Behind the Game: Luck, Strategy, and Tactics—Oh, My

Kyle’s Thoughts

I’m trying to make “Behind the Game” a more frequent series. I went after adult-themed tabletop games last week so I’ll dial it back with the genital jokes this time and cover luck, strategy, and tactics, and how they interact. Let’s start with an overview of these three things and how they work together.


Luck and Strategy are not Opposites

There’s more than one type of luck (more on that in a bit) and depending on which type of luck a tabletop game employs, it can enhance the strategy of a game. Just because a game has strategy, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have luck. And just because a game uses luck, even large amounts of it, doesn’t mean it’s devoid of strategy. Luck can also be manipulated. The various ways luck can be altered could add to a game’s strategic and tactical value.

The tabletop game genre with the reputation as being the most strategic is war games. You calculate moves and execute planned attacks. But these games still use dice or cards to determine whether an attack, and sometimes a maneuver, works. Any game with a deck of cards or die rolls includes some degree of chance.

Strategy and Tactics are not Synonyms

Strategies are long-term goals, plans, or objectives. Tactics involve assessing a situation and planning on the fly; they’re the building blocks to achieve larger objectives. Some games are strategy-heavy, others are tactic-heavy, and still more use both. War games are usually a good blend. For example, your strategy might be to take control of a bridge but events could happen, and you may have to change the tactics you use to accomplish your goal.

So, games that are considered strategic typically have many paths to victory: numerous, potential objectives. You choose the one that works best for you. Games that are considered tactical usually have different means to achieve the same victory condition. These games don’t always have multiple objectives.


Input and Output Luck

Let’s talk about luck, baby.

Input luck is when the luck element occurs early in a turn, usually at the beginning, and players make decisions after the fact. Output luck is when players make a decision first and then the luck element takes effect. I’m going to stick with dice.

Most folks associate dice with luck, even though I’d argue the more dice you roll, the less random they become (dice results normalize when you’re rolling a bucket of dice), but that’s a different discussion. For this argument, Dice = Luck.


Let’s take the classic game Yahtzee. You roll five dice, keep the results you want, and re-roll the rest a grand total of twice. Players roll (the luck element) and then they determine what they’ll do with that roll: input luck.

Usually, players want to roll high, but lower numbers can be used in different ways (straights, full houses, three or four of a kind). No result is completely useless or unwanted.


Now let’s look at Dungeons & Dragons. Players declare what they’re going to do, for instance, sneaking passed a guard. The Dungeon Master determines what target number they need to achieve their task, and the player rolls a twenty-sided die (the luck element) to see whether their sneak was successful: output luck.

Input luck innately allows players to manipulate luck, while output luck gives more power to the die or other luck element. But that doesn’t mean a game using output luck doesn’t allow players to manipulate their fortunes. We’re not done with D&D.


Manipulating Luck

There are several ways to manipulate luck in a game, but let’s start with D&D. Role playing games have their players design characters with unique strengths and weaknesses. Some may be smart but feeble. Others may be strong but clumsy. And still more may be agile but dumb. We’re going back to that same example of sneaking passed a guard.

Let’s say 20 is the target number the Dungeon Master picked. To perform the action the player adds what they roll on a twenty-sided die to the value they have in an appropriate skill: Sneak. A halfling rogue character may only need to roll a 4 or higher because sneaking is the function they perform on their team. A half-orc barbarian most likely won’t have any skill in sneaking, so they’d need to a roll a perfect 20.

D&D players manipulate luck by forming well-rounded teams of adventurers, much like comic book writers construct teams of superheroes. Strong guy or gal? Check. Smarty pants? Check. Sneaky bastard? Check.

There are countless ways to manipulate luck in board games. I’ll list a few of them.

Building improvements/upgrades: Stack the deck in your favor.

A hand of cards or tiles: Keep and use what you want, discard what you don’t and draw something new.

Variable player abilities: You could dictate a die’s outcome or have more opportunities to accomplish certain tasks. The sky’s the limit with this one.

Re-rolling dice: Don’t like what you rolled, try again.


Roll, Spin, and Move

Some of you cringed when you read the most dubious game mechanism: roll, spin, and move. Most—if not all—of the games that use this mechanism employ output luck and many of them don’t allow their players to manipulate chance. The game plays you instead of you playing the game.

Monopoly is the most well-known of the roll, spin, and move games. You roll the die, you do what the die tells you to do, unless you draw a card and then you do what the card says. Tabletop games have come a long way since then. Heck, even roll, spin, and move games have incorporated ways to change a player’s fate.

Careers had cards you could play to move a specific number of spaces instead of rolling the die. Colosseum, which will be reprinted later this year by Tasty Minstrel Games, allows plenty of manipulation to the classic roll, spin, and move. Any game type can add an extra layer of tactics and strategy, and any game, no matter how strategic it appears, can include luck.

I play the Tigris & Euphrates app. Most folks would classify Tigris & Euphrates as a sophisticated, heavy strategy game, and they’d be right. Players build up their civilizations. If a conflict erupts, the player with the stronger civ, built over time, usually wins. But anyone can discard the tiles from their hands to improve their strength if they happen to have the right tiles.

Quit discarding the right tiles, you damn, dirty app.

I’m heading back to the table to chuck more dice, until next we meet, thanks for reading.

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