Luck Versus Skill: a Sliding Scale
Sunday, 13th July 2014
Last week on social media I asked about people's preferences about games with or without a luck element. It sparked a brief but interesting discussion, covering games old and new. The issue of dice or no dice isn't black and white: there's a scale of games ranging from complete luck with no skill, to complete skill with no luck. In this post I want to discuss that further, picking out a few games that illustrate the scale.
During the discussion I discovered something I'd not noticed before. Much of the talk was about modern games, as many are more familiar with those than the traditional games covered on this site. But we had difficulty in thinking of a modern, themed game that completely lacks a luck element. There are plenty of abstracts, but all the games with strong themes have some element of luck - even if it's only random distribution of map tiles at the beginning. Perhaps I'm being unimaginative: do any readers know of an example? If so, please comment below!
But now to return to the traditional games. I've divided the scale into five, from completely luck-driven at 1 to completely skill-based at 5.
1. So far, I haven't added any pure luck games to this site, so you won't find them here. But the best-known example is snakes & ladders. Players have a single piece which is moved according to the throw of the dice. Penalties and rewards are paid out according to where the player lands. But the player never has any choice to make during the game. Another classic, popular between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, is the Game of the Goose, a spiral race game playing very similar to snakes & ladders, but sometimes involving paying a stake into a pot. The addition of gambling is the only thing that makes these 100% luck games interesting to adults, which is why I haven't added them to the site.
2. In some games, the player has some choices to make, but these are either rare, obvious or irrelevant. Most people would put Ludo in this category. On this site, the game of Dogs & Jackals is another good example. The player has five pieces that are raced along a track according to the throws of casting sticks. As in snakes & ladders, some holes have rewards and others have penalties. There is always a choice of which piece to move, but the choices are usually obvious: hit the rewards where possible, miss the penalities when not. There's no interaction between the players, so blocking strategies and ambushes play no part in the game. The only strategy I can think of is to avoid leaving a single piece behind; if one's last piece has far to travel then it will be at the mercy of the casting sticks for longer.
3. In the middle, I'd put games in which neither luck nor strategy dominates. The luck/skill balance at this level produces a fun game, but the skill element in these games is probably not enough to warrant play at tournament level. The well-known American game Parcheesi fits here. From the games on this site, the best example I can think of is tâb. Players move nine pieces along a course according to the throws of casting sticks. As well as deciding which piece(s) to move, the player can take different branches along the course, opting to move forward or circle back to chase enemies who have passed by. Sometimes one can feel at the mercy of the casting sticks, especially when waiting for that all important throw of 1 to start a piece moving. But there are definite strategies to maximise opportunities to capture enemies, and these have to be balanced with keeping safe.
4. Some games have a luck element, but strategy seems to dominate. The obvious example here is backgammon, where the rolls of the dice dictate the distance moved, but where the rules give plenty of scope for strategy. The key to that is the various ways that the pieces interact with friendly and enemy pieces: doubling up to protect one another, and forming rows to block enemy progress. An expert will win four out of five games with a novice, so skill is the deciding factor. But luck plays enough of a part to make the game fun for that novice. Most modern games seem to aim for this level of balance between luck and skill.
5. The last category is purely based on skill, and about half of the traditional games I know of fall into this category. Being 100% skill does not dictate the level of skill: while chess is the archetypal example of this kind of game, another example is noughts and crosses. The most interesting examples I can think of are the race games of pure skill, like Halma, Agon and Salta. Traditionally, race games use luck to dictate the distances moved, but the three examples mentioned simulate instead a kind of cross-country race, where the teamwork of the pieces dictates the speed at which the board is traversed.
The question I asked last week was where people's preferences lie. I presented it as a binary choice, at the time thinking only of games in the fourth and fifth categories. Looking at this list, I can't say that I have a general preference; with adults I'll happily play anything from the third, fourth or fifth categories. But I ask readers now: where would you put your own preferences on this list? Please feel free to comment below, by email or by social media!