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  • Essays
  • Risky Games - Playing to Win vs Taking Risks

Risky Games - Playing to Win vs Taking Risks

O Updated
(Photo by Eyestetix Studio on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

I normally don't win, at least not when I play with my games group. That's not a problem and I still have a lot of fun, whatever the outcome. In fact, I sometimes create some extra excitement by not playing it too safe. I actually really like games where you can gamble and create huge point swings. However, I know many people who play to win and who will always play it safe. So in this article, I thought I'd compare the different approaches.

Risk vs Reward

Let's start by looking at the risk-loving player. There will be various levels of risk-taking. I'm the sort of person who quite happily rolls a dice in the hope to get 20 points, rather than taking a guaranteed 5 points, even if the dice roll could result in me losing points. I do this even when I'm in the lead or otherwise, risk losing it all. For some, that's just madness though. I mean, if you're in a desperate situation and basically have nothing to lose and everything to gain, then trusting luck makes sense to most people. However, ruining your chances of victory by relying on the outcome of a flip of a coin, or worse odds for that matter, is just nonsensical to many people.

For me though, it creates excitement. Sure, I could play it safe. I could just plod on and take the guaranteed points and slowly build up my lead. Rolling a dice, drawing a face-down card or otherwise just putting a huge amount of trust in pure chance is so much more exhilarating though. You just have to throw caution out of the window and go for it. If it goes wrong, then so be it. If luck is on your side, then it's amazing. Either way, you'll have created a memorable moment in the game. Especially if the outcome completely changes the game. Losing it all on a dice roll or clinching victory by drawing the perfect card is so much more unforgettable than playing a steady and safe game. Well, at least for me, it's hugely exciting and usually preferable.

Right Time, Right Risk

Experts will tell you that there are specific moments in a game when you should rely on luck. In Mystic Vale, it's sometimes absolutely safe to push, while other times it's complete suicide. So, if you want to win this game, you only push when it's either safe or the risk of spoiling and thereby losing your turn is very low. For example, when your deck has run out and you're going to shuffle your discard and create a new draw deck, then the odds of spoiling are pretty low. That's a good time to push, unless your field already has a good amount of coinage and points in it, of course.

A card from Mystic ValeA card from Mystic Vale

If you ask me, then I'll tell you that you should push more. Don't worry, even I know when pushing is completely out of the question, but if the odds are 50:50 or better and there is a good chance that you get the extra money to get the perfect card, then I'd be inclined to draw one more card. That means that my win ratio in Mystic Vale isn't great, but I do have a lot of fun. When I do pull off the perfect push, it feels great.

Similarly, when I play Deep Sea Adventure, I'm the one who will pick up one too many treasures and exhaust the oxygen supply for everyone. At least, on the first dive, but even on the second, it's very tempting to dice with death and try to get an extra tile back to the submarine. When it does work out, it's a great feeling and I win by miles. More often than not though, it doesn't work out and I lose, taking other risk-taking divers with me into the depth of the ocean.

Perfect Safety

So let's talk about the other end of the spectrum. Let's look at avoiding risk at all costs. A lot of games make that impossible, of course. There is always an element of randomness, in the form of dice, cards or similar. All you can do is minimize risk and have something in place that will allow you to mitigate bad luck, at least to some degree.

Of course, finding a way of being able to take risks while having the option to cancel unfavourable dice results or card draws can be very interesting. I do actually try that myself in some games. It offers me the excitement of taking risks, without the bad effects when things go wrong. It's a good halfway house.

However, some people don't even want to go there. They won't even bother with risk mitigation, if they can avoid randomness altogether. They want a steady income of points or focus on their engine and slowly ramp up point production. Trying to find the best strategy and refining it is their thing. Analytical players like learning how a game works and how points are created. Randomness and risk just get in their way. Being able to formulate an efficient winning strategy on their first play is bliss for them and that's great.

At the end of the day, everyone has to find their way of enjoying games. It's great if the same game can offer people with different interests similar levels of fun and satisfaction. Not many games can achieve that, of course, because offering something for everyone isn't easy and often leads to mediocre games. However, as long as everyone around the table has a good time, it doesn't matter whether you like risk or hate it.

What About You?

So what about you? How do you feel about risk? Do you like dice rolls or card draws? Or do you prefer if there is some level of mitigation? Maybe you don't like any risk at all and just want to focus on winning in a reliable fashion. As always, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. I'm sure there are many different attitudes to risk and randomness in games.

There Will Be Games

Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #340788 17 Oct 2023 10:56
I tend to dislike mitigation of risk. I feel that was one of the mistakes made in the design of Sleeping Gods, where you flip a card for a random amount to compare versus a target number and then sacrifice various available resources to mitigate that result. That's anti-climactic and and also anti-thematic for a game about an adventure. I prefer a dramatic resolution system where you decide before the card flip or die roll if you will sacrifice some resources to improve your odds and then hope that your gamble pays off.

Die rolls are better because the roll will tend to be more dramatic as it is discretely random every time, whereas the card flip draws upon a finite pool of cards that are subject to card counting. If we have already seen all the high-value cards flipped recently, we don't have any hope that this card flip will give us a high-value card.

In my early gaming days, I was playing with a really smart group of gamers, and nearly all of them were much better at math and probabilities. So I tended to go for the high risk plays. If they paid off, it was glorious. If I failed, it was still memorable. I'm older now and better at calculating and managing risk, so I tend to play more cautiously but still take the occasional risks.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #340796 18 Oct 2023 13:41
Great article. I feel like risk taking games, unless they are just wacky low stakes party games, need to be very clear on the odds and have to properly weigh a "all risk, all the time" player against a "turtle up, no risks taken" player in game balance.

For example, the co-op game Yggdrasil allows you some risk taking on die rolls to defeat/push-back an enemy. However you can largely mitigate ANY risk by collecting elves/vikings to add to your roll. I've found that playing the game works best when using elves/vikings to ensure success on EVERY roll and taking risks with a 33-66% chance of failure is almost certain defeat. But since you have to fish for vikings and there are only so many elves the risk mitigation is a gameplay strategy in and of itself and it works pretty well.

Somewhat adjacent strategies like the "let them starve" strategy in Stone Age, where a player takes a -10 VP (IIRC) loss EVERY TURN he can't feed his people so instead focuses exclusively on VP generation from huts and technology are HIGH RISK, but not really "risky", though if the other players work together I think they can easily thwart the risk taking player. This, I think, is key game balance, the high risk strategy needs to be easily countered by observant players, though this is not quite the same as a "risky" strategy of an all or nothing type game play moment.

But I think we can all agree that its the moments when someone is swinging for the fences, it's all on the line, that we remember. No one reflects fondly on that time they never moved and just ground out 1 VP/turn and somehow still won.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #340801 18 Oct 2023 19:15
I'm not sure any part of this article or Jason's response are really talking about risk. They're talking about managing risk. That is a vastly different thing, something that drops you square in the middle of Euroville. If anything starving your people in Stone Age removes risk completely, removes the need for die rolls that lead to food. It's a bone-dry approach to the game that turns it into a Chess match, a game of move and response.

On our podcast for Lords of Vegas we pumped the audio into an AI interpreter (which I don't have a lot of respect for) and it pumped out the following phrase for the show notes -- "The Risky Strategy of Risk Mitigation". That turned out to be pretty doggone profound considering it came from a machine, and it got me thinking, because it was just a summary of what the four of us had taken much longer to describe. In Lords of Vegas, taking risk isn't merely a possible way to victory, it's virtually required in order to win. It's certainly required against worthy opponents, and though I'll surely agree that knowing how much risk to take and when are a form a risk mitigation, it's not an effort to circumvent it. It's an embrace of the risk because it's the very nature of the game. There's no tokens you can add to your die roll, no approach to play that avoids the need for luck. Accepting risk in the game is a measured response to conditions on the table, not a wild fling in the hope that something crazy will happen. You're down by six, you need to take control of a casino, that means rolling dice and getting a break on the result. The only paths to victory involve taking risk, though the choice of which risk is yours.

This is about as fitting a system as possible for a game about a gambling town built in the desert for no other reason. James Earnest (noted game design bomb-thrower) and Mike Selinker (of Axis & Allies fame, another title that displays this embrace-risk-or-die feature) should be lauded for going so far off the reservation at a time when "risk mitigation" was all the rage in the hobby gaming market.

One of the guys I record with will come right out and say that he doesn't like dice. He wants card draws instead, or he wants dice where you get to choose which side comes up by purchasing modifiers. He wants to play Monopoly by rolling four dice and picking the two he likes. But that's because he's an eliminate-risk guy. That's not risk. That's result-selection.

After all that whining I guess my point is this -- the title at the top, Playing to Win vs Taking Risks, makes no sense, or at least it shouldn't. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive, and in my opinion never should be. Good games present risk as opportunity, not a consolation prize.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #340802 19 Oct 2023 09:33
Exactly right. Simply playing many games is engaging with risk of some kind; not only in the form of random card draws or dice rolls, but just based on what your opponents may do that you weren't planning for or were unable to do so. Your point is the point I make to everyone who decries dice games: they're not about engaging risk. Played properly, they're about mitigating it. I usually use Games Workshop games as my primary example: "Do you think the guys who win at 40K all the time are the luckiest people in the world? They're not lucky. They're just good/experienced at mitigating risk." If they fail on a key die roll in combat, it doesn't break their entire strategy, as they'll often have other units nearby who can pick up some of the dropped pieces and go again the next turn. I was trying to make this point to someone complaining that John Company was too random and the bad results were too harsh. In the course of the conversation on BGG, we discovered they had gambled the entire round and the health of the company on a single die roll and then suggested it was poor design because that approach didn't work out. I told him I kinda thought he was missing a basic concept here...
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #340804 19 Oct 2023 09:55
I want to make a distinction between assessing risk and mitigating risk. To me, there is a crucial difference between knowing the odds and taking calculated risks versus being able to directly alter random results. The first is dramatic, while the second is bureaucratic.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #340809 19 Oct 2023 17:48

Shellhead wrote: I want to make a distinction between assessing risk and mitigating risk. To me, there is a crucial difference between knowing the odds and taking calculated risks versus being able to directly alter random results. The first is dramatic, while the second is bureaucratic.

Exactly. One is embracing the risk and using it to your favor, the other is rejecting the risk and avoiding it whenever possible. You're emphasizing the emotional outcome, but it's both an intellectual distinction and an emotional one. It's damn good gaming when it's done right, and there is just a thrill and a half when you thread a couple of needles on a single turn and pull off something that you shouldn't have been able to.

I didn't mean to come down hard on your article Oliver, and it may be that I simply missed the point you were trying to make. But in a game like Lords of Vegas taking risks is not disengaging from the favored path and taking a flyer. It's likely optimal. You're making a calculated decision to pursue a luck-filled approach because it's the best option available to you. You have goals you need to meet, and you're not going to meet them by playing it safe, even if you're in the lead. If you play conservatively you're going to lose. The people taking risks are going to beat you.

It's more interesting gaming, and as Shell has pointed out twice, it's much more exciting gaming. Control what you can, work with what you've got, have contingency plans. Keep moving forward at the edge of your control.

More games need this. It's a very underutilized part of the space, perhaps with the exception of traditional wargames where it's arguably the dominant feature.