Scenario 1: I’m playing a game of Pandemic and we’re reaching the breaking point. We need to last one more turn to win the game. We have one more flip of the infection deck and based on how the deck has been seeded we know for a fact that the next two cards are Paris and Taipei. If Paris is drawn we can win. If it’s Taipei we lose.
Scenario 2: Forbidden Desert. I’m almost out of water and my turn is next. But first we have to flip over 4 cards from the storm deck. We know that there are 8 cards remaining in the deck and one of them is a “Sun Beats Down” card that will cause me to die of thirst, losing us the game.
Scenario 3: I’m down to the last two cards in my attack deck in Gloomhaven, and I know one of those two cards is the critical failure card. I alert this information to my teammates before we choose initiative and we do our best to plan for me completely missing an attack next round.
Scenario 4: It’s a game of Hunt for the Ring and I’m playing as a Nazgul. Based on what I know, Frodo is in one of two locations. I try to see if either of those locations is more likely based on the path and what I know about the player playing Frodo, but I can’t find much, so I simply pick one of those locations.
Scenario 5: After 2 hours our game of Battlestar Galactica is down to a single die roll. We jumped early but if we don’t succeed in our jump check we’ll lose too much population and immediately lose the game.
Scenario 6: After 2 hours the deciding battle in our game of Risk is here. One die roll left to determine who wins this territory and the loser will effectively be out of the game.
Here are six different scenarios where luck has decisively entered as the deciding factor in a board game. The first four are all 50/50 odds. The last couple aren’t 50/50 but are still knowable. By most metrics they’re quite similar to each other, but three of them I find to be exciting, fantastic experiences, and three I find to be akin to a wet blanket. I don’t quite know the answer for why that’s the case but I want to run through some possibilities and throw it out to you: when does knowing the odds ruin the experience?
Hypothesis 1: I am irrational. I contain multitudes and there’s nothing about any of these games that contributes to my varied feelings about their luck scenarios. It’s entirely a matter of my brain being odd and inscrutable.
I don’t think this is the case, but I’ll leave it open as a possibility. I think there are enough differences between the games and the luck situations within them that the games can account for my different experiences.
Hypothesis 2: My opinion of the game as a whole determines my opinion of these scenarios. This is possible but also a bit circular, I think, as my opinion of the games I dislike is influenced greatly by these very scenarios. Perhaps I’m misreading my own experiences, but I can’t think of a more significant reason I dislike those games (or, in the case of Pandemic, merely think it’s not as good as many of the games it inspired). In other words, my feelings about these scenarios come prior to my feelings about the games as a whole.
Hypothesis 3: Here’s my real theory. I think that Battlestar Galactica and Gloomhaven justify their luck through narrative. Gloomhaven plays with the idea of a “critical failure” which we may be more willing to accept because it’s such a common trope by now. But Gloomhaven also plays with concepts of fatigue and failure throughout, especially with the mechanism where your deck thins as you progress. Furthermore, you have a lot of success in Gloomhaven. It’s a hero story, and you’re hacking and slashing enemies throughout. It feels like a bit of cosmic justice that every once in a while you stumble a bit.
Battlestar Galactica narratively justifies its climactic die roll by being about desperate people used to fighting long odds. Being pushed against the wall and advancing by the skin of one’s teeth is a major theme of both the show and the game. It simply fits to have a game end with a necessary but highly risky decision.
Hunt for the Ring does not do this. You don’t feel like a Nazgul on the hunt when you essentially flip a coin to poke around for Frodo. Other aspects of the game capture the “hunter” element better but these sorts of situations make you feel powerless.
Risk similarly relies so much on dice rolls that you don’t feel like you have much agency. The game works best when players embrace the diplomatic elements, but outside of that it’s playing craps: you just work the odds the best you can and hope the luck is in your favor.
The difference between Pandemic and Forbidden Desert is more difficult to parse (and won’t even be an issue for most people as both are quite beloved games). Perhaps I subconsciously find the scientific thematic elements of Pandemic to be at odds with so much pure chance. But I think it might be due to how easily trackable the information is with Pandemic. With Forbidden Desert you generally know what’s in the deck, but it’s one deck all the way through. Once you start stacking cards on the top of the deck in Pandemic (a mechanism that makes total sense) the information is so easily followed and understood.
So I throw it out to you all: when does knowing the odds ruin the experience? What’s the difference between frustration and engagement when it comes to moments of pure luck?