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February 18, 2014 / Jett

In Defense of Chance in Board Games


Before I became a board game enthusiast, I didn’t put much behind why I liked or didn’t like a particular game. But as I’ve played more of them, I’ve become more cognizant of the components that create an experience while developing my own taste when it comes to theme and mechanics. One aspect of the board game experience that seems to be a point of contention with more serious players is the element of chance. I find that there are extremists that have a real problem with their livelihoods being determined by a roll of the dice or the flip of a card from a shuffled deck.

For those who prefer to have as much control over your experience as possible, that’s great. Everyone is free to play what they like and there are no shortage of games that are designed to minimize chance. However, I don’t think it’s fair to disregard chance as a whole as a bad thing. When it’s implemented correctly, the element of chance can positively contribute to the enjoyment we get out of a game.

Before jumping into the argument, let’s get the obvious out of the way. There are a lot of games that use chance poorly. In particular, many of the world’s most famous and best-selling games rely solely on chance. No one will dispute the never-ending popularity of Life or Candy Land, but it’s easy to see why there are others who get bored with or frustrated by the fact that success in those titles is dictated solely through dice rolls. I think the element of chance gets a bad rap because of how popular games like this have been throughout the ages.

photo 2(8)Does that make dice-rolling inherently bad because they did it poorly? Absolutely not. Drawing from my own personal experience, one of my favourites is Formula D. While it and Candy Land are both dice-driven racing games, Formula D augments the element of chance with interesting choices to make before and after you throw the dice. Because of how gear-shifting, driving lines and Wear Points are implemented, your choices oftentimes mean more than the outcome of the dice roll. Having said that, capping off your great decisions with the perfect roll is the apex of awesomeness.

photo(11)When it comes to deck-building games, I greatly prefer the Ascension-style lineup over Dominion‘s fixed pool. I haven’t played Ascension, but the mechanic is used in DC Comics Deck-Building Game and Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game. Sure, there are merits to Dominion‘s approach, and it does minimize randomness if that’s your thing, but my interest in the 10 available cards usually wears thin before the game ends. With a lineup, five cards are made available at any given time that are replenished with a pool of cards that can have a potentially infinite number of cards and card types.

I love the larger variety of card types that can come into play at any given time. I also like how the randomness forces you to stay on your toes. You can’t just buy the same series of cards because you don’t know what the lineup will look like until it’s your turn. Instead, you need to analyze the situation and acquire the best cards for you. Based on my experience with DC and Legendary, the most expensive card isn’t always the best card available for you, so there are still interesting decisions to make throughout.

photo 2(5)Even Ticket to Ride, a favourite among just about everybody, has elements of uncertainty built in. When you use your turn to draw more Destination cards, you’re drawing a random hand of three routes that may be great or horrible. As a means of compensating for this, the game lets you discard up to two of them, but there is that chance of all three routes being bad or impossible to complete. In a worst case scenario, drawing routes one too many times can sink your hopes of winning the game.

In all three cases, chance does not take enough control out of your hands to the point where it feels like you’re not doing anything of value. Instead, chance adds an element of drama to your choices. When implemented correctly, I also like how an element of randomness will force you to navigate through the game in many different ways, which inherently adds replay value. If you’re willing to look just a bit further, you can find many other examples of board games where randomness improves the experience. All I’m saying is chance a chance (sorry).


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