Humans are bad at randomness. That’s just a fact. The most salient example I can think of is that Apple had to make their shuffle feature less random on their early generations of iPods because of complaints that the randomization of songs didn’t feel random enough. It feels ironic that in order to make the playlist ‘feel’ more random, they actually had to make it less.

To take this a step further, video game developers have been ‘fudging’ the numbers for a long time. There are often hidden values and design tricks that are utilized to make the player feel like they’re successful, or to encourage more ‘barely survived’ moments, or to make the game feel more fair. Things like, the last portion of your health is actually much more than it appears to be in the health bar, or the first or last shots will always miss you, or in Civilization there is a value that keeps track of your combat losses, and will make your odds of winning your next combat slightly higher, to prevent a constant string of losses.

All these tricks make games feel more fun. In tabletop role-playing games, some DM/GMs will opt not to keep track of enemy hit points, but to just do what feels narratively best. If a player risked it all and did something awesome and pulled off the roll, then that’s the killing blow. So much more satisfying than a rogue who scratches the dragon’s toe that just so happens to be the final point of health. If a party is beating the hell of a boss that should be much more difficult (due to narrative importance), a DM can just, extend their HP until they feel the foe has served its purpose. There’s a whole discussion to be had about tabletop role-playing games about which is more important, mechanics or narrative, but I’m not equipped to facilitate that discussion.

All of these examples are ways that designers tweak systems to make games feel epic. The stories that we remember, well after the game session has ended, the memories that bring smiles to our faces when we reflect on these experiences, and the memories that keep bringing us back to games.

It brings to mind a question then, how can you create the awesome narrative moments, squeezing out a victory when all odds were stacked against you, in a board game? The very nature of a board game demands transparency. You can’t obfuscate the stakes when the players are also responsible for maintaining the system. The most obvious example I can think of come in the form of competition between players. There have been a few moments in board games where a clutch roll of the dice is the difference between victory and defeat. “The only way you can beat me, is if you roll four 6’s on this turn.”


But what about cooperative games? I’ve been playing Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth and the balance of some of the missions feels off. One mission had flat out running through a cave, only for us to take the wrong fork at the end, and need to backtrack, but didn’t have enough time to do so. I think back to that mission and I actually can’t think of anything that we really could have done better, other than to have taken the correct fork at the end. Other missions we succeed with more than half of the remaining time. Neither of those scenarios feels good.

The best cooperative experiences are the ones that have you succeed by the skin of your teeth. I’m amazed at just how often I’ve won a game of Matt Leacock’s Pandemic on the last possible turn, or, in Tim Fower’s Burgle Bros, having a 50-50 shot of the last guard moving into my path and catching me red-handed just before I escape. Those moments are exciting, even when we lose, we loudly proclaim just how close to winning we were.

“Better luck next time, coppers!”

I know a lot of time, effort, and playtesting goes into modern board games and tweaking the balance to make it feel just right is a difficult challenge. Finding that sweet spot between a deterministic puzzle, and a random luck fest, is a feat in it’s own right. Generally a balance of randomness, and how much information a player has before they make their decisions seems to be key. In Now Boarding, players know where their passengers are spawning in from, but don’t see their destinations until the 15 second real time phase begins. You might have a perfect plan, but as soon as those cards flip up, you might just need to throw your plans to the wind. Having that imperfect information prevents players from ‘solving’ the game before the real-time phase begins. I suppse that is what seperates a game from a puzzle.

So what are the games that feel the most tense to you? What are your favourite cooperative games, and what is it about them that makes your heart sing? Let me know in the comments below!