Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Case study in countering luck of the draw: Deus

I've played a lot of Deus lately, and I like it a lot. If you haven't tried the game, I recommend giving it a play. If you're not familiar with how the game works, it's basically a big deck of cards in 6 suits, and you generally churn through a lot of cards each game, either putting them into play, or discarding fists full of them at a time for some benefit.

One of the complaints I hear about this game is to do with luck of the draw... as unlikely as it sounds, sometimes you just can't seem to find a red card (or whatever) no matter how much you feel like you're churning through cards. This dynamic isn't really unique to Deus, some people levy the same complaint against Race for the Galaxy and other card games from which players draw unique or varied cards from a large, common deck.

When I first learned Deus, a friend emphatically suggested that we use the variant from the back of the rulebook which is included for players who are unhappy about the luck of the draw in the game. The variant rule is that one time per game, each player has the option of playing any card face down as if it were any color. This is important for several reasons, mainly because...
(a) in Deus, when you play a card of a color, you activate all the cards you've already played of that color. So using this variant rule you can re-activate cards you've got in play - even if you don't draw any cards of the the right color, and...
(b) Deus has a certain type of card called a Temple which scores big endgame points, and in order to build a 2nd Temple, you must first have played a card of each color. So this variant can help when you're missing cards of one color and you want to play a 2nd Temple.

We used this variant in the first game I played, and I was pretty happy with it - I felt it went a long way toward keeping players from getting screwed by the luck of the draw. In the 2nd game I played, we did not use the variant, and I felt that I missed the ability, and even thought maybe it shouldn't be a once per game thing, but maybe more expensive, but allowed all the time.

I've played a handful of games since then, most of which are a learning game for someone, and I've played a handfull of online games as well. None of those games used the variant rule, and the more I play without that variant, the less I miss it. I've been wondering if that rule is really necessary at all. I think I've come to the conclusion that this variant is not only unnecessary, but perhaps it actually makes things worse!

Yes, for the player who feels screwed by the luck of the draw this variant does feel comfortable or even necessary. In a vacuum, it's a great fix for the problem. However, the game is not played in a vacuum. Let me back up a step and point out that the ability to play a card face down as if it's any color is extremely powerful in this game. That said, any player who's NOT being screwed by the luck of the draw has a power play in their pocket, to be used when they see fit. On the other hand, the player who DOES get screwed must cash in their power play just to get back to even.

So as I said, sure - it feels like a helpful fix... but in reality I don't think it really addresses the luck of the draw problem - a problem which may be overstated in the first place.

I haven't put too much thought into a better rule to combat the luck of the draw, or the feeling of being screwed by the card gods. Perhaps my initial comment has merit - increase the cost for this effect to an appropriate level, and then don't limit it to once per game. I'm not sure, but the point of this post wasn't to fix the issue, just to study it a little bit and share my thoughts on it.

What methods do your favorite card games use to counter luck of the draw?


Paul Owen said...

Perhaps it's painfully obvious, but the Ticket to Ride five cards face-up significantly mitigates luck of the draw. It works well in games that don't have a few disproportionately powerful cards (i.e. in games of evenly distributed evenly-powered suits) - and in the case of a locomotive, TtR further mitigates its appearance face up by counting it as two cards drawn instead of just one.

Nikolas Co said...

I've been thinking about this, and feel that there are actually a few different goals achieved by the "luck mitigation" rules that I can think of:
1) Reducing the likelihood of luck changing the final winner/ranking
2) Letting players complete their plans, even in the face of poor luck
3) Creating an interesting decision for players, typically in terms of risk management and/or valuation

The optional rule in Deus seems to primarily accomplish the "let them complete" goal. Without it, a player might plan to build a particular temple or re-activate a powerful combo, and never get the chance to simply due to the draw.

I think the Ticket to Ride drafting rules primarily accomplish the "reduce the influence of luck" rule in the sense that, as Paul notes, locomotives are generally disproportionately powerful.

Line drafting, e.g. in Suburbia, give players the choice to pay more for a valuable card/tile or let price drop and run the risk of someone else taking it. Games with a display to draft from and let players discard-and-redeal it (usually at a cost), make players consider whether they're likely to draw something better.