Friday, May 27, 2011

Theory: Luck vs. Skill vs. Your Mom

It's an often quoted maxim that it is better to be lucky than to be good.  It's best to be both, ofcourse, but we rarely have that option since you can only control one of those.

This is NOT a game of skill, despite what degenerate gamblers will tell you.
You often hear from people that the best games are between two equally skilled opponents that comes down to a single die roll on the last turn.  And I agree.

But yet we all complain about bad luck, despite that.  Everyone wants it to come down to a single roll, but they don't want to lose that roll.  The element of the balance between luck and skill in the game is what makes it interesting.  If it was 100% skill based, it would be chess and the better player would always win 99.9% of the time, and in a small gaming group it would kill the game.  If it was 100% luck based, you'd have War, and the game would be boring since the outcome was predetermined and there would be no reward for practice or study.

So clearly, we need a happy medium, everyone agrees.  It should be balanced so skilled players win most of the time, but worse players can still pull out wins from time to time.  Thus the battle for veteran players becomes how to minimize luck in order to maximize the role of skill in determining the outcome of your games.


Dice rolls are the biggest random factor in the game, that's pretty obvious.  But there are other random factors that can be controlled for, incidentally.  The list you bring and it's match up qualities carry a luck element.  Let's say playtesting reveals you have a list that loses to mech-Guard 80% of the time.  But beats every other army list out there 80% of the time.  Do you run that list?  Or do you run a list that beats every list- including mech Guard- 65% of the time?

You don't know who you will be paired with ahead of time, and you have no idea what the popular armies at the tournament will be.  The 65% list gives you a good chance to beat every one you face.  The 80% list gives you an even better chance to beat everyone you face, unless you face Guard in which case you nearly auto-lose.

In a 3 round tournament like 'Ard Boyz, you should probably favor the 80% list, since you will have fewer matches and thus less a chance of playing against Guard.  In an 8 round GT, you have to assume you will play Guard at least once, given its popularity.  It might be better to go with the 65% list.

The laws of probability state that the more chances you take, the closer to average your results will be.  So the fewer rounds are in your tournament, the more 'variance' there will be in the results.  Thus, a more 'extreme' or 'unabalanced' list becomes a more realistic option.  It can still often be better to take the balanced list in an abreviated tournament, but the decision is much more difficult and requires more consideration.


The second luck based thing you can control involves math-hammer.  We are all aware that you cannot rely on math hammer, but to ignore probability is equally foolish. 
As I said earlier, people claim to want the game to be so evenly fought it comes down to a single die roll.  This is true.  But do you want that roll to be a 2+ or a 6+?  That's where being good at math-hammer comes in.  A skilled player can seem luckier than he really is to an unskilled player, simply by virtue of putting himself in situations where the odds are in his favor.  So he fired one meltagun and managed to wreck your Land Raider.  A bit above average rolling, yes.  But it's a bit better than the odds of a single Lascannon doing it.  The skilled player put himself in a situation where his 'long shot' chance was a lot closer.  

You'll find inexperienced players stretching their resources, so to speak, so that they are forced into situations where Guardsmen have to charge Plague Marines in order to win.  Or that a Lascannon has to kill a Land Raider or else they lose. 

In basketball, they refer to this concept as a player who "takes high percentage shots."  He makes a lot of shots because he takes easy shots.  He takes easy shots because he is skilled enough to get into the right place at the right time to take the shots.  If you have a good list, so you know that isn't the issue, and you consistently find yourself forced to take "low percentage shots" in 40k in order to pull out wins it is time to re-evaluate your tactics, because something is going wrong.  It isn't "bad luck" that caused your autocannon shot to fail to knock out the Predator, it was your bad tactics that forced you to shoot an autocannon at a Predator as opposed to a meltagun.

This can be a challenging aspect of one's game to improve, but I would stress that much of it comes back to math-hammer and being comfortable quickly calculating the odds in your mind.  Once you can quickly math-hammer, you can combine math-hammer with target priority knowledge, and essentially the proper choices are made for you automatically.  Generally, "low percentage shooters" in 40k are folks who are either bad at math-hammer or bad at target priority.

Food for thought, have a good weekend!


  1. But what does all this have to do with my mother?

  2. Excellent article but I agree needs more YO MOMMA! Maybe a point about trash talking and other psychological tricks?

  3. Let's get off moms for a moment, because I just got off on yours.