Monday, May 07, 2007

Skill vs Luck

I like games. I enjoy playing them with other people, or just using them as an excuse to unwind. I also have a compulsive need to understand and categorize everything in my life, so to that end, here's a little classification I came up with for classifying games on a spectrum of skill vs luck.

On the one hand you have games that are Pure Luck. No strategic choices are made at any point, and an expert should win no more often than a complete newbie. Candy Land, Snakes and Ladders, and War are all "pure luck" games, where unless you cheat you're really just sitting back and watching the game unfold randomly. Playing War is low pressure since there's really nothing to be competitive about or strategies to worry over, and anyone can pick it up, follow the rules, and do equally well.

At the other end of the spectrum you have games that are Pure Skill. No random chance is involved, no dice rolling or drawing cards from a deck, and there's no uncertainty. Both players have an equal awareness of all the specifics of the game and a better player will almost always beat a worse one. Chess, Checkers, Go, and Othello are all examples of this type of game, and a lot of A.I. research has been invested in teaching computers to play them since they tend to map out the most logically, a fast enough computer could play any of these games perfectly, there's no unpredictable social aspects.

Coming from the other side of things, I'd think of Go Fish as a game that's about 10% Skill, 90% Luck. Most of how the game turns out comes down to the luck of the draw, although there is some memorization involved and you do have a choice of what cards to reveal to the other players. I'd say that's enough for a better player to win more often than average, but not by much.

Sorry! would be a game I'd think of as being closer to 20% Skill. The only choice you get to make is which piece to move when you have more than one out, and most of the time your options are pretty obvious, although not completely trivial. Similarly, Uno/Crazy Eight's and Masterpiece all take some basic strategy, but most of the game is in the luck of the draw and it's not at all unusual for a beginning player to master the game or win on their first try.

Above that, I'd put Monopoly, Careers, and Clue in the 30% Skill range. Most of your gameplay in Monopoly comes down to where you roll, the rest of it is about your tolerance for risk in where you put your money. There's some strategic trading in that game as in Careers. Clue is another game where you can play mostly on autopilot with a basic strategy, although it's possible to infer some of the evidence based upon what clues other people are shown.

I think of the basic trick-taking card games like Hearts, Spades, and Pitch as being in the 40% Skill range. A lot of the time your play is constrained by what suit is being led and you don't spend a lot of the time in control of where the game is going. There are some significant strategic choices however and while it's certainly possible to get lucky, skilled/experienced players would tend to win more often over the long run

Right smack dab in the middle of the spectrum I'd put Liar's Dice, Half Skill and Half Luck. With a large enough group of people there's some complex probabilities to keep track of as the game goes through its rounds, and it involves a lot of the same bluffing and social aspects as a good poker game. Anyone CAN win, but the better players tend to make it to the end pretty reliably.

Above Liar's Dice I'd place the class of board strategy games like Risk or Axis and Allies, with an arbitrary figure of 60% Skill. There's clearly a lot of strategic choices being made, even though a lot of it does come down to your tolerance for "risk". But so much of the game is social and depends upon the other player's willingness to avoid ganging up on you that it's hard to imagine it being used for serious tournament/competitive play.

Poker I'd place below the board strategy games, so I'll call it 70% Skill for now. It's clearly a game in which expert players can dominate weaker ones over the long run, but it's not a game in which the same players win the tournaments every year. After a certain level of play it seems to come down to the luck of the cards.

Bridge I think of in the 80% Skill range. It's the most heavily analyzed out of any of the games of chance, to the point where there are bridge columns in the newspaper. All of the players are aware of half of the cards during gameplay, meaning you're only guessing on a few variables as to how the cards are divided up. There's a fair amount of depth to the strategy in bidding too, and it seems to be quite complex for all its unpredictability.

Stratego is a game I'd consider to be about 90% Skill. While all the battles and movements are decided by non-randomly by the players themselves, neither player has full information about the pieces held by the other side. One player can certainly get lucky and strike down the correct path to find the flag early on or simply guess right about where his opponent is set up, but a skilled player still certainly has an edge almost all of the time. It ranks below the pure skill games just because the setup is unknown, but it still involves a heavy amount of strategy.

And there you have it. The more random a game is, the more your strategy becomes about weighing risk vs potential payoff rather than considering all possible outcomes, and the more you focus on anticipating and outguessing what other people will do. You can teach a computer to play Poker perfectly just by the numbers and going with the best odds, but you can't teach it to read people. Games of skill are predictable, just complex. Technically the outcome of a game of Chess can already be determined in advance if both players play perfectly. In Connect Four, for example, the first player can always win with a perfect strategy. It's just that most games of pure skill haven't been completely analyzed yet.

Oh, and just for fun, the graphic at the top is a classification of games by number of players, not sure what I'd want to do with it yet.


Joe said...


Technically, on your penultimate paragraph, isn't it checkers rather than chess?

Paul Smith said...

This is a good difference description! To tell the truth, I also like games, and enjoy playing them with other people, or just using them as an excuse to unwind. Our content writing service can be helpful in any situation pertaining to essay writing for college!