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Tabletop Tutor: Are You Feeling Lucky?

By Loyd Case

Push your luck is a hoary old tradition in almost all games, but some games build their engine around the concept.

Pushing your luck is something every tabletop gamer does, in most games. If any of you ever played the old classic version of Risk, you no doubt remember the person who turned in a bunch of cards and popped 77 armies into Kamchatka, then started a land war in Asia. If she was, she actually took all of Asia, but was likely left with only one or two armies in each country. The very next turn, she was probably almost wiped out by other players. However, if she was really lucky, she would roll strong defensive rolls and survived. That’s pushing your luck.

Photo credit: Flickr user Airelle.info via Creative Commons

Many Euro-style games, which feature very little luck, were a reaction to this sort of random chance of doing well. However, this sort of highly luck-based play is actually built into some great board games, either as a core concept, or as an integral part of the game in some way. Pushing your luck is integral to classic gambling games, like Blackjack, and has been featured in classic board game designs, like Sid Sackson’s somewhat abstract dice game Can’t Stop. A short article on Board Game Geek tries to define the idea:

“Games where you repeat an action (or part of an action) until you decide to stop due to increased (or not) risk of losing points or your turn. Press Your Luck games include both Risk Management and Risk Valuation games, in which risk is driven by the game mechanisms and valuing how much other players value what you also want, respectively.”

With that in mind, I’d like to take a closer look at some games I’ve got on my shelf that either use the idea of pushing your luck as a core concept, or as an important aspect of the game. I’ll start with the simplest and work my way up.

Zombie Dice

This lightweight game designed by Steve Jackson is a pure push your luck game. Thematically, the players are zombies hunting human prey for MOAR BRAINZ. A player rolls three dice, sets aside the brains and shotguns, then adds enough dice to total three again and keeps rolling. You can stop at any time, and the total number of brains you roll adds to your score. But beware! If you ever get three shotguns, you score nothing, nada, zip. If you score your brains, your turn is over. If you roll feet, the humans have successfully fled, but you can use those feet dice in your reroll.

The tension is all in the decision to keep rolling, or just stop and score what you have. The first player to reach the 13 brains ends the game.

Keep rolling for more brains… but watch out for the shotguns!

Zombie dice is a fun, light game for any number of people. All you need is some way to keep score. At a deeper level, it’s interesting to watch people play the game. Some players pause to actually try to figure out the odds of keeping going. The decision is complicated because some dice (red) have more shotguns, while other dice (green) have more brains. It’s a great little filler game that’s also a small window into human behavior.

King of Tokyo

I wrote a little about King of Tokyo in my original Board Game Bestiary, but it’s worth discussing a bit more. In King of Tokyo, you play a monster similar to those 1950’s movie monsters that used to cinematically ravage Tokyo. Each player rolls a custom set of dice, which use engraved icons to indicate damage, healing and energy collection. One key mechanic of the game is that you can attack all players simultaneously if your monster is in Tokyo. However, if you are in Tokyo, you can’t take advantage of any healing icons you roll.

How long will the Aleinoid player linger in Tokyo? Long enough to kill Pandakai and Gigazaur? Or will he fall victim to his own greed?

If you have more players, two can be in Tokyo, and risk annihilation while damaging everyone else. Of course, cards can mitigate damage in either direction. The mechanics are simple, but card and ability interactions often make planning your exit from Tokyo difficult.

The Adventurers

The Adventurers was the first of several games in the series, all thematically similar. Your group is a hardy party of Indiana Jones-like explorers trying to raid an ancient ruin and steal the treasures that lie within. Once inside, you trigger a trap – the rolling boulder -- and have to exit the ruin before the boulder blocks the exit, forever trapping you inside the temple.

Collect as much treasure as you can, but if you don’t escape, you don’t win.

The treasure is hidden, of course, and you have to search for it, which slows you down. There’s also a room rich in treasure, but with walls which close in to crush adventurers who stay too long. The winner is the player who has the most treasure and survives the hazards of the ruin.

The Adventurers is pure push your luck, and there are several elements to juggle as you’re playing. The boulder moves a random amount each turn, the walls are somewhat unpredictable. Oh, did I mention you also have to cross a floor where the tiles randomly collapse and unwary adventurers get fried in lava? There’s a certain amount of randomness you need to accept as well. Unlucky guesses or rolls, and your character is toast.

One great aspect of this game is that it only takes about a half-hour to complete a game, so even if you experience a string of bad luck in one game, you can quickly reset and attempt another run-through. With the right group, it’s great, noisy fun.

Infiltration

Infiltration is similar in concept, if not theme, to The Adventurers. In Infiltration, you play a thief breaking into a high-tech facility to steal secrets. You move through rooms, represented by cards, which are flipped over as you encounter them. Rooms may have data to steal, hazards to overcome or cool gear to find. You move linearly through the rooms, and have to exit the facility in reverse order.

Each player also has smaller cards which represent gear which can be used to overcome obstacles, enhance your abilities or screw with other players. It’s a little cleaner, with fewer balls in the air, than The Adventurers, but the decision-making is a little more complex.

Go as far as you dare, steal as much as you can, but you have to get out to win!

As with The Adventurers, you don’t win if you don’t escape. A nifty little Security Tracker wheel is included, which automatically ends the game when the numbers hit 99, which means the cops have arrived, and everyone still inside is arrested. The tracker increases based on a die roll, so there’s that random element again. There’s a smaller dial, which is a modifier to the security die roll.

Uh-oh, the security level is 62. Better not be deep inside the facility.

If you’re deep inside the facility, and some event increases the security tracker die roll by 2, things can get pretty tense. Since you don’t use all the room cards in any one game, and the room cards are laid out face down randomly, the replayability is pretty high. Some games can seem like cakewalks; in others, you never make it to the second level before you need to flee.

Elder Sign

Elder Sign is a co-operative game where the players work together to stop the return of an elder god from the Cthuhlu mythos. You can think of it as a lighter, card-based version of Arkham Horror. Elder Sign isn’t a pure push your luck game, but pushing your luck is a strong element built into the mechanics. Rooms can be difficult, and the dice rolling mechanic forces you to throw away a die every time you make an unsuccessful roll.

Will Amanda survive A Terrible Discovery? She’s got the red and yellow dice and a clue token, so it looks pretty good.

Since clearing rooms in Elder Sign is based on rolling a bunch of dice, luck is a pretty big element. You can take a chance on difficult rooms and clear them with good rolls. Or sometimes a seemingly easy room will send your character reeling because you can’t get that last skull icon.

However, Elder Sign works well as a co-op game partly because of the randomness. The dice rolling tends to tamp down the Alpha Player phenomenon, in which one player tells everyone else what to do. Elder Sign is also difficult enough, yet not too difficult, to be good fun, but remember: if the Stars are Not Aligned, the Dice Will Not Roll for you!

Test your luck

These are just a handful of games which use push your luck as a key concept inside the game. They can be a refreshing change from pure Euro style games. After all, if the dice or card draws don’t go you way, you can always blame luck for losing. Push your luck games are often great social gaming experiences (in the old meaning of the word “social.”) Players are often more engaged, more aware of what others are doing, and games can be generate a lot of raucous noise. It’s all great fun, and is a great antidote to the deadly seriousness of some current generation board games.

So… are you feeling lucky?