13 June 2015

Player Agency

Very quickly before I begin: Asphodel has been funded! There's a little bit of time left if you want to get a copy of your own: if you haven't pledged already, you have until 10:51 AM CDT (which is 15:51 UTC (3:51 PM for those who don't use 24 hour time) on Sunday 14 June, 2015 to head over and throw some money at this awesome game.

Now on to the post.

We had Board Game Night last night at the Game Dork household. One of our guests brought his copy of Kill Dr. Lucky and we ended up playing it. Perhaps you'll remember I reviewed that game a few years ago. If you remember that, you probably also remember that I didn't care for the game.

The version we played last night was not the one produced by Cheapass Games. It was the Paizo Games edition, with proper cardboard pieces and lovely, full-colour artwork. There were some tweaks to the rules as well, which made it a little better than the version I played originally.

I still didn't care for it. I was talking to the Dork Spouse afterwards and mentioned that I didn't like it because there was no player agency. She asked me what I meant by 'player agency.'

'It means that the game is not won or lost based on anything that the players do, but on who happens to be the first player in the room with Dr Lucky after all the Failure cards have been exhausted from the deck.'

This started me thinking about the concept of player agency, and how it relates to luck. I'm sure you're aware that one of the dimensions I measure with my rating system is Randomness, which is basically a measure of luck. Is this the same thing as player agency? Could I just rename the 'Randomness' category to 'Player Agency?' Do I need to include a 'Player Agency' rating with the other categories in my rating system?

I don't think that luck and player agency are exactly the same thing. Maybe if a game was rated at 6 in the Randomness category, you could say that they are the same. For example, slot machines are 'games' (I use that term loosely here) that might be rated at 6 for Randomness. There is no player agency, no decisions to be made, simply pull the lever and see if the slots line up. Chutes and Ladders (or Snakes and Ladders, depending upon the continent on which you're located) can also be rated at 6. No player agency here either: roll the dice, move your piece, whoever happens to roll the right combination of numbers to reach the top first is the winner.

But games that are rated at 5 or lower in Randomness have at least some player agency. Parcheesi (aka Ludo) is a very luck-dependant game; the roll of the dice determines what options are open to you, and often, if the dice roll poorly for you, you have no chance of winning. But deciding which piece to move allows you some control over the outcome of the game. Poker is another game with a high luck component: which cards do you draw? But Poker relies heavily on skill; are you able to successfully bluff your opponents, and discern when they are bluffing? Trivial Pursuit also relies heavily on luck; the roll of the dice and the draw of the card. However, in Trivial Pursuit, player's knowledge is essential.

All of these games have at least some level of player agency. Players make decisions or perform other actions based on skill or knowledge that affect the outcome of the game. The level of influence may be small, but it exists.

Player agency can also be absent from games that have no luck at all. Tic Tac Toe, for example; if the players know what they're doing, it's guaranteed that whoever goes first will not lose (they may tie, but they won't lose). Same with Connect Four; mathematically, if the player who goes first understands the dynamics of the system, he's guaranteed a win. Yet neither of these games have any random element at all.

This goes back to what one reviewer on boardgamegeek.com calls the '4th player wins' effect. He describes it thusly:
This comes from a game ages ago, I forget what game, when players could very easier [sic] mess with other players. After awhile all five of us were close to winning, and I was in the lead. When my turn came you had Mark yelling "stop the leader! Stop the leader!" Everyone jumped on me and I couldn't win. Now Mark was next and his cry of "Stop the leader" trailed off as he realized he was the leader. He got stopped. And the Third player also got stopped. Now we got to the Fourth player, Roy. We discovered that we had all expended all our cards, and had nothing left to fight Roy, who won. Afterwards Roy asserted that his plan, the whole game, had been to be in Fourth place because he expected the first three people to try to win would get stopped. While this seemed to be a stupid strategy we couldn't deny that Roy won. Any game where you need to place yourself in fourth place to win isn't really a good game.
This is similar to the biggest problem I had with Kill Dr Lucky: The winner is not determined by what the players do or decide, but by where they happen to fall in the turn order.

As a corollary, I was thinking about the Luck/Strategy scale. I've noticed that in the 21 board game reviews I've done here so far, all but five of them have Randomness and Strategy values that add up to 6. Of the five that don't, four add up to either 5 or 7 (two of each). Only Labyrinth is more than one off, adding up to 4. This might suggest that games exist on a sliding scale between strategy and luck. But they don't! In the case of Labyrinth, the game has a strong spatial-reasoning component that is integral to the outcome of the game. This diminishes the value of both strategy and randomness. Trivial Pursuit, mentioned above, relies on player knowledge. Some games rely on skill, such as Poker, or most athletics games, as well as games with physical components like Tiddlywinks or Run Yourself Ragged. I don't often review games that have these aspects, which is why you seldom see Randomness/Strategy values that add up to something other than 6 (or close to it). But they do exist, and that's why I include both categories in my review scale.

Anyway. All this based on the fact that, last night, I played a game that, in my opinion, has almost no player agency. I don't much care for games without player agency; I prefer being able to say that my actions had an effect on the outcome of the game.

What do you think? Do you agree with my assessment that Kill Dr Lucky has no player agency? Do you have any other comments on the matter? I'd love to hear your thoughts! Please leave comments, and remember to check back next week when I post another entry! Until then:

Game on!

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