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Feeling Lucky?

Chance adds Excitement to Game Playing

By Stephen Harkleroad

Luck and board games are intertwined.

Certainly, there are plenty of abstract games, like Go and Chess, that have zero luck, but the vast majority of board games utilize luck in a variety of ways. There are many reasons to do so.

Shake things up

First is variety—by introducing luck, every play of a game is unique. Games that present the same opportunities and the same challenges can get stale after a while. By randomizing things, a board game can present something different each time.

Give everyone a chance

Second is fairness. While it may seem paradoxical, luck can even a playing field for a game that otherwise doesn’t have many ways of adjusting for non-luck elements. If a player can craft a dominant strategy only because they happened to go first, for example, that is not ideal for other players in the game.

Ramp up anticipation & thrills

And finally, luck can introduce excitement. Rolling two six-sided dice will have, on average, a result of seven—and the further you get from seven, the less likely it will be that result. But when those twos and twelves do come up, it can make things more interesting.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of board gamers don’t like luck—and there’s plenty of room for criticism. A game that depends too much on luck can seem like a pointless waste of time, rendering it little more than a slot machine.

Many individuals feel that luck takes away from skill, and that a player who routinely makes the better play should always win. And, luck can be fundamentally unfair—if the aforementioned twos and twelves grant a bonus well disproportionate of its frequency, it can unbalance the game and make things frustrating for everyone.

The good & bad fortune of going to jail

To look at a way in which luck can both hurt and help a game, look at Monopoly. Monopoly uses luck in a way that most people dislike. You have no control over where your piece lands, so you don’t get to make many interesting decisions on your turn. And, through no fault of your own, you can end up in Jail, which can provide some benefits but also takes you out of the game for several rounds.

And yet, while the properties on the board escalate in value, not all are tied to their sticker value—because of the distribution of dice results, the properties around Free Parking are actually morevaluable than Boardwalk.

Thanks to the frequency of ending up in Jail, having the properties seven spaces away from Jail is more lucrative since they are more frequently hit. A (perhaps unintended) consequence of luck made a game about trading more interesting, albeit still with many luck-based flaws.

Other games using chance

There are ways to use luck in a board game so as not to upset the balance of things, and many games have found interesting ways to do so.

One is to have luck affect every player. Settlers of Catan does this very well—every turn, a player rolls two dice, and all players collect resources based on the result. A player knows that settling next to a 6 or 8 will net frequent collection, but others also know this as well.

Meanwhile, carving out a niche in 3, 4, or 5 might mean you collect less often but can corner the market for a specific type of good. Random events are another good way of doing this—an event affects all players, not just the one who drew it, and yet players who have different positions on the board may be affected in vastly different ways.

Another is to have “two sides” to luck. For example, in Unearth, players choose a type of die to roll. If a player rolls high, they have the opportunity to capture a few points. If they roll low, however, they get to draw resources. While a player may not get what they want, they at least get something, and can adjust their strategy accordingly.

Multi-use cards are another popular way of mitigating the effects of luck—drawing cards is random, but usually a player can use the card in multiple ways, giving them flexibility and making sure they aren’t stuck with a card they really can’t use.

For example, in Mottainai, a game where players are acolytes in a temple, cards drawn by a player can be used in up to six different ways, and a player can pick as needed based on their previous decisions. The card draws are random, but a player rarely feels like their options are limited based on something that is outside of their control.

There are plenty of other ways to mitigate the negative effects of luck, such as auctions or resource limits, but sometimes luck can make things a lot more interesting. After all, dealing with random outcomes is its own skill.


Stephen Harkleroad has been playing board games since before you were born, statistically speaking. He wrangles spreadsheets for a living. His favorite board game is Dune, and he has most recently spent time as a Human Cleric (Life Domain).

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