Revel in Misfortune
on Mar 13, 2017
As St. Patrick's Day approaches, that whole "luck o' the Irish" thing is in the air- although I believe most Irish folks would be of the opinion that they aren't particularly luckier than anyone else. Speaking for myself, I am not particularly lucky, and specifically when it comes to games. When the worst possible thing could happen on a roll of 1, I roll the 1. If I just need to topdeck a certain card, it ain't going to happen.
But here's the thing. I love bad luck! I'm not really competitive and I could frankly care less about winning most games. What I like better than winning is the drama of those terrible rolls, the hilarity that often ensues when someone craps out in a clutch situation, and the sometimes not-so-gentle reminders that fickle fate plays a hand in all of our dealings. Simply put, bad luck is a part of life and it should be part of games too. I don't care if it mangles your meticulous strategy- if you didn't plan on mitigating the effect of bad luck then your plan was garbage to begin with.
So let's take a minute this St. Paddy's to revel in misfortune, shall we:
One of my all-time favorite hard luck gaming stores involves the classic Dungeonquest. This is a game renowned for its rather merciless lack of concern for best laid plans, with something like an 18% chance of survival for its hapless players. Way back in the 1990s, Dungeonquest was out of print but I happened to find an in-shrink copy at a convention for what was at the time an astronomical price for a board game- ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS. I was wreckless and young so I bought it. Later that day, I took it down to the gaming area and started to immediately devalue it by half by opening and punching it. Notable gaming personality Frank Branham saw what I was doing and was excited to teach the game to a full table. We got it all set up and ready to go and he explained the game. I went first. The first tile I drew was the Bottomless Pit. Out of all of the tiles in the game, the guy who just plunked down a C-note for it grabs the most dangerous one. Of course I fail the roll on it, and I'm eliminated right there.
Many gamers today would be angry, rate the game a 1 on a popular hobby website, and divest themselves of the offending title. For me and my crew, it became a legendary stroke of bad luck still discussed to this day.
Bad luck creates defining moments in our character. A seemingly random Rumor by an opponent correctly identifies the cardinal you're backing in House of Borgia on the first turn of the game. A perfectly-played combo is poised to kill the scenario-ending monster when the Null card is drawn in Gloomhaven. Your X-Wings just need one more hit on an Imperial Star Destroyer to seal the Star Wars: Armada win, but they all roll Accuracies. These chances are gifts to be embraced, because our reactions to them tell us who we are as gamers and as people.
We'll get knocked down, sometimes with no warning or logic behind it, and our fortitude is measured in the rounds, turns, phases or years between that knockdown and when we get up, dust ourselves off, and plan our next move. That interval is the true distance between winning and losing, and I for one am thankful for bad luck, and the gift it has given me.
One of the primary qualities of a game I seek out is drama. Drama is teased out of play through those high and low moments, both providing important context to the narrative of victory or defeat. When Gloomhaven throws you a null attack result and completely voids your action, it hurts. When you draw the facedown tile in Animals on Board and it gives you two of a kind, ouch. When the whole table is standing during that pivotal assassination roll in Black Orchestra and you come up all eagles, pure agony. These moments are necessary and should be embraced. They provide weight and nourishment to those epic highs. Without these twists of terrible luck you'd never have monumental elation when fate swings back the other way in your favor.
The game is Dungeonquest. I boldly venture into the dungeon... and promptly fall victim to the swinging death blade, instantly killing my character. The next player boldly ventures into the dungeon, secure in the knowledge that at least one of the swinging death blade cards is gone—but he too pulls a swinging death blade and dies instantly. Half the table of four players is gone in under 30 seconds.
Our modern gaming culture has grown so luck-averse that this may sound like a travesty, but to us, it was a hilarious moment that punctuated the brutality of the game's dungeon. How can a game claim to be about danger, adventure, and glory if there's no risk, serious injury, or death? Gamers today want an interesting puzzle that spits out victory points like a gumball machine—but God forbid if the game ever rises up to fight back.
I've played Dungeonquest countless times. I remember hardly any of the game sessions—but the one where we died on the first turn, I remember. Memorable moments don't just come from big, come-from-behind victories; they also come when players snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Uncertainty in a game system is a good thing. It helps to make each play different and ensures that you get a new challenge with each experience. But if there's luck, that means there will also be bad luck. And that can also be good. Some games even embrace it. Galaxy Trucker - especially the Missions Expansion - is one of the best examples. You have a real-time round where players grab common resources to build a spaceship. And then a scoring round where the rickety construction you've made is sent through a gauntlet of pirates and asteroids. The danger surrounding every event really increases the tension and makes the experience more exciting. Without bad luck, or at least the possibility of bad luck, the game would be much less interesting.
My favorite effect of luck is how it can make the world of a game feel bigger. One of the uncomfortable realizations in life is that we have very little control over it. There's some, but for the most part circumstances are beyond what we can manage. That's why a game that allows the players to manage and predict all of the challenges they will face seems fundamentally dishonest to me. Though it might be strategically satisfying, excessive control in a game represents a very obvious break with reality. That's not always a bad choice to make in terms of game design, but in a thematic or experiential game it can feel gamey.
But what about a random event over which the player has no control? When used well it can make the player feel like the world of the game is bigger than they are. This is my favorite quality of Talisman, where the players wander the board, beholden to many card draws and die rolls. There is a small amount of control to be exerted on the direction the player travels, but what you meet out there is an unknown. Things happen outside of the player, which gives the illusion that more is happening on the margins of the world of Talisman than just what the player sees. Every game has to make breaks with reality for the sake of mechanical interest and simplicity, but a well-placed shot of luck can make a game seem bigger and more expansive.
As an impressionable youth I fondly remember being victimized by that lone infantryman in Axis & Allies standing like an iron curtain as my waves of tanks broke against him. And it is all because the dice hate me. Also, I can never draw to an inside straight. It seems like if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. And that’s the way life goes. While you may not be the world’s repeated whipping post, all of us at one time or another get caught up in events beyond our control no matter how much we prepare.
That’s one reason I prefer games with healthy amounts of randomness. Perfect information games with affairs you can program by spreadsheet or write books about are a lie. Games like Chess might make you feel smart and teach strategy. But everybody knows that once you implement a plan in the real world, it becomes luck’s plaything and quickly goes awry. Those brainy exercises can never account for life’s dynamic vagaries and unknowns. Perhaps gamers gravitate towards those designs to escape that chaos? To me, it’s a fantasyland. Obviously board games are not teaching tools or coping mechanisms for unfortunate traumatic events. But for learning to roll with the punches and wrestle with life’s downs, contending with often disagreeable arbitrariness in our gaming might just prove that a little bad luck can go a long way to be a good thing.
Bad luck brings people together. We love commiserating over shared misfortune. In a co-op game like Aeon's End, when you flip the turn order card and find out Rageborne is taking two turns in a row, the entire table lets out a groan. In a competitive game like Dungeon Petz, the whole table gets to celebrate when the leading player's dragon draws too many magic cards and blinks out of existence right before the big show. It's the only time you have a license to rub someone's misfortune in their face, and the player bearing the brunt of the bad luck just has to smile and wait for the pendulum to swing the other way. And it usually does--without epic runs of bad luck you'd never get epic reversals where the underdog streaks to the lead. If nobody's groaning, nobody's cheering, either.