How Much of Each Makes a Compelling Game?
When I began designing my game Nevera Duels, the first judgment I had to make was how much luck should be included and how much skill. I knew I needed some of both, but how do I balance them for the kind of game I want players to experience?
Luck is the idea that an individual can win or lose a game based on pure chance, and their choices make no difference to the outcome of the game. Because their choices make no difference, there is no way that being more skilled at a game can improve their odds of winning. For example, the game Snakes and Ladders (or Chutes and Ladders) relies purely on dice rolls, and the player's path is entirely set by what numbers appear on the dice. The player simply moves forward, up, or down depending on the kind of tile they encounter.
Skill is the idea that the better someone is at a game and the more knowledge they have about the game, the more likely they are to win. For example with Chess, the more strategies a player knows, the more moves ahead a player can determine, and the more options they are able to compute, the more likely they are to win. There is very little luck or chance in the outcome of playing and winning Chess.
Concept Art by Márcio Farias
The issue with games which rely too much on skill is that they are not much fun for beginners or people with different skill levels. If I play Chess against someone who is definitely not as skilled as I am, I can expect to beat them almost every time, which is not much fun. Likewise if I play Chess against someone who is definitely better than me, I can expect to lose almost every time, which is also not much fun. It is hard to convince new people to play because they know they are going to spend a huge amount of time frustrated and losing, and there is not much opportunity for surprise and drama.
The Issue with games which rely too much on luck is that there is not much of a positive feeling when the outcome of a game is positive for a player, because that player had no control or influence over what happened. If I win a game of Snakes and Ladders I might feel good because I won, or if I win at Roulette I might feel good because I gained money, but there is something missing with these games. What is missing is the positive feeling a player gets when they chose an action or option because they determined it was the best path to take and it resulted in a positive outcome. The fancy word for this is agency, feeling like you have control or influence over something, which makes it meaningful.
Goals For My Game
So going into the game design, I knew I had three goals for what I wanted my players to experience when playing my game. This might also be what you would call my vision.
1. To include enough skill so that players feel powerful, intelligent and in control when making decisions and choosing from their options. To include enough skill so that when players win they feel ownership over that win and rewarded for their time constructing a strategy.
An example of this is Magic the Gathering, where the time and energy spent constructing a deck of cards that works well and has a methodical strategy is rewarded by being having a better chance of overcoming an opponent.
2. To include enough luck so that sometimes players with a little less skill can be victorious. This means having enough balance to the game elements that no one can be so powerful based on skill that it is impossible for them to lose.
An example of this done well is Poker, where players who are less skilled still have a chance to win occasional rounds based on what cards are revealed, leading so surprises, tension, drama and stories.
3. To include enough luck that sometimes players who are part way through a game and losing can turn the tables and victorious. There are many games where if a player has a bad starting hand of cards, or a bad first turn, then there is no way they can overcome that disadvantage and are almost totally set to lose. This can be very demoralizing, especially if the game takes a long time to complete.
An example of this is Tic Tac Toe (or Noughts and Crosses) where the first player can reliably win or draw every time. With these goals for what I wanted the players to experience, I began designing.