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Developing a Game Design Philosophy – Luck

Developing a Game Design Philosophy – Luck

Mark Rivett –

Whenever we get together, Slightly Twisted Games tries to make time to play a board or card game. We love games, and after we play a new game for the first time, we discuss the things we enjoy as well as dislike about it. This has shaped our game design philosophy, and we work to incorporate our philosophy into each game we make.


On day 1 of the 2008 World Series of Poker an astounding bad beat was caught on camera. As the hand played out, one player’s unstoppable force of quad aces ran face first into the immovable object of an opponent’s royal flush. Many poker players can go their entire poker career without ever seeing a royal flush. The odds of that alone are about 650,000 to 1. The odds of quad aces running into a royal flush are roughly 2.7 billion to 1.

A loss like that is enough to convince anyone that they are cursed by the poker gods.

Something not quite as statistically outrageous but nevertheless spectacular took place in the 2012 World Magic Cup, where Brian Kibler playing for team USA had a win on board. His opponent needed a miracle, and literally drew one – Bonfire of the Damned. If you watch the video you can see Kibler turn to Luis Scott Vargas where they share a look that embodies the exact emotions that wash over you when that happens.

I will sidebar here to state that just about everyone who played Standard Magic in 2012 has had that experience. It’s still utterly soul-crushing.

Luck is a hot topic when it comes to gaming. When luck is on your side in the form of card draws, dice rolls, or some other randomized factor, it can feel like the universe itself is your ally. When luck is against you, climbing a mountain towards victory seems impossible. Bad luck can be very frustrating, and it is often cited as one of the reasons many people believe that they don’t enjoy games. I’ve seen grown men throw dice across the room in publics spaces in frustration on more than one occasion.

Incorporating random factors that can tip the balance of the game can be a challenging aspect of game design. But a good question to ask is; if bad luck can ruin a player’s experience, than why include random factors in your game at all?

Two games that have no randomness whatsoever are chess and checkers. The player with the most skill will usually win. Those games are fun, but I would argue that there is a tendency for the player experience to become stale. After a game of chess, I’m satisfied. I’ve had my fill of chess for the year. I would put forth that most gamers feel the same way.

Scythe – an immensely popular game – has random factors in the form of encounters, which can provide a handy bonus, and combat cards, which serve as a system for determining the outcome of a combat. The game is complex, and the additional random elements offer a level of novelty.

Magic: The Gathering unfolds in a completely random way each game, and it is up to the players to direct that randomness towards victory. Randomness is a big factor, but it is up to the player to react to and manage the events throughout the game, as well as build their deck efficiently. No two games are the same, and it is the novelty of randomness that keep players coming back for more.

What about a game that is all luck… say, roulette? At some point when too much randomness is injected into a game it ceases to become a game at all, and becomes gambling. Players are not agents in their own destiny, they are spectators. While playing roulette can be a fun experience, it isn’t actually a game. If places like Las Vegas didn’t provide players with an opportunity to win money, no one would play roulette.

As to the question as to why randomness belongs within games, the answer is: novelty.

We enjoy things that are novel.

Slightly Twisted Games designed Glory with a careful eye towards balancing skill and randomness. We want our players to have a novel experience every time they play the game, but we also want to make sure that new players have some mechanism to compete against more experienced players.

The different decks in Glory, and what creatures come into play (especially active Lords and Elites), are a random factor that everyone must deal with. The power of spell cards also give players the opportunity to tap into a high-risk high-reward strategy that can derail more conservative play. Through these mechanisms we ensure that the game could never be “solved”, but we have also carefully maintained the integrity of a skilled player’s agency. Glory is a game of skill, but make no mistake, the skilled player will come to understand how luck can influence the game.


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