Tumbling Dice

Most modern board games include a few random elements — a deck of shuffled cards, rolls of the dice, or items drawn out of a black bag. I recently bought a new game called Trajan, and when it arrived yesterday I set it up and had a play-through. It’s quite a nice game — a complex Euro-style point salad, but with some very interesting elements.

Afterward I had a look at a YouTube video in which some serious gamers played Trajan and then discussed it. They seemed a bit distressed by the amount of randomness in it. In truth, it’s no more random than a lot of games. I think there’s another reason, an unacknowledged reason, why they didn’t find the game as exciting as they had hoped.

Card games, to digress for a moment, are entirely random. You start by shuffling the deck! And yet some people are fine card players, while others aren’t. Cribbage provides a perfect example. A good cribbage player will always beat a novice, because the number of possible patterns of card play in cribbage is rather small. In every situation, a good player will know the best play.

Bridge is a much more difficult game. In rubber bridge, the good partnership will usually win, but there are a lot more factors to consider, so once in a while a pair of novices might outscore the experts. But it’s still essential to understand the winning plays and to know the locations of the traps into which the unwary may tumble.

In games like chess and go, there’s no random element at all. Perhaps for that reason, they’re more challenging. Playing a casual game is less likely to be fun, because the only thing that will cause you to lose will be your own ineptitude. You can’t blame it on bad dice rolls.

What’s non-random in Trajan is the mechanic with which you choose your next move. It’s what we call a mancala mechanic. Mancala is an ancient game that’s still played throughout Africa, under various names and with some variations in the rules. As with chess, success in mancala is purely a matter of skill; there’s no random element.

In Trajan, you have six “bowls” (they’re actually flat places, but the graphics make them look like bowls) in which are distributed 12 little tokens in various colors. Each bowl is associated with one of the six possible actions. To select an action, you scoop up all of the tokens in one of the bowls and distribute them, one by one, around the circle of bowls in a clockwise direction. Wherever the last token lands, that’s your action for this turn.

In a typical situation, you’ll only have three or four possible moves. There will be bowls that you can’t currently reach, because no other bowl has the right number of tokens in it. You may be able to make a preparatory move that will set up the move you want to make, so that you can make it on your next turn. Or, if you’re not careful, you may make one good move and thereby spoil another!

I’m pretty sure Trajan can be compared to cribbage, in the sense that an expert player will have learned the patterns of tokens in the bowls and will be able to plan as much as three turns in advance, so as to take the desired actions. The novice will make sub-optimal moves time after time, and will end up frustrated.

Of necessity, the people who make board game videos for YouTube — and yes, I watch a lot of them — are always encountering a new game for, at best, the second or third time. (For a silly example, you might check out the Shut Up & Sit down review of go. To play go well requires years of study.) I suspect that a lot of online game reviewers either like or dislike a game for the wrong reasons.

Colorful bits of wood and plastic are lovely, as are gorgeously illustrated cards. But for me, the fascination of games is that a game is a procedural space, or a procedural universe if you like. It’s a space in which a certain set of procedures is defined, and in which a given action has specific results. There may be some randomness in the results, but the randomness is always constrained. You know you’re not going to roll a die and get 5,793. It’s a space in which analysis, planning, and also intuition play a decisive role.

A game in which luck plays too large a role and planning is too narrowly constrained — Yahtzee is a fine example — quickly becomes boring. One wants to feel that, no matter what storms may buffet the vessel, one’s own hand is securely on the tiller.

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