Luck never gives; it only lends

How much randomness do you like in a game? Do you prefer the intellectual cut and thrust of Chess, a domain where Lady Luck holds no thrall, or do you like to test your favour with the gods through the medium of dice in Snakes and Ladders or Ludo (“Fucking Ludo”, to give it its full title)? Perhaps a mix of skill and chance works best, such as in Backgammon or Poker, or KiaSA Industries newest offering: Luda-Chess™. It’s just like normal chess, but you have to roll a 6 before you can move each pawn; all the wacky family fun of Chess with the deep strategy of Ludo!

Greg Costikyan gave a fantastic presentation at GDC Austin last year, “Randomness: Blight or Bane?”, reaching the conclusion “If randomness dictates outcomes, many players will find the game unsatisfying. But there are times when a degree of randomness plays an important, and useful, role in a design.” In MMOGs randomness is sometimes to the fore, typically in loot drops; perhaps pages from a book, or a lovely sword with a 5% chance of dropping from a boss (and a 99% chance of being rolled on by the rest of your party), and much as we might curse Lady Luck’s digitised cyber-counterpart Lady RNG when we miss out on that shiny trinket we still line up for another pull on the mob-lever of the slot machine dungeon. It’s an accepted form of randomness. In the combat that resulted in the loot-piñata-boss spraying forth his bejewelled intestines there was probably also plenty of randomness going on, in to-hit rolls and damage and crits, but enough rolls over enough time with little enough variance for that not to be the decisive factor in the combat. Maybe you get a bit lucky as a DPS character with a few extra critical rolls to nudge yourself up the damage meters slightly, maybe a tank gets unlucky and doesn’t block as many attacks as they’d normally expect, it keeps things interesting. What you don’t get is a boss who rolls a d6 every ten seconds, on a 6 instantly kills a player and on a 1 accidentally punches himself in the head for 1/6th of his total health; that would be Bad Random.

I’ve been thinking about randomness because I bought Blood Bowl on Steam the other week when it was on sale for less than a fiver. After a few games getting the hang of the rules I’m two games into a league campaign and I’ve decided it’s brilliant and rubbish, an excellent tactical sporting simulation and a foetid pile of badly thought out random goblin droppings. This might have something to do with my triumphant 3-1 victory over an Orc team in the opening game of the season being followed by brutalisation at the hands (and tentacles) of a bunch of Chaos Warriors, much of the difference seeming to come from dice rolls.

Almost everything you do in Blood Bowl, apart from moving, needs a dice roll; attacking other players, moving through tackle zones, throwing and catching the ball, even picking the ball up from the ground. In the first game things went swimmingly, I knocked a couple of his players out of the game quite early, didn’t suffer any serious casualties, and pulled off a couple of lovely moves (if I say so myself) like tackling the opposing ball carrier a few squares out from my endzone, scooping up the loose ball, chucking it down the sideline with a pinpoint pass, and sprinting in to score myself the next turn. The second game I finished with five players on the field, the other six in various states of injury and death, and featured such glorious triumphs as failing to pick the ball up from a kickoff, and an attempt at recreating the sideline pass of great victory from the first game that resulted in the ball squirting out of the thrower’s hand, off the pitch, and coming straight back in the hands of an opposing player. By some miracle the game actually finished in a 1-1 draw, due to the AI opponent either just being rubbish, or more likely properly roleplaying a Chaos coach almost entirely unconcerned with minor points of the game like “the ball”, but with at most eight or nine players available for the next round of the competition, two of those with stat damage from injuries, the longer term prospect don’t look good.

You can buy re-rolls for your team, and certain player skills mitigate dangers by allowing you to re-try or ignore certain results, but at the start of a campaign with a raw team it seems like randomness is the main factor in dictating outcomes. Of course there are strategies and tactics, websites and forums full of them, but with decisions based on a d6 there’s always a significant risk of failure; even a simple action like an agile player picking the ball up with no opposing player anywhere near fails if you roll a one, leading to the best laid plans of Skaven and Men ganging aft agley. This might just be sour grapes after a particularly bad mauling, perhaps I just need to buck my tactics up, and (possibly) excessive dependance on dice rolls apart Blood Bowl is rather fun. I think it could be a different experience against another person, where you could at least gloat over their critical fumble, or curse at their flukey luck if they pull off an improbable long bomb, against a CPU opponent it’s just the random numbers laid bare and maybe a bit of canned commentary.

That rather chimes with something from Keiron Gillen’s Ludo “review”:

“At a core level, especially when played with friends, everything’s fun in multiplayer. Stating the obvious: the most important part of multiplayer is the multiple players. This is where a worrying amount of a multiplayer game’s merit comes from. Is this actually a good game, or are these just good players? By which I mean, not actually anything to do with the commonly accepted idea of whether someone is good at the game – but whether they’re actually good to play with. That’s the only sort of “good player” which ever really matters.”

8 thoughts on “Luck never gives; it only lends

  1. xbevisx

    Ahh Blood Bowl. My Whorey Mistress.

    We got into a fairly deep chat about the mechanics of this game the other day at the game shop. The reason I love it comes from the randomness.

    The skill comes from weighing up the order of you actions bearing in mind the factors of importance of the action, the probabilty of it actually happening, and what measures you must make incase the Dice Gods widdle on your pomme frites.

    Some of the best moments I’ve had in the games have come from pulling a crazy against all odds play out of thin air.

    “Right, I have to dodge 57 tackle zones, “go for it” twice and deck the ball carrier thats almost scored. LETS DO THIS!”

    I offer my services as a Blood Bowl opponent (tabletop or desktop). Just give me a shout.

  2. Aaron

    The key to Blood Bowl is risk management. You want to avoid rolling the dice as often as possible and you also need to priorities what order you perform dice related actions in. Those one die blocks? Don’t throw ’em until you’ve done everything else, they should be the lowest priority (unless they’re fundamental to your strategy for that turn in which case, OUCH). Always plan to fail in your turn, that seems to be the best way to minimise disaster. There are some Blood Bowl tactic sites out there which I found to be pretty useful.

    Unfortunately Blood Bowl is usually much more fun in your imagination than it is in reality. I played against humans in an RPS league for 6 months and found that hardly anyone passes the ball, which makes for games of relentless blocking and slow trundling down the pitch. TRUDGE BOWL.

    The problem with the single player campaign is that the AI is terrible. It knows how to score but it knows nothing about protecting the ball carrier which means that it’s pretty ease to regain possession whilst on defence.

    Anyway, that’s me waffling on about a game that I’ve enjoyed and hated in equal measure.

  3. Zoso Post author

    Yeah, I’m starting to get the hang of Doing Stuff In The Right Order after comedy early trial games (“No need to move anyone into position or try and pick the ball up or anything, I’ll just block this Ogre with a Snotling!”), but it’s exactly that risk management that seems to favour the pragmatism of grinding cages over lobbing the ball around for fun and profit.

    Must definitely try a live game sometime; where the CPU making it through nine tackle zones then killing your ball carrier just makes you go “oh fuck OFF!”, against a human opponent at least you can put on a Matt Berry voice and shout “Dammit, Dag, you’ve got balls!”

  4. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Random works best when it complements the game, not when it dominates. The best games are when you throw a bad die then the very next thought in your mind is, “what actions can I take to recover from that bad roll?” The worst games are when you throw a bad die and think, “I’m fucked because now I can’t do something I absolutely needed to.” Ultimately, a die roll should help determine what options you have, not dictate one option from the other.

  5. scotth

    Like others said, risk is what makes the game. If you play too safe, you lose. If you take too many chances, you lose.

    Strength teams seem overbalanced though, but I think that is a separate issue from luck. Lizardman teams used to be the worst on the board game, I haven’t encountered any in the computer game yet.

  6. xbevisx

    Urgh. Lizardmen teams. I totally agree with them, they can be an absolute nightmare.

    I think being a tabletop wargamer myself, dice rolls dont bother me too much anymore. Although occasionally they’ll be one that makes me explode with crude words.

  7. Zoso Post author

    @Brian I was thinking about Backgammon and Blood Bowl; the dice in Backgammon determine your options (throw them, then move based on the results, but you choose which pieces you’re moving), the dice in Blood Bowl determine the outcome of your actions (does this block work, does this bloke catch the ball). I wonder if anyone’s tried Bloodgammon: rather than make each roll sequentially, you specify all the actions your players are going to take in the turn, roll a bucket of dice, then match up the dice rolls to the actions…

    @scotth I got spanked by lizards (if you know what I mean) in an early game… I was still getting to grips with the rules, which didn’t help, but their big bastards smacked me around terribly while the little gits hopped and dodged all over the place to score.

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