The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Control vs. Luck & Chaos

Nicholas J. Sauer

June, 2003

On the internet game forum that I frequent a new member asked about how people view control in games. Since this is a topic I find myself thinking a great deal about, the question prompted me to write a response. The following is a more complete version of my thinking on the topic.

At the basic level, there is a scale of player control that you can rate games on. At the high control end of the spectrum are two-player games with no random elements. This would be games like Zertz, Amazons, Focus, etc. Basically, any two-player game with no cards or dice driving the game engine and information that is completely known by both players. At the other end of spectrum we have games like Candyland or Snakes and Ladders that feature no player control whatsoever. In these games, the game basically plays you. I call these TV games because you have about as much control and interaction with the game as you do with a television program. Kevin Maroney calls them anti-games which I feel is an equally accurate description.

diceObviously, there is a whole spectrum of games in between these two extremes. There are a number of design factors that will increase a player's lack of control as a function of game play. The first and most common, as mentioned above, is the game engine itself. A game which uses dice to drive the game along will tend to be more random than a game which uses a card based engine. Of course, most two-player abstracts have a predetermined set-up and rules for moves that avoid using a die or card based method of play altogether. In addition to the game engine, how attached the player's turn is to the engine contributes to, or takes away from, their control. For example, in Settlers of Catan, players roll the dice at the start of their turn as in Snakes and Ladders. The difference is that while this die roll is all you get in the latter, in Settlers of Catan the dice provides resource cards which a player can then trade to correct for the randomness of the dice. Settlers of Catan, thus, adds an extra step that helps contribute to a player's control in the game.

Another factor that decreases a player's control is the use of hidden information. When players don't have access to all of the information available, their decisions will not be as well informed. The other factor that decreases control is increasing the number of players. Since human beings aren't really random, I like to refer to this effect as chaos instead of randomness. Larry Levy has a very good article on the difference between chaos and luck at for those interested in this particular subject. The point is that more players will add more people changing the landscape of the game environment between your turns, making it harder for any one individual to control the game. 

What people prefer in terms of control in games, is completely a matter of taste. Some people only like two player abstracts because they want the game to be a test of skill alone. Some people obviously like TV games because Himalaya is currently in its third edition and the game is only one step above Candyland in terms of player control (there is only one decision to make in the game and anyone who has even the most remote grasp of probability theory will know that there is only one correct answer).

Personally, I tend to be more strongly on the control side than most other gamers I know. I really don't enjoy Settlers of Catan because the randomness of the dice can take you out of the game when you have an otherwise reasonable set-up. Some people argue that there is enough dice rolling to mitigate this effect but I don't buy into this argument because there is an economic growth element to the game. If you fall off the growth curve early it will be pretty much impossible to climb back on (and you can fall off the curve if the randomness of the dice screws you). This effect is why some people prefer to use the deck of dice. Cards are less random than dice because they have a memory element. For example, when playing with the deck of dice and you draw an 11, you know that this number can only be drawn once more because there are only two 11's in the deck. As a result, you can modify your game playing strategy taking this information into account. Of course, if a reshuffle is triggered before the second 11 you're now back to having both 11's in the deck and can play accordingly. 

This leads us into card games. Card games, by default, are slaved to the randomness of the deck shuffle. I know gamers who will gladly sit down to a game of Settlers of Catan but will turn their nose up at any card game as being "too random". It's goofy but what can you say. Card games do in fact appear to be more random than most games in that you are slaved to the resources provided by the initial deal and later draws. However, you have to remember that cards have that memory element and a game like Hearts or Bottle Imp where all of the cards are dealt out at the beginning of the game are nowhere near as random as some people may perceive them to be. In Bottle Imp, for example, if I am dealt the 1 in my starting hand I can pretty much guarantee with my passing who will take the Imp. Even in games where all of the cards are not initially dealt out, such as Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, keeping track of what has been played into the discard pile can tell you what melds you should probably give up on and whether a "ripper escapes" game is a reasonable thing to shoot for. As a result of this, card games require considerably more attention to play well and some players consider this level of attention to be too much work. This is fine and I can sympathize with this as there are times when I am less interested in playing a card game than a board game.

So, how much control one has in a game is a function of a rather wide variety of factors. These include how the game engine works, how many players are at the table and even whether the game is a card game, a more traditional board game, or a two-player abstract. Since everyone's tastes will vary as a function of these different items, each player has to decide for themselves what most suits their personal preference.

- Nicholas J Sauer

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