Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hedging Bets against the Fog of War

The Fog of War – the random elements in games, whether simulating the variable performance of troops in wargaming battles, pieces on the board, or adversaries in roleplaying games – can foil the best strategies, constructed decks, assembled forces, or crafted character. The degree to which such uncertainties reign over the gaming table can seriously affect one’s play experience. It’s one thing to lose to a formidable opponent, but another to lose to the capricious nature of the dice.

Brave British troops doomed in the face
of hordes of Zulus and poor die rolls.
If kind readers would pardon some (hopefully) neutral political analogy, regrettably on my mind thanks to the recent mid-term elections... Take political candidates; they hedge their bets against the uncertainties of the minority of the electorate that actually gets out to vote. Some run in the right gerrymandered district (or carpet-bag their way there) and garner enough shadow-corporate sponsorship to flood the airwaves and ether with ads claiming their opponents are inspired by the devil and eat babies for breakfast (not really quite that bad, but they might as well say that to play on voters’ fears and emotions). Unlike gamers, politicians can draw upon the unlimited resources of contributions from near-anonymous special-interest donors instead of a limited pool of game elements intentionally balanced for some semblance of fair gameplay. (And no, I’m not suggesting politics should be reformed on a gameplay model.)

Even seemingly well-balanced games can subject players to the random whims of chance, no matter how much players try hedging their bets against failure. I’ve tried crafting various squadrons for the X-wing Miniatures Game, assembling combinations of elements like pilot abilities, starship stats, and different upgrades to fit within the 100-point tournament guideline in what I think might prove a winning combination. On paper they might prove quite powerful; but when I’m rolling poorly and the opponent consistently rolls well, I have little chance of success. Last year in a The Sword and the Flame convention game I lost most of four companies of British soldiers against one “horn” of a Zulu force because I kept rolling poorly: I scored minimal ranged hits, got massacred in close combat, and failed several key morale checks (nothing encourages dice to roll poorly than having the referee say, “Roll anything but a six!” Guess what that six sider is rolling...). No wonder there’s been a movement of “dice shaming” in gaming culture to highlight dice that consistently roll poorly or fail at crucial moments (all feeding the adventure gaming hobby’s dice fetishism). Even games with carefully crafted forces like Magic: The Gathering – with no random dice elements – subject players to the uncertainty of when they draw certain cards or combinations to deploy against opponents. Players understandably become frustrated when their best preparations fall victim to the capricious nature of the dice or the luck of the draw.

Games by their very nature represent a contest between players; so naturally one expects to encounter some feelings of frustration while trying to win against adversaries. When games offer players a means to hedge their bets against the whims of chance they offer a sometimes false sense of control over their gaming fate. A good game combines the uncertain elements of chance, a player’s ability to plan broad strategies, and the opportunity to react as tactical opportunities develop through gameplay. Certainly gamers like a bit of tension in their games – it’s no fun when you’re certain you’ll always win or when you know you’ve already lost but the game’s still not over – but there’s a fine line between tension and futile frustration. It proves a good test of players’ sportsmanship. I’ve played in games where, through poor luck of the dice, I knew I was beaten and was just playing out turns until the game ended. I’ve felt unworthy winning games by sheer luck of the dice, especially when my opponent fielded formidable forces or played exceptionally well (and was, himself, foiled by poor dice rolls).

I’ve been rebuked before for framing issues in terms of a “spectrum,” but this aspect of the Fog of War element actually falls along a spectrum. At one end stand games dominated by random elements such as War (if one could call that a “game,” a subject I’ve discussed before), Yatzee, Monopoly, even such Euro-game fare as Carcassonne; these often rely on providing a random situation or set of elements players must try to use to their advantage. At the other end stand games with no randomized elements like chess, Diplomacy, and Stratego where the Fog of War concept exists as uncertainty wholly generated by the players in terms of deployment and strategy, with clear-cut conflict resolution. (I’m sure such generalizations will spawn some contentious if civilized debate; I don’t pretend to approach issues presented in this blog in a comprehensively scholarly manner nor with particularly exacting attention to semantics in the diverse and often subjective English language.) Many games fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, offering the illusion that players can somehow exert control over their success by crafting a good deck, squadron, force, character, or strategy that’s still subject to random elements like dice or the luck of the draw.

Is on end of the spectrum better than the other? Of course not. Each extreme challenges players in different ways. At one end players receive randomized elements they must use to their best advantage in the situation. In the other they carefully arrange their resources and maneuver them knowing their strong points. Those in between can offer a false sense of control by juxtaposing random elements against prepared strategies. But good games maintain the tension until the very end, balancing uncertainty over success or failure.


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