Interaction and Variability

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This week, I want to write a few posts about some of my personal beliefs that drive my enjoyment of the games I play and fuels the foundations of the games I design. I’m starting with the concepts of interaction and variance, two highly contentious topics that are very important to me.

Last week, I Tweeted this very succinct statement that summarizes this post well: I love interaction and variance in games because it more strongly resembles life. I prefer besting the unexpected to solving stability.

To be clear, I don’t necessarily enjoy games with a high degree of luck. I especially don’t like such games that are too lengthy. I do enjoy the tension in games like 1812 or X-Wing when a critical dice roll can decide things. But, if you play those games enough, you should realize that most of the game is decided by planning and human decisions.

I greatly enjoy variance and the unexpected. I love it when a game cannot be solved or predicted, but the players must simply dive in and use their skill, gut instincts, and a little luck to emerge on top. I’m fascinated by the choices players make when they need to derive success from the hand, metaphorical or real, they’ve been dealt.

Let’s look at Summoner Wars, a game I love. In the game, your odds of hitting in combat are pretty good: 3+. That’s a 66% chance of a hit on every roll. That means you can begin to rely statistically on certain things occurring. But, there are other fantastic variables. You might desperately need an Event card, but you haven’t drawn it yet. You might have no Champions out, when your opponent has all three. How do you solve that problem? The beauty, for me, is using the known and making tough choices to survive, outwit, and outlast.

You can see this notion of “use the tools you’ve been dealt” in my other designs. In Farmageddon, I tried to tune the deck of Action cards to almost ensure there are ways to tackle most situations. Yes, you might get stuck. But, the key is, the board changes often. You will lose Crops. They will be stolen. Therefore, the game is not about “what will I do in 3 turns” but instead becomes “what can I do RIGHT NOW to improve my chances?” It’s about triage and risk mitigation. Terrible things will happen, trust me. But, those terrible things aren’t just aimed at you. Everyone is in that mess together.

In York, I apply this philosophy without a take-that attitude, but still, one that requires taking a chance and doing your best. Every turn you have 5 simple cards (though this can be modified in ways). These cards are, more or less, your fuel. Your resources. What is the best thing you can do with your five cards? Which battles can you win? Which might you lose? Where might you exploit an opponent’s flank or take control of a poorly defended city? How will you best use this round to set yourself up for the next scoring phase?

In testing, some elements of York have always flustered, and will always fluster, certain player types. Some people insist on knowing everything, which is odd for me in a game about war. Turn order is not deterministic, so you cannot make assumptions there. What your one, two, or three other opponents have and want to do also can’t always be ascertained. The only fact is what’s in your hand. With it, I force this simple question: what is the best thing you can do that you control?

For York, and many of my games, I’m driven by this quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the great German Field Marshal: “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy”).

He also said: “Strategy is a system of expedients.” I love that. There is a purity and a truth to it.

The enemy is sometimes other players. It is sometimes the game pushing back against you. Both, for me, enrich the experience and in almost all cases are a requirement for me.

I’ve begun listening to the Ludology Podcast recently. In one episode, Geoff Engelstein wisely notes that planning far ahead and thinking strategically is one skill. However, he noted that being able to manage unpredictable elements is another skill. Often, I feel people in our hobby think that  interaction and things that interrupt a good plan diminish the game’s skillful input, but I disagree. You’re just choosing a different style of mental exercise.

In his review of Relic Runners, a game with very little luck, Quinns said the following two things that removed all interest I had for playing the game:

Relic Runners is a tremendously tricky game that’s built almost entirely from perfect information, meaning you know exactly what the consequences of your actions will be, allowing you to plan for your next turn. And the turn after that. And the turn after that.”


“In other words, Relic Runners is a both game where the more time you spend telescoping your turns outward in your head, the better you’ll do, but where no other player is invested in your actions when you eventually decide on them. These two factors come together in a tiny disaster- about half of the turns I took felt like compromises, brought on either by social pressure to not slow down the game, or by my own inability to calculate whether – for example – with an ability to move two paths, I could perform a colossal, game-winning Relic Run.”

This element of perfect information, of solving the game, of extreme predictability, just doesn’t excite me. I want my opponents invested in my turn. I want to evoke an “oh no!” or “ah ha!” based on my decision.

I realize that citing an extreme case is a lazy way to prove my argument. Potentially, though, not as lazy as quoting another author’s words to say it for me. But, I’m trying to prove not that you’re wrong, just help elaborate why it isn’t interesting for me.

Some of my favorite games that also demonstrate my points include:

  • Summoner Wars: Order of drawing, dice-driven combat results
  • Robinson Crusoe: Inventions, Event cards, die roll on adventures
  • Ascension: What’s in the center? What is your opponent taking?
  • Dragon Heart: If you draw the worst cards, how can you trick and mislead your opponent?
  • Legacy: So many cards, so many variables. How shall you make this generation thrive?
  • 1812 or 1775: The order in which certain cards are drawn has a massive impact. Key ones include the warships, for you or opponent. Also, dice!

In conclusion, when I play a game, I’m not interested in planning out a strategy and slowly executing it precisely. I want to pick a direction, sure, but react and evolve accordingly based on every tree that falls in my path. I want to be a problem solver or fixer. I’ll leave deep planning to the armchair quarter backs. Me? Put me in the fray.

This is a more comparable model to our world, which games often simulate, and makes for a sweeter victory. Perhaps, I’m just not very patient or intelligent? Feel free to heap derision upon me in the comments below!

One thought on “Interaction and Variability

  1. Pingback: Today in Board Games Issue #135 - Cthulhu: The Great Old One - Today in Board Games

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