Day 3: Lady Luck Hates Me, or…

“If I can math out a statistically perfect and balanced game, does the game actually exist at that point?”

It’s a weird statement, and something I’m relatively new to. In reference to wargaming, it is effectively the feeling that the game is a pre-determined situation that can only be changed by bad dice rolls, which are out of the players control. It’s a complaint about agency, essentially.

Historically, I’ve not played too many games where dice are the entire resolution mechanic until recently, where wargaming has become a part of my life. Big draws for me were Flying Frog’s popular Last Night On Earth franchise, which certainly featured dice, but was largely about risk assessment/avoidance. Currently, I’m a huge fan of R. Eric Reuss and Spirit Island, a game where dice are not really a factor.

But in the last two years, I’ve dipped into wargames. The wargaming conundrum is that the base straightforward game often can be decided prior to setting up the game. Perhaps not at a high tournament level, but largely there is a mathematically superior list to place on the table. And the math isn’t all that hard to do. So in a ruleset where all of your pieces have a static function (or functions that statically affect other pieces, and all pieces are pre-established before the game, is there actually a game occurring? Or, if so, is the game really so much a game as it is a costume party for a dice roll-off, where fully informed individuals have arbitrarily agreed to apply increases and decreases to their dice ahead of time?

I’ve heard the static-randomness argument before, and have been guilty of hindsight behavior like this in the past. Where the logic fails is where people don’t apply ENOUGH hindsight. It is easy to say that you lost because of a bad roll of the dice. It’s also easy to say that you lost (or won) the game on setup. Or on army creation.

I think this is a causation fallacy. Or even a misunderstanding of what a game is. A game is a set of decisions presented to a player or players, with varying levels of risk and reward. Often in wargames, the assumed-superior list will be put on the table and an experienced or aware player will feel a sinking feeling. I would argue that feeling is good! It is now a different game. If the game were perfectly balanced, then victory would be random. It would be a heads up game of dice. And then players assume they lost on a roll or short set of rolls. More hindsight is needed. What decision tree led you to those rolls?

The only time this is a problem is when all units (or cards, or models, or pieces) have static abilities. Wargames excel when on-table choices can be made. Variables that have a 100% success rate are necessary. A player MUST be able to choose things that have a concrete effect beyond an effect on their next dice roll or a static aura. Players need the ability to react or interact with rules in a definitive way. Things like retreating, charging, triggering reactions and moves out of turn. Things that do not rely on chance, but on tactical intelligence.

However, an argument could be made that exposure to that chance is also a decision. I made the decision to put myself in a position to rely on that dice roll, therefore, my agency created these bad-roll opportunities.

What do you think? Are dice heavy games still heavy in agency, or does each addition of randomness withdraw a bit of player input? At what point is the game largely playing itself? Thoughts are welcome.

Published by ashermhart

I work at an amazing miniatures company during the day, and try to unravel the mysteries of game design for the rest of us plebians at night.

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