Last week I played two luck-filled board games, Parthenon and The Settlers of Zarahemla and in each case I lost due to some "bad luck". But, I was entirely happy with the results because the losses were ultimately the result of me risking and losing, and that's exactly how I think it should be in a game with a random factor. Thus, I'd like to use these two game sessions as case studies, to show what good, controllable luck looks like, and how you can risk and lose.
In the process, I'm going to talk about several different types of unpredictability in games: randomness, which I define as sample with replacement, such as a die roll; arbitrariness, which I define as sample without replacement, such as a deck of cards; and chaos, which I define as player interaction. (A fourth type of unpredictability, uncertainty, which depends on hidden information, didn't really come up in either game.)
Case #1: Parthenon
Parthenon was one of the more interesting games released in 2005. I wouldn't say it was high profile, but that's mainly because it came out from Z-Man who is still building their Eurogame creds (though they came out with a pile of great games in 2005). Nonetheless, if this game had been put out by Rio Grande, everyone would have been talking about it. Parthenon got quite a bit of good, early press as either a Civilization-light or a new Settlers of Catan. Then, as it reached a larger audience, people started complaining about the randomness, saying that it ruined an otherwise good game. As of today Parthenon is still ranked #586 on BGG, which is entirely respectable, and in the same area as Relationship Tightrope and Around the World in 80 Days, both good games. I personally gave Partheon a solid B.
The basic idea of Parthenon is to build 16 buildings on your home island. This is done through resource management. You collect various goods, among them the hard-to-get gold and papyrus, and use those to build your buildings, and at the same time you're influenced by current events, and the harbor status of the ports that you want to trade at.
In my recent game of Parthenon I had a very strong position going into year 3. By the end of the first season I had 15 or my 16 buildings built, with my second Wonder of the World being the only obstacle. But when I drew the plans for that second Wonder, I learned that the conditions for building that Wonder were very difficult given my particular setup and the particular conditions of the game.
In order to finish the Wonder I had to give away one gold, then one papyrus during the island trading phase. Unfortunately I didn' thave either in hand at the time, and the papyrus was very hard to get. It could only be traded for at Egypt, and Egypt had a "tribute" harbor status, meaning that you could only carry two goods there to trade, unless you had an army to protect them.
I had no army which meant I was indeed limited to those two goods in Egypt. I further had no way to build an army because I'd elected not to construct the Fortress building which would have allowed me do so. Since I was limited to trading just two goods in Egypt, I wouldn't be able to trade for both gold and papyrus on the same turn, and I'd further never built a second ship, which meant that I couldn't trade for gold somewhere else on the same turn that I got papyrus from Egypt. Oh, and the other players were embargoing me because of my strong endgame position, which kept me from trading for basic goods that I could have used to create gold at my marketplace. In other words, I was all-around out of luck. It would be at least season 4 before I could finish up my wonder, and if I met a single hazard-related setback, I'd never finish at all. And, I did.
It would be easy to say that I ended up in such an untenable position because of a bad card draw, and I suspect that many detractors of Parthenon's randomness would say exactly that. However, looking closer, I think it's pretty clear that my downfall was entirely my fault. Parthenon is at heart a logistical game of efficiency, as many resource management games are. This means that you try and make better use of limited goods and turns than your opponents. I had chosen to try a path of minimalism during this game. I hadn't bought any armies (or gifts of Poseidon or warships), because that would have slowed my path to victory. I hadn't bought any extra ships for carrying my goods for a similar reason.
If I'd drawn a better Wonder plan, I might have won in year 3, season 1 thanks to my superb efficiency to that point. Contrariwise if I'd taken a safer path, it might have cost me a season or two or efficiency, but I would have been in a better position once I got the Wonder I actually drew. With a ship or an army I had an opportunity to win the season after I drew that plan.
I didn't lose because of the card I drew. I lost because of the risk I took.
As I said in my previous article on luck, good luck in games should be controllable. There are a large number of different luck factors in Parthenon, but I believe every one of them is controllable. You takes your chances and you reap your rewards. Or not.
Here's a chart of those luck factors, which will probably be more meaningful to people who have played the game:
|Events||Arbitrary||Negotiate with the Archon.|
Build appriopriate structures.
Hold appropriate goods.
|Hazards||Arbitrary||Buy Gifts of Poseidon, Warships.|
|Harbor Statuses||Arbitrary||Buy Armies, Warships.|
|Wonder Plans||Arbitrary||Buy plans early.|
One of the players in our Parthenon game mentioned that Stoicism is often the first Philosophy bought, because hazards come up so often. However, I'm no longer convinced that's the best strategy, because hazards can be controlled in other ways (especially through the all-purpose-hazard-avoidance Gift of Poseidon card), while other arbitrary card draws are much harder to control. If I'd purchased Materialism instead of Nihilism, I would have been taking my chances with events, but I would have been able to finish off my Wonder.
Before I close out on Parthenon I'd like to mention that the risk/reward structure is slightly more complex than what I discuss above. You have to expend resources to purchase the various cards which can allow you to offset risks, as I already mentioned. However, for all the aegis cards (that's the Army, Gift of Poseidon, or Warship) you actually have to put it on a boat, taking up one of your 6 cargo slots, in order for it to take effect. Since I've often had cases where I needed all 6 of my cargo slots in order to achieve the trade I wanted, this can be another large risk/reward decision.
Of course you can have your cake and eat it too. You just buy a second or third boat (cost: 1 or 2 gold), and then you will have to buy the correct aegises to protect that boat too, and you're set; you can now carry an extra six cargo, minus the slot(s) for those aegises. Of course you've spent more resources at this point, to lower your risk further.
Because of its multiple levels of risk decisions, I increasingly think that Parthenon is a very fine example of this particular genre of risk/reward game.
Case #2: The Settlers of Zarahemla
The other game that I played on my "lucky" game night was The Settlers of Zarahemla. It's a licensed version of The Settlers of Catan that I'm more likely to carry around when I'm interesting in a Settlers game because it's very beautiful and it has one slight addition: a pyramid to build, with a 2-point "best builder" VP bonus in contention. There are a few terminology changes: instead of sheep you have water as a resource, and they call ore stone.
As is often the case in Settlers my bad luck came about because of my setup decisions. I was greedy, and I made my initial placement decisions in order to try and corner two scarce-looking resources: stone and water. In the process, however, I placed my two settlements pretty close together, and right in the center of the board.
As the game proceeded I very quickly realized that I was in a bad position. I was getting cut off in multiple directions and every time I started to build in a direction, someone else got there just before me. I eventually had to build four road segments (off of a bad production of brick + wood) before I could get a third settlement down. I don't know that this all cost me the game, per se, because we had some strong players, but it definitely ensured that I was out of the competition.
Now I'm sure a lot more people are familiar with Settlers, and it's thus a lot easier to see some of my decisions as plain bad. For a start, if I was going to put myself in a board position where I needed to build out quickly, I should have made sure I had the brick and wood to do so, not the exact opposite resources. Further, striving for longest road (which I did, and which I held for a time) was pretty dumb when I had no wood resources. Instead I should have been working on the temple, which took brick and ore. I had brick, and as you may recall I made an effort to corner the ore market.
However, I can also measure my choices as risk/reward. I took a bad risk--hoping that the other players wouldn't cut me off before I really got my resource machine going--and I'd balanced it against a questionable reward--grabbing a set of resources that I'd decided were nice. And this is how risk/reward games are often lost: in measuring your risk or reward incorrectly, not in drawing the wrong card or having an opponent cut you off at the wrong time.
During my game of Settlers I also got hit by the robber 2 or 3 times, losing my hand when I had 8 or more cards. As with my building choices, this often comes down to greed. I was building up for the big win, rather than buying a development card or doing something else less efficient. If I'd taken a more tactical approach to the game, I might have been able to inch ahead a bit, but instead I took the risk of long-term strategy, and lost out.
As with Parthenon, the luck and the control of Settlers can be mapped out in a chart:
|Development Card||Arbitrary||None. (Or perhaps: Buy more.)|
|Die Roll: Production||Random||Spread out settlements by production number.|
|Die Roll: Robber||Random||Build, even if it's suboptimal, to keep hand size below 7.|
|Opponent Blocking||Chaos||Spread out settlements by geography.|
Controlling the luck of Settlers doesn't map out quite as cleanly as controlling the luck of Parthenon, but it's still there. You just have to work a little harder to achieve it, and you have to think a little more about it because the game system is a bit more tightly woven, and thus you don't hae elements that scream out, "I'm here to control luck for you", as is the case with Parthenon.
Luck is a fine element in a game if it can be controlled, and Parthenon and Settlers provide two great examples of games that were designed with controlling luck in mind; if anything writing this article has assured me of how deliberate this design was in Parthenon.
If you can't deal with randomness, fine, but let's stop hearing about how you lost due to bad luck, when there were options for control that you could have taken advantage of and opted not to.