Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Elements of Greatness: Skill versus Luck

Making a great game is difficult.  If it wasn't, we'd be flooded with great games and great would become average and we'd have to looking out for amazing games, because we'd be bored with great.  However, there are several factors that make an alright game good, a good game great and a great game amazing.  While I certainly won't be able to touch on each and every specific factor, most of these bits and pieces each fall into one of several categories.  So, in a piece I'm calling Elements of Greatness, today we go over Skill versus Luck.

Skill versus Luck
This one is a pretty debatable factor, so I figured I'd go over it first.  This one doesn't really have a right answer.  It's very dependent on your point of view.  There are people who think a game should be all skill and no luck.  Games like Puerto Rico are good examples of that, where there is very little chance involved.  Some people think luck should be everything and skill should take a backseat.  If you disagree, go down to Las Vegas and see what they think about the idea of luck based games.  However, with any divided opinion, most people fall into the moderates, some leaning toward one side or the other.

What's kinda funny about this factor of games is how hidden it can be.  Some games are far more luck dependent than they seem.  Munchkin, for example, is a great game.  It is a lot of fun and I really enjoy playing it.  However, as much fun as I have playing Munchkin, it is nearly completely dependent upon luck.  What cards you draw and what monsters you face are all based on random chance.  There's never really any time in the game where you have to sit and think about your turn.  The benefit of a luck based game is no game will ever really play out the same way.  Sure, the basics are the same, but when each player gets a new hand or depending upon the die rolls, when each game is different, it keeps the game fresh and exciting each time you play.  However, winning and losing a luck based game can be a meager victory at best.  You didn't really DO anything to win, the dice or cards simply landed in your favor.  On top of that, losing badly during a luck based game feels terrible.  While the other players flourish and cheer as they get what they need, it does not feel good sitting there and waiting while they each collect their rewards.

Puerto Rico is just the opposite.  It's a game that is almost totally reliant on skill.  There are hardly any times in the game where the players don't know exactly what will happen next (barring other player choices, of course).  The benefit of this sort of game is when you win, you know it was really because you were the best. No other players can whine and moan about poor rolls or poor draws.  They had the same opportunity as you, you were just better than them.  The downside of this type of game is they have much more potential to become stagnant in replay.  If you have a strategy that works most of the time, you can keep attempting that strategy and it can continue to win until your friends catch up and figure out how to beat it.  Perhaps I'm over simplifying, but the point remains that a game without chance has no random factor and that makes it possible to play the same game over and over.

Like most people, I'm in favor of games that have a touch of both.  Although, honestly, I favor a bit more skill than luck, for the most part.  It's not difficult to find a game that had both luck and skill, in fact, I'm going to venture a guess that 95% of all games have some elements of both.  So, the matter comes down to finding a good balance between the two.  It's easy to add skill to a luck based game.  Even something as simple as giving the players a choice of something constitutes as an element of skill.  Rather than having players draw from this deck, they can draw from this deck or that deck.  Rather than have them roll this die, give them the option to roll a standard dice or the dice that has 3 1s and a 5, 6, and 7.  I don't think that dice exists, but that'd be awesome.  Both dice have the same average, but the latter dice is more of a gamble.  Anyway, Catan is a great example of a game that has touches of both luck and skill.  The luck factor is obvious with the dice rolls each turn and even the random drawing with the robber.  However, the placement of your pieces and deciding where and what to build is a huge portion of the game.  However, ultimately, in Catan, luck has more strength than skill.

So, what's the point of all this?  In the entirety of this article, I barely said anything about which is the way to go.  Well, that was my point. There is no right answer here.  I was trying to show that different games can rely on skill more than luck or vice versa and still be equally as great.  Whichever you prefer is entirely up to you.  Like any other opinion, you can think however you want and you're not really right or wrong.  As I said previously, this is only one of many different parts of what make a game great.  I'll continue to post about the different elements of games and my views on them.

Next time on Elements of Greatness: Customizability


Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Everything, By Everyone

The Internet is a crazy place.  A magical, mystical, intangible world of cats, porn, information and every so often, a game or two.  I'm focusing just on the last one for now.  Online games have a lot of advantages over board games in that you have a computer to do calculations for you.  These games couldn't really ever have a physical version.  It just wouldn't or couldn't work.

There's tons of sites out there solely for games and even more that are for mainly something else, but post a bunch of games as well.  My point is, there are a million and one games on the web.  Personally, I like Newgrounds for my gaming.  A lot of people don't like Newgrounds as it's all user submitted, but that's part of why I like it.  There's a lot of real gems in there (if you stick to the highest rated lists).  Also, a lot of "professional" gaming sites post their games on Newgrounds as well.  So, I'm here to highlight some of my favorite games from Newgrounds.

The first is a game I first found YEARS ago, called Proximity.  It's a lot like Othello, but WAY better.  The game is played on a hex grid and each player takes their turn placing tiles on the board.  However, in Proximity, tiles have a strength value.  Only stronger tiles can overtake weaker ones.  This makes the game far more involved.  It's not just a matter of pattern anymore, there's strategy and tactics and luck.

The settings for the game are really what clinch it, making it great.  You can really change a lot of the game with only a few options.  You're open to variants that strengthen adjacent allied tiles or weaken opposing ones, or both!  You can change victory conditions from number of armies (total strength) or controlled territory (total hexes).  You can also change the map around, making an even more dynamic game.

For an simple as it is, Proximity is a lot of fun.  The computer player is smart enough, and the game also allows for hot-seat 2 player mode.

Mastermind: World Conquerer
If you don't know the Mastermind series, it's a handful of 10 or so minute short animations and they're pretty funny.  The fifth one was kinda weird... not terrible, but.... anyway, the spin-off game is a lot of fun.  It's kind of a Real Time Strategy, but also kind of not.  The game has a great in-play tutorial and I'm not going to even try to explain it all here.  It's really not very complicated, but it's just a lot of type out when you could and should just go play yourself.

The highlights of the game are hiring minions to commit crimes for you, hiring henchmen to make your minions work harder, killing those henchmen when they lose their value or get too insubordinate and defending your base from waves of military.  Like I said, there's a lot more than just this, but the game does well in balancing it all and not making anything too complicated.  It locks a bunch of the options until you're at the point of the game where you might need those options.

Hex Empire
A lot of strategy games use hex grids.  I mean, mathematically, it's a slightly more balanced system for moving pieces around a board, and such, but still, not THAT much.  Anywho, Hex Empire is a 4 player war game.  Each player starts in a corner of one of the thousands of randomly generated maps and works their way across the map, capturing towns and sea ports.  Each town, port or rural area captured grants you troops to use in your battles.  The strength of each army is based on manpower and morale.  The addition of these two numbers is that army's total strength.  Stronger armies defeat weaker ones.  Simple.  This game took me a long time to get the hang of.  It is VERY difficult if you're not careful.  The computer is smart.  You really have to take your time and rally the troops.

What makes this game stand out, to me, is the morale system.  Each army squad has a morale score.  Winning battles increases morale.  Losing battles decreases morale.  In addition, you have the option of giving an invigorating speech to your troops, greatly increasing morale for all your armies.  The game points out your army "will only buy your rubbish once", so you can only use this once per game.

All in all, Hex Empire is a lot like Risk, but different enough that it doesn't feel like the same game.  With the thousands of different maps, no game ever really plays out the same.  It took me a few tries to get the hang of it and before I did, it was a very frustrating game.  Once I won the first time, though, it starting happening more often.