Luck and Emotion

Sometimes in the process of fixing problems, non-problematic things get cut. Sometimes, those things end up being extremely important, and you don’t realize it for a long time.

I mentioned in an earlier post that some playtesters despised the amount of luck in my game. They were game designers, so they were more critical than typical players, but it was still something I wanted to address. They didn’t think that luck fit with the theme of elite spies, and it caused them a lot of frustration when they were denied what they wanted to do. To address this, I added a mechanic called “focus tokens.” Each time a player failed a die roll, he’d earn a focus token. Each focus token could be used to give +1 to a future die roll. In other words, it was a karma mechanic: lose a die roll now, receive a better die roll later. The mechanic was easily understood, worked well to reduce luck, and eased the pain of a failed die roll. I thought to myself: “Done. Let’s move on to the next problem.”

Over time, though, I kept finding that my game just wasn’t as fun as it used to be. What happened? I’ve been fixing problems all over the place, so shouldn’t it be more fun? This feeling really started to wear on me because I’d been working on the game for a long time, day-in and day-out; while the game got much cleaner and more cohesive, it just wasn’t as fun.

I kept tweaking things to try and figure out my problem, but I couldn’t figure it out. Throughout the process, there was one mechanic I neglected to tweak because I was sure it had only improved the game: focus tokens. Only through many playtests and deep conversations about the game did I come to the conclusion that the game had become more mellow over time. And guess what? A lot of it was due to those focus tokens. While focus tokens fixed a lot of problems, they tore away something important from the game that made it fun: emotion.

Focus tokens make the game more mellow because they narrow the spectrum of possible emotions you can feel as a player. In a world with focus tokens, you are upset when you fail a die roll, but it’s tempered by the fact that you receive a focus token as a consolation prize. In that same world, when you succeed in a die roll that is helped by focus tokens, you are happy to have succeeded, but it wasn’t that difficult to pull off due to the tokens. Thus, you don’t feel that accomplished.

In a world without focus tokens, you are solely upset when you fail a die roll. There is nothing to console you, you just have to tough it out and move on with the game. When you succeed in a die roll in that same world, it feels much sweeter due to the possibility (and pain) of failure. There was never any help you could have gotten for that roll — you just chose to take the risk at the right time, and it paid off. The tough times are worth it for that “YES!” moment when you succeed. A wider emotional spectrum yields higher highs and lower lows.

It’s easy to see looking back on it now, but this was a key problem hiding in plain sight before. I’ve removed focus tokens from the game, but I’ve eased the pain of failure by slightly reducing some of the die roll requirements so it doesn’t happen as often. I’ve also combated the luck in other ways, by giving players the opportunity to use powerful items they can depend on. The trick is that gaining and keeping these items can be risky.

Luck is not only good for increasing the severity of emotion, it can also give players something to blame their losses on other than themselves. In addition, luck in die rolling adds anticipation to games. Key moments can depends on die rolls, and unexpected results allow players that are behind to come back, as well as give players an opportunity to improvise (creative problem solving).

I have a lot more to share, but I wanted to keep this post short so you come back for the next one :] The game is progressing, slowly but surely. I’ve been watching a lot of TableTop as I begin to think about how to pitch my game. The creators of TableTop have a knack for making every game shine on that show, and I want to do my best to make my game shine to publishers.