I’ve always liked board games. For as long as I can remember I’ve played Monopoly with my dad and Scrabble with my grandpa. My brother and I used to play round after round of Battleship, Sorry! and Stratego. Chess had a strong place in my life for a while, until I cost my middle school Chess team the state championship and Chess and I more or less parted ways. High school introduced me to my first true board game love, Settlers of Catan, which still plays a prominent role in game nights all these years later. College has brought about a renaissance in my board game playing, with party games and Catan itself seemingly becoming more prevalent across campus by the day. Over the course of the past two years I have surrounded myself with equally competitive mad men who take no greater pleasure than watching the terrible misery of a poor soul who loses at a game made out of cardboard and plastic. But in our endless quest to achieve total domination over each other in games of skill and chance, one question has slowly emerged, “What value is there in winning a game of luck?”
On first glance the value would seem obvious. It’s clear that in any contest, regardless of the amount of skill involved, one would always prefer to win than to lose. Certainly that is the case, but when your win is judged against the wins of others, do you not want your win to stand above the rest, in the eternal glory of having been truly earned? If you win a coin flip, did you really “win” if you had no control over the events that led to your “victory?” Would it really be worth bragging about a game of rock, paper, scissors? The answer is no, and therein lies the board game conundrum.
Take, for example, the card game known as Coup. It’s a simple game of bluffing, in which players hold two of a possible six cards at any given time, granting them access to two of a possible six abilities. The twist is that there is no penalty for using an ability you don’t actually have, unless of course an opponent calls you out on your bluff and you lose one of your two cards (or the game if you only have one card left). At first my friend group believed this game was mostly skill-less, and it was just random chance if you called someone else out on their bluffing. Soon however we began to develop strategies, as we noticed patterns in each others games and realized some cards were better to end up with at the end of the game than others. Over time these strategies grew even deeper as we began to bluff, double bluff and triple bluff our way into victory. Is that other guy doing the thing I think he’s doing? Does he know I think he’s doing it? Does that mean he’s not going to do it because he thinks I think he will do it? What does that mean? Does it mean anything? “Coup” eventually became a battle of the wits, like the famous poison scene in “The Princess Bride.” Once you’ve gone down the rabbit hole of bluffing strategy and come out the other side you arrive back at the same place you began. If every move ever made is being made in an attempt to throw the other players off the scent, then no strategy can truly be formed because every strategy is based upon players playing rationally, which they wouldn’t be inclined to do for fear of giving away what cards they have. And so the game is one of chance. And therefore it involves no skill. So whoever wins has no ability to use their victory as proof that they are better than everyone else, which is one of the main reasons people like to win. Winning in essence becomes meaningless.
We faced a similar predicament with Catan. What at first appeared to be a mostly skill-based game of trading and building, with some luck involved (the roll of the dice), eventually became mired in arguments over whether or not the inherent luck of dice-rolling superseded any level of social interaction that would otherwise seem to be the crux of the game. Winners again found themselves besieged by the notion that they only won because they rolled four threes in a row, which everyone knows is less than probable. It seemed we had sucked the fun out of board games. Winning had been rendered utterly pointless. No longer could one find any satisfaction in defeating one’s friends.
It seemed there was only one solution. Two weeks ago one of my friends and I entered Vault of Midnight, the game and comic store located on Main St., and asked an employee to direct us to the game that involved “the most skill, the least luck.” She sold us a game called “Century: Spice Road.” At first, we thought we had found our holy grail at last. The game was devoid of dice and although it featured the drawing of cards, it was unclear if there was much of a difference between the cards that could be drawn. The game consisted of exchanging various colored cubes until one had the right number of cubes to unlock “points” cards, which gave one a certain number of points. Certainly, the game was mostly strategy. Getting your cube exchange rates correctly required thinking many turns ahead and there was almost no chance of someone messing up your game by torpedoing you or ganging up on you with other players. At last we had found a game without any luck. In doing so, we had also found a game without any fun. It turns out that luck is actually pretty synonymous with thrill. It’s the thrill of rolling the dice, the thrill of the QB throwing up a deep pass, of letting the hands of fate guide the ball, the roll, the flip of the river. Take that away, and take away the need to interact with other players during a game, and you no longer have a game, but a math problem that four people are attempting to solve simultaneously. As my brother so succinctly declared upon playing Century for fewer than five minutes, “It’s like four people playing solitaire at once.” The day after this proclamation we returned to Catan. We played a few rounds of Coup. That old thrill has returned, regardless of whether or not any one of us is truly more skilled at the games than another. In the end, so long as you are enjoying yourself, it doesn’t really matter if you win. At least, that’s what I like to tell myself when I lose. Don’t get me started on Euchre.