin-scratchers and brow-furrowers laid low by a string of bad die rolls. And if it’s me running through a patch of bad luck, it’s just something else to laugh about and riff on while playing a losing game. So here is a selection of games where you might get lucky…or not.

Michael Barnes



You might associate Catan with the “wood for sheep” trading or you might think of it as a light civilization development game. Neither of which would necessarily be wrong, but to my mind both of those elements are elements operating on top of the core dice game that this classic design is built on. Essentially, Catan is a gambling and betting game. Yes, you read that right. Each settlement and city you build is effectively setting a bet that the numbers adjacent to it are going to pay out, and when those numbers “hit”, you get a return on your investment. But they may not ever hit, especially if you are betting on the outer pairs in what is more or less a Craps-based system. 6,7,8 are your safest bets, but may be the most common resources. If all of the ore and grain is on the 2s and 12s, that fundamentally changes the value of those payouts. And then you use the trading with other players or the ports to mitigate the impact that luck has had on your efforts. By the way, if you play Catan with a deck of dice, you need to rethink your life decisions. It’s a dice game.


Dungeon Quest is the cardboard embodiment of luckiness, or more accurately, unluckiness. You'll start your descent into the dungeon boldly. You'll poke every skeleton you see, hoping loose change will fall out. But loose change will not fall out. It will be a scorpion, invariably. Or else the skeleton will rattle to life and rip your head off. The best metric to measure a player's Dungeon Quest experience is his or her reaction to encountering an empty room: new players will sigh, wishing they had found something more exciting. Jaded veterans of the dungeon will breathe a sigh as well, but one of relief. For they know they are living on borrowed time. Take every respite you can get, because the dungeon will eat you alive.


The roles are reversed in Zombie Dice. Rather than trying to slay the undead horde, you are a hungry zombie looking for delicious gray matter. And the simple concept is carried by a relatively straightforward dice game. Pick three dice and roll 'em. You can stop and bank any brains, or push your luck and roll more - hoping that no shotgun blasts appear. Zombie Dice is easy to grasp, simple to explain, and can be played by anyone. Non-gamers and even young ones jump right in to brain munching and have a blast. And for gamers it provides and enjoyably light respite between more substantial titles.


Look, I like highbrow deeply strategic games like Fire In The Lake and Forbidden Stars as much as the next guy or gal. Sometimes you just want to chuck buckets full of dice and down a Rooster Booster with a crazy jungle rhythm pounding in your ears. Escape picks up and throws you down in 10 minutes, allowing a fully co-operative experience with a difficulty that can be fine-tuned to your group's skill, or lack thereof. It's tense yet light and visually inviting to all types. Escape is a game I've owned since it hit the market and it keeps pulling through like Indiana evading that oncoming boulder.


The screaming hordes of monstrous Genestealers are pressing in on you from all sides. Burden by your heavy power armor, you and your Brothers march forward through the corridors of hulking metal tomb, knowing that your life is not as important as completing your mission. Position yourself as best as you can to take advantage of your strengths and abilities, but at the end of each round whether you live, die, or take some of those nightmare creatures comes down to a few rolls on a single six-sided die. Death Angel packs as much tension into a single roll as other games do into 100, and the randomized mission deck ensures that after a few plays you will cheer or groan as you see old familiar rooms that have seen more than a few Space Marine corpses.


Miniature wargames are the true epitome of luck games. While those who play insist that luck is mitigated with movement and list building, ultimately you can't stop an opponent with hot dice, nor can you truly overcome bad dice. That said, they're rich and replayable, with the additional benefit of quality components you can enjoy by painting. Wrath of Kings is an incredible game to start with if you're interested in having a go with minis games. There's also the fact that you can look at your friend to say with utmost sincerity, "My pig people are going to destroy your fish people." That single sentence encapsulates the kind of fun Wrath Of Kings can offer.


When you're playing a dice game, you expect there to be quite a bit of luck involved. Ninja Dice, though, cranks that luck factor up to maximum volume. What obstacles will you be facing in your attempt to ninja-star the guards, slip past the residents, and break all the locks to steal the most loot from your targeted villa? That all depends on what your opponent rolls on the challenge dice! Will you be able to maximize your profit from a single round if you press your luck and keep rolling those dice? That, too, depends on whether your opponents roll hourglasses that signal your capture and failure, or arrows that allow them to steal your already-earned coin while you're busy robbing some poor feudal lord blind. You can try your best to strategize in the three rounds of this quick, light filler game -- but your plans will quickly be crushed when you push for just one more wild symbol, or one more fortune multiplier, and find yourself cut off early when your enemies' dice hit the table and leave you penniless.


Talisman hearkens back to a time when games didn't care much about the players. It doesn't hold your hand or push you toward your victory. Some people will have a nice gentle arc that allows their character to get stronger as the game goes on, while others will be a punching-bag for three hours or longer. It doesn't seem to care that one player got an advantage, and another is getting steamrolled. It is this lack of remorse that makes Talisman such an effective adventure game. Moving from space to space feels like an actual risk, because there's no guarantee you will be safe. Since so much is left to sheer dumb luck, it forces the player to gauge the risk and reward of every decision, giving it just enough strategy to hang around, but not so much that it becomes hard to understand. And of course, it allows for lots of social interaction. A big part of lucky games is that perverse sense of schadenfreude you get when bad luck hits your opponents, and no game knows this better than Talisman. That sick pleasure is strongest when a player visits the enchantress, and rolls a 1, turning them into a toad. If your group is doing it right, there will be laughing and pointing, especially when it happens multiple times to the same person.


President James Garfield once said, “A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck.” In board gaming few designs exemplify that “no guts, no glory” mentality more than push-your-luck designs. And Incan Gold is one of the genre’s purest and best. Players channel their inner Indiana Jones venturing into dangerous ruins in search of wealth and artifacts. Each round, everyone secretly picks one of two actions: keep going or get out. Then a flipped card awards treasure or reveals an obstacle. Leave, and you can take your share of the loot accumulated thus far. If you escape early you’re sure to survive, but with fewer points. Stay, and you may possibly split greater spoils, but risk succumbing to falling rock, poisonous spiders and even mummies! This fast, action-packed and extremely accessible title will have the entire table howling, laughing and groaning as players test their mettle just one more card. Do you have the guts to go for the win? Because this pot of gold isn’t just waiting for you at the end of a rainbow. You need a pot load of pluck to go in after it, and more than a little luck to get out alive with it.


Pandemic offers a tense, unforgettable, down-to-the-wire experience...if you can get safely past the first five minutes. Gamers don't usually associate cards with luck; the idea being you'll eventually get to see them all, so the balance will work itself out, and that can be true, if you get through the whole deck. But that's no guarantee in Pandemic. Initial proximity of your three-cube cities can cause enough outbreaks that your crack CDC team is beaten before it can leave the east coast, or fortunate player card draws can result in one or two of the four diseases being cured at the start of the game, and random job assignments that leave your team without a medic can present you with a big, disease-ridden hill to climb. But if you've each taken a turn or two and the game's still going, Pandemic begins to shine, creating an escalating global race to cure disease and save mankind before your viral enemies push civilization past the point of no return. Good luck.


A healthy dose of luck can be a good thing, smoothing out skill or experience disparity in competitive games and adding unpredictability to cooperative or solo games. Hostage Negotiator has it in lethal quantities, but this dangerous reliance on providence actually works, for once, in the game's favor. As a simulation of those tense movie scenes in which Bruce Willis has to keep Alan Rickman (RIP) talking long enough for the FBI to extract the hostages via the roof, Hostage Negotiator can get away with feeling swingy, unbalanced and unpredictable because, by doing so, it absolutely nails the theme. Be prepared for your reasonable arguments and sneaky stalling tactics to fall on deaf ears while the unhinged abductor, drunk on power, kills or releases hostages on a whim.