Monday, May 3, 2021

Richard Garfield: Getting Lucky

Game Developer magazine was a publication for professionals in the video game industry that ran from 1994 to 2013. It was a pretty big deal at one time, with postmortem development-process analyses by developers of some of the largest games, annual surveys on salaries and tools, cutting-edge technical tips, and so forth.

My favorite article was published in the November 2006 issue, written by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering. (Have I mentioned that the 2nd company I worked for, where I first met my good friend Paul, came in 2nd in a bid to make MtG Online? Maybe another time.) 

This article, titled "Getting Lucky", became one of the most influential insights that affected my game development ever since. I found the argument to be completely compelling, and an invaluable call-out to a significant risk in the ways that games evolve over time. Garfield has said similar things in other interviews, videos, lectures, etc. since, but -- people of the written word as we are in these parts -- I find that this presentation he personally crafted in writing to be the clearest and starkest communication of the idea.

Many times over the years I've wanted to share a link so others could read Garfield's "Getting Lucky" -- but was always frustrated that it appeared nowhere online, and seemed to have just dropped off the planet or anyone's awareness. Finally. I'm just going to post it here, so it can be shared with others, as it so highly deserves to be.

The article's introductory section says this:

I can find a board or card game for any group of players. Game players or people who never played games, old or young, in large or small numbers, with confrontational or passive personalities—there are games out there for them all. While I weigh many factors in choosing a game, by far the most important is the amount of luck inherent to the gameplay. If the game has a lot of luck, it usually appeals to a diverse group. Games in the non-electronic world are widely varied in luck, but computer games are a different story, as very few of them allow any real chance for a beginner to win against a skilled opponent. The number of electronic games I can play with my parents, kids, wife, or friends from outside the game industry is extremely limited.

Historically, games usually evolved in such a way as to reduce the amount of luck in them. Even chess at one time had dice. The people who are in a position to modify a game are likely to be very good at it, and the sort of modifications they will be drawn toward are the ones that showcase their talents and their friends’ talents—although they, of course, are all top players.

In other words, as games evolve, they tend to become better for the experts, but not necessarily better for new or non-dedicated players. A game that illustrates this conflict is Settlers of Catan, one of the best-selling board games of recent years. The only consistent criticism I have heard leveled at it (always from dedicated gamers) is that it has too much luck. But it’s rather possible that the abundance of luck is exactly what made the game so wide-reaching.

Enlightened players, skilled or not, will appreciate luck in their games for a number of reasons. First, they can play challenging games with a much broader audience, allowing them to easily assemble a galley of players and lure their friends, who would otherwise play something else, into the game. Second, if skilled players want to experiment and try off-the-wall strategies, the more luck a game has, the more forgiving it is — after all, no one is expected to win every time. The only cost of all these terrific benefits is that skillful players must manage to swallow their pride and settle for winning a majority of the time, rather than all the time.

We gamemakers are at a special time in game history. Fifty years ago, games were made with no credit to the designers or perhaps had no designers at all, with changes being wrought by players over time. But our nascent game design community tends to comprise game experts; it’s in our best interest to examine our own instincts openly with regard to how much luck should be in a game.

For the purposes of comment, criticism, scholarship, and research, here's a link to the full article. You should read it! And then leave a comment (or a piece of criticism, scholarship, or research) on your takeaways from Richard Garfield's observations here. 

Richard Garfield: Getting Lucky


  1. I had this insight from a book about Monopoly I read as a teen. It credited the success of the game in spite of everything to having enough luck to blame when you lost and enough skill to credit when you won.

  2. Thank you Delta! This really helps me understand some recent changes to a game I play. A new edition came out, as happens, and the old pros feel that luck has increased greatly thus diminishing the art, skill, pattern recognition, and suspense that comes from two skilled players playing each other. We aren't interested in playing tic tac toe against each other, we are interested in playing Blood Bowl against each other.

    Richard puts into words here much that I felt, but didn't understand and couldn't articulate. Cheers!

    1. Nice. I'm so glad you appreciated that like I have!