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Three Moves Ahead Episode 105 – Sometimes You Gotta Roll the Hard Six

February 24th, 2011 by Rob Zacny · 15 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


In the wake of another successful Rabbitcon, Lara Crigger and Rob Daviau join Julian and Rob to talk about good luck, bad luck, and fun luck. Rob and Lara discuss her first wargaming experience, Hold the Line, and how it came down to a photo finish despite some unspeakably bad luck for her American forces at the start. Rob Daviau explains how luck aids the storyteller, and shapes game narratives. Then the panel considers why the sort of luck in a deck of cards is often more interesting than the luck in a roll of the dice, and how luck can shake up repetitive gameplay.

Rob (Red) vs. Lara (Blue) at the Battle of Long Island

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15 Comments so far ↓

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  • ben

    Enjoyed the show immensely, but I have to smirk at the comment, “flipping a coin for seven hours in a row would be no fun”.

    May I direct you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-up , a beloved game of my homeland which involves the flipping of coins for hours. Even played in the fancy casinos. Well, at least on the west coast where fancy might not be so.

    Last trip out, spent some time hanging out by one of the rings. In the complete absence of any significant mechanisms or theme, the players and punters still develop strangely heroic narratives. Of people being able to throw specific combinations on demand, impossible streaks, empires won and lost on a coin. It was kind of shocking to see how little structure is needed to create epic stories of conflict. The lack of statistical math skills might also have something to do with that.

  • Quinten

    Memoir ’44 online is completely free to sign up, and you pay to get more games after your first fifty or so. So far they have all their base game, Mediterranean, and some Ardennes scenarios. I love the win/lose percentage, because they are the average. I have had battles where I win when I should have lost, and vice versa.
    Also, I almost never switch sides because it takes away from the storytelling, somewhat. I sometimes switch when it is completely asymmetrical. The winter war scenario in the Eastern Front expansion is a good example.

  • Codicier

    Good episode

    I’m not sure the storytelling potential of luck fully explains what it add to games. When Julian mentioned Ralph Koster I dug out Theory of Fun to see what was said about luck. It seems Koster thinks the mastery element in some games comes from the players building up of their awareness of probability. Which seems to make a pretty solid explanation.

    In terms of examples I think the event decks Rob mentioned are good, the more you play the better your knowledge of the deck gets and the less random it seems(minor note: Gal Civ 2 a example of a pc game with a event deck like mechanics?). The whole deck building genre of games like MTG and Dominion seems like the natural evolution of it. Another variant of probability mastery games which have a escalating chance of failure and its within that one of my favorite game fits.

    I love Blood Bowl it’s a game where the 1st failed roll end your turn , which really focuses a player on consider both the importance of a action, the probability of failure and the consequences.
    The ‘going for it’ rules also really nicely tap into the way people mix up independent and dependent luck and use it to build tension.(& they hare some similarity to the lava walking example Rob Daviau mentions.) Notoriously the PC adaptation of bloodbowls AI’ had a lot of problems dealing with this weighing up of risk vs reward and killed the game for a lot of people (http://nutweasel.blogspot.com/2009/07/more-blood-bowl-ai.html was a pretty good roundup of some of them).
    If we switch podcasts for a second in the Last GWJ podcast a game called Dread was mentioned, which seems a great example of dependent luck. I’m not claiming pulling a block out of a tower has the pureness of drawing a card from a deck but in the later stages of a game luck certainly plays a part for anyone without superhuman precision.

    Continuing on the electronic front I can’t think of any traditional rts’s with a big luck element either, but if you push it out a bit further some of the rpg/rts hybrids use critical hits (Dota & its variants)and random map generation shows up in turn based games (Gal Civ, Sins, Civ ect) .

    Returning to where i started all this (Ralph Koster’s idea), what do people think of the concept that there could be a in built resistance to groking in any game where there’s a emphasis on understanding a probability space?.

    Once again thanks for the great podcast & apologies for the wall of txt.

  • Quentin

    I just heard the last few minutes of the podcast, and I have to say I disagree with Rob’s assertion that Memoir is based solely on luck. There is a lot of skill in Memoir and the other Commands and Colors games. The luck is sixty percent of it, maybe fifty in Ancients and Napoleonic. If you have bad rolls and cards, there is normally a way to get around it. Every game will have moments where one player doesn’t understand why they try, and I have seen wild turns of luck in Memoir occasionally. It seems hypocritical to blast Memoir while complimenting Hold the Line.
    *Also, to address your specific complaint, here is a house rule a lot of people use: use a command card for a section you have no units in to order one unit anywhere on the board. This ensures there is never a turn where you cannot do anything.

  • Greg Muller

    A great pod-cast, and I think you touch on an interesting question regarding strategy games: How can a strategy game be more than just a zero-sum game? That is, how can winning be more fun than losing sucks? Or, even better, how can losing be fun?

    The satisfaction of figuring out a game is part of the answer, but it rarely is enough by itself. There seems to be little inherent pleasure in playing a good game if my opponent plays a GREAT game and beats the pants off me. Thats why I think luck is so important, even if only in small doses. They give the loser cover to think they played well, and would have won if they had had a couple more rolls break their way. Perhaps more importantly, they give the framework and texture required for good storytelling, which is a great way for everyone to have a good time independent of the outcome.

    I think two good examples of the later point are Arkham Horror and Dwarf Fortress. In Arkham Horror, there is a tremendous amount of luck of the draw, and it only serves to deepen the atmosphere of a hopeless fight against incomprehensible forces. In Dwarf Fortress (whose unofficial motto is “Losing is Fun”), much of the ‘randomness’ is really in the form of the dumb stuff your dwarves decide to do, despite your orders to the contrary. In each case, losing to poor luck not only doesn’t feel as bad as losing to your own poor choices, but it lends itself to the kind of storytelling that makes it outright fun.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Agree with Quentin on Memoir. I’ve always found folks who criticize Memoir as a luckfest are those who always lose. ;) I understand though why some hold this view. If you play a few times and get crappy cards, and the dice don’t go your way, it sure seems like this is nothing but a luck driven system. But look deeper.

    The game, as with all the C&C games, is really about card management and opportunities. First, learn the cards. Go through the deck and see the breakdown of the cards. This will help you track the distribution of cards while playing, and knowing the chances of what you hold when compared to what has been played and the chances of your opponent holding specific cards. In play understand that the use of cards is entirely dependent on the situation at hand; sometimes it is far better to use a card that activates only one unit then launching an all-out offensive. For example, recon cards, while weak by themselves provide you the advantage of being able to choose your next card from two possibilities.

    Always think ahead at least a turn, if not more, with an eye on your cards. Don’t let yourself get into a fear driven reaction mode based on your opponent. Formulate your own tactics based on your cards, not what’s being played against you.

    When it comes to combat remember that the system always boils down to one thing: getting victory flags. As such, always look for the easy kills. An infantry unit has a 50% chance of being eliminated. Units that cannot retreat are eliminated. Combine those two facts and watch for trapped infantry. 4 in 6 chance then of doing damage. Make your own luck when battle is joined.

    All that said sure, I’ve participated in sessions in which every single card was pretty much against me, and I somehow managed to roll nothing but stars, but that happens in practically any game that has elements of chance. But overall Borg’s C&C system is one that is much more player-driven than it may initially seem.

  • Per

    Sorry to barge into this thread, but is there something wrong with the mp3 of episode 25? I have gotten a late start to this excellent podcast, but I am having problems downloading this episode. 24 and 26 seems fine enough.

  • Rob Zacny

    I don’t want to give the impression I really dislike the C&C system, because I generally enjoy it quite a bit. However, what I dislike is the forced passivity the system generates. Even if you use that house rule Quintin mentioned (which I do) the problem I run into far more often is that I simply have no cards that allow me to respond meaningfully in the crucial sector. So if all my units in the center are getting shot to pieces, and all I have are flank cards? I probably just lost the game, because I cannot respond. Because in a game where unit-kills are victory points, a couple turns where you just have to take fire can be decisive. I just find that kind of unsatisfying, whether I’m on the losing or winning end of it.

    At least in Hold the Line, you’ll get a handful of actions that you can use at your discretion. You might be hamstrung by how few actions you have available, but you can at least run something like a coherent strategy, which I find a little more rewarding. The luck there is in how much of my plan I can execute. In C&C, luck can easily mean I can’t run a plan at all.

  • Quentin

    Not to get too confrontational, and here I go, I am shocked to hear a Close Combat fan complain about lack of control. Though the model in C&C is not as complex, it would make some sense to not be able to control those factors. Often the being unable to control certain sections is a matter of faulty planning: you have to plan ahead and not start a major attack with no ability to order in that section again. It is not to everyones tastes, and Tide of Iron exists, but I think Memoir and its ilk are great games.

  • Jarmo

    Thanks for yet another insightful episode! It broadened and deepened my understanding of the role of luck in games. I appreciate the time and effort you all spend producing the spirited discussions.

    The show is a continuing education in strategy games. I’ve absorbed at least a college courses’ worth of information on the subject during your run and I’m eagerly looking forward to many more episodes! Boxcars for everyone!

  • Jake

    I haven’t really enjoyed a command & colors game since Battle Cry, but I always felt that running out of cards in a section was perfect – both thematically and game-wise. So many historical battle narratives from the ACW relate instances where an attack started with great fury only to peter out as men, morale, ammunition, and cohesion ran out. Maybe this narrative is more plausible for the ACW setting than a WW2 setting.

    I’ve also heard the C&C games described as hand-management games, which I think goes a long way to frame the presence of luck/chance.

    Finally, the question towards the end regarding luck in computer strategy games threw me for a loop. It’s a little hard to even picture what that might look. The closest I can think of in the strategy game world (4x games in particular) is the random finds you get from goodie-huts.

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  • Kingdaddy

    Thanks for covering this topic. Randomness seems to be a defining element for what people like or don’t like in a game. For example, some people can’t stand Cosmic Encounter for its random card draws and crazy interactions among alien powers, but that’s exactly what defines its appeal for other gamers (myself included). Randomness does have an important role to play, however, for more than just making a credible depiction of the real world (or even a fictional world that suspends disbelief). For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve had to say on this topic recently in my own game blog:


  • Solace

    I’ve noticed that when it comes to luck, what “makes sense” gets a lot more leeway. In team fortress 2, the high-level players hate hate hate the random crits… but they’re fine with random weapon spread. And alright, spread is a bigger deal at a range than close in, so it’s got a bit of tactics along with the luck, but at the end of the day, crits and spread both result in damage to the enemy being random. However, real weapons do spread, but real bullets aren’t randomly magically glowy, so spread is good and crits are bad.