There’s a saying heard often around the Magic circuit, “Better Lucky Than Good.” This always tips off the debate on whether Magic, or any game, is skill/strategy, luck, or a combination of both.
When you were young, you may have played games like Candyland and Chutes & Ladders. These games would be examples of pure luck and no skill. You pick a card, throw dice, or flip a spinner and whatever comes up, you move the appropriate spaces. There is no strategy or skill.
At the other end of the scale are games such as Chess and Go, where there is no luck involved. It is a set board, set rules and no randomizing factors. One intellect vs. another intellect. Many would say that this is the true test of a gamer, but very few games have achieved this purity of play.
The vast majority of games fall somewhere in the middle with varying degrees of luck and strategy. Games like Sorry or Monopoly have strategy (which pawn to move, buy or sell), but much of the game is determined by the throw of a die. You can’t win Scrabble without knowing the words, but you also can’t win if you don’t pull the right letters that come randomly from the bag. Most card games (Poker, Bridge) have great amounts of strategy, but you are still limited to the luck of the draw. Finally, CCG’s like magic attempt to limit the luck factor by allowing you to build a deck with your own mix of cards, but luck is ultimately a major factor in what you do and don’t draw.
To show how varying degrees of luck vs. skill can change the flavor of a game, let’s look at the last three games designed by Renier Knizia (Euphrat & Tigris, Durch Die Wüste and Samurai). All three games are variations on the concept of tile-laying (or, in one case, camel laying), but the design of the games make the luck factor from semi-high to negligible.
In Euphrat & Tigris, you are laying tiles on the board that are pulled from a central source. There are only so many red tiles, which are very important for two different types of conflicts, and if Player A luckily pulls 75% of them, it will be very difficult for Player B to play effectively.
In Samurai, each player has there own set of identical tiles. Everyone has a “3 Buddha” and a Ronan (the ultimate wild tile). While these tiles may not be pulled and played in the same order, each player knows that they will eventually be able to use all 20 tiles. Yes, there is luck in the pull order, but there is also the ability to both plan you own moves ahead and to strategize against other players by “counting tiles” and seeing what they have left to play.
Finally, Durch Die Wüste is the purest strategy game of the three, maybe of any game of recent design. The only random factor in the game is the placing of “water holes” on the board worth 1, 2 or 3 victory points. After that, the entire game comes down to the tactical decisions of where to place your next camel in each caravan for the most victory point value or to foil the next move of your opponents. Many are comparing the game to Go in that it is the strategical placing (camels here, stones in Go) and the accumulation of victory points by “walling off” areas of the board.
It is the rare game that does not include some element of luck and many a gamer would not know what to do if they weren’t able to say “I only would have won if I (he/she) hadn’t thrown an X.” Of course, if you win, you know it was all due to skill.