What's in a Game

This blog will discuss the games I play and what I think of them, mainly from a design perspective. Furthermore, it will also delve into game design in general and look at what is popular at the moment and what isn't.
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Push Your Luck Games

M.J.E. Hendriks
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Today's blog post will look into that wonderfully delightful 'little' range of games called 'push your luck' games. I say 'little' because it is my understanding that push your luck games are generally quick games in which luck naturally plays a large role, and as such shouldn't take too long. Perhaps, though, I will find some longer games with push your luck elements as well, while researching this topic, and we can look into whether that would work.

Push your luck or press your luck games are where a game asks you a question repeatedly, and you can continue answering endlessly (or for a large number of times). So you can continue taking this action, gaining more and more points, but the stakes increase, as well as the tension, for one misstep, and it's all gone. It's a sort of double or nothing kind of game, where the player needs to take into account the odds (what can you roll, what is still in the deck, etc.) and needs to make decisions based on this incomplete knowledge. Similar it is also to a game like Black Jack, in which you can continue to tell the dealer to 'hit me', i.e. deal you another card, but at some point you will go over 21 and lose if you do not stop. Pass the Pigs does something very similar to this.

Pushing your luck a little too far... it's like gambling!

I will make mention of a number of games that use the push your luck mechanism, and will differentiate from the 'true' push your luck board games.

True Push Your Luck Games

The quintessential push your luck game is perhaps Can't Stop. It has the idea of the mechanism in its title, and it is a truly wonderful concept. You roll 4 dice and make combinations of two by two dice, and each time its your turn you can move up three different tracks. How long can you continue to roll at least one of the three combinations? Sometimes, especially when you rolled an early 6, 7 and 8, you can roll for 10+ times without fail, and really get somewhere, whereas other times you're just unlucky to roll something you can't even use and your turn is over (for example, the 4-row has been completed, and you roll all 2s).

The box and contents of Can't Stop (image by pdclose)

Easily my absolute favorite in the 'push your luck' genre is the wonderful Diamant, aka Diamant. You play intrepid explorers who enter a cave in order to find treasures (diamonds), but along the way you come across hazards, like Snakes or Spiders, or Cave-ins. You always get a warning, like hearing a snake hiss in the distance, or the rumble of a cave-in further into the cave (the first time a hazard card is turned over), so you're never truly surprised by the misfortune of getting it wrong, but neither do your opponents, and they are ultimately the ones you will need to beat to win this game. The added mechanic of splitting up the treasure equally when you do return is absolutely wonderful and in keeping with the theme, and it does indeed push people to push their luck - or play it safe, of course! Ultimately, thematically as well as mechanically a masterpiece.

Incan Gold: A whiff of fire, and the scuffling noises of an approaching zombie! (image by chinalotus)

Celestia, a 'revamped' version of Cloud 9, is another example of a fine 'push your luck' game in which you the player board an aircraft in the shape of a ship, and sail the seven seas among the clouds. Players take turns being the captain, and the other players have to guess whether the captain will be able to deal with the weather, or whether they will all crash. If you believe a crash is imminent you can make a timely exit by getting off at one of the stops, but the captain him or herself needs to remain on board. The further you go, the better the reward, though you can get lucky at an earlier stop as well, as the rewards come in ranges. This additional luck element prevents players from knowing exactly who's winning, but it adds a little too much luck in my opinion.

Three travelers traveling the clear skies in Celestia (image by henk.rolleman)

Along the lines of Can't Stop is another abstract, but then in card form, rather than dice, No Thanks!. This is a very simple game, with plain cards with numbers on them and some tiny plastic chips. All players have to do is to react to the card turned over by taking it or playing one of their chips. If you have no more chips, you have no choice but to take the card, and the numbers on your cards added up at the end of the game is your score, with the highest score winning. In other words, you never want to take a card, but ultimately you can't keep pushing it forward forever - at some point you will have to grab a card, and all the chips on it will be yours as well. Another twist is that if you have any cards in a row, only the lowest counts, meaning you will want to make runs. Others will see you do this, though, and will therefore want to block you. A fun little game that messes with your mind. How far can you push your luck?

The utterly basic components of No Thanks (image by TVis)

A newer approach to 'push your luck' games can be found in Deep Sea Adventure, a game by Jun Sasaki in which you are communally using one gas tank to dive into the depths and find treasure. Should the tank run out of air, the divers still in the water will not be able to haul out their treasure, failing at that run. There are three runs, and any 'drowned' divers get to participate in next runs again. The game is a ton of fun, and reminiscent of Incan Gold, with players trying to get as far as possible with the hope of getting back, in the knowledge that the further they get, the better the treasure becomes. However, there is a bit of a gamey element to it, as divers who are about to surface try their hardest to use up as much air as possible to prevent other divers from making it back. Somehow there should be a reward for returning first based on how many other divers make it back, or something - I'm not sure. Overall, though, despite this, the game is fantastic and I love the theme.

The submarine from which you somehow exit and dive into the depths in Deep Sea Adventure (image by Elizabeth1000)

Another very interesting sounding game that employs the 'push your luck' mechanic is Welcome to the Dungeon, aka Welcome to the Dungeon. This is another Japanese game, this time by Masato Uesugi, in which you need to outlast the dungeon, and the longer you last without dying, the more loot you pick up. One at a time the players need to first choose whether to draw from the deck or pass. Should they pass, they are out of the round. Should they choose to draw a card from the deck, they may either equip the card (if possible) or place it face down in the dungeon. When there is only 1 player left, that player must enter the dungeon and see if (s)he can outlast the dungeon deck, surviving with at least 1 HP.

I have not played this game yet, but it is on my wish list, and I will certainly be on the lookout for it, as it sounds like a lot of fun. The game seems to do 'push you luck' a little different from most games I have listed so far, as it's the seeding of the deck (i.e. the preparation) in which you're pushing your luck, rather than the actual exploring.

The fantastic artwork of Welcome to the Dungeon (image by W Eric Martin)

An auction game where the push your luck mechanic does play a huge roll and perhaps could even go in the 'true push your luck games' category is Ra (and its sibling Ra: The Dice Game) (EDIT: In fact, I've moved it now to the TRUE section - it fits here better). In this wonderful game by Herr Knizia, players draw tiles until a player decides that the tiles drawn look interesting enough and calls out 'Ra!', meaning there will be an auction. Each player has different bidding tiles, and the highest tile played then wins the auction. The push your luck aspect comes into play in several ways. First of all, how long do you keep drawing tiles, and when do you decide the tiles on offer are interesting enough for you, and perhaps not yet interesting enough for the other players? Furthermore, there are also 'Ra' tiles, and if enough of those are drawn, the round ends and all players who have not yet gotten anything are out of luck. The bidding, for this reason, is also very interesting. You can led an offer go, hoping to win a later auction that is better, but once again, the round can come to an end a lot sooner than you were counting on, so it works on multiple levels. Two games that use the mechanic in the same way are Schacht's Coloretto and Zooloretto, with the exception that in those games the Ra! tiles don't end the round, but the Trucks on which the tiles are placed simply fill up and you then need to choose a truck, leaving the last player with no choice.

An Egyptian theme or just another abstract auction game? Ra! (image by W Eric Martin)

Games Using the Push Your Luck Mechanism

The problem with this genre is that it's fairly easy to see a mechanic as using the push your luck mechanism in most games. Many auction games (depending on the auction used, of course, but perhaps all of them), for example, use a push your luck mechanic in that you will want to pay as little as possible for the item you're trying to get (pushing your luck, hoping other people might not find it worthwhile at that price), but still try to make others pay as much as possible for the items they want - i.e. bidding them up, in the hope that they indeed want it as much as you think they do and you don't end up getting stuck with that item.

An auction game that is worthy of being mentioned here, in addition to Ra!, which I've moved to the 'true push your luck' games, is Perudo. Liar's Dice (aka Perudo, or the card version Bluff in Zoo) is an auction game with a lot of bluffing, and in the bluffing lies the push your luck element. Players need to roll their dice (players start with 5 each), and then in turns need to make a claim as to how many there are of a certain number. The auction works in such a way that later players need to up the bid, going higher in what they think lies under the cups of the players. Or, they can state they don't believe the previous player, and then the dice are revealed and the person whose claim/statement was incorrect loses a die. Remembering how many dice are in the game and continuously recalculating the odds is a very interesting aspect of this game, as well as seeing how far you can push your luck in making more and more outrageous claims.

The dice and cups of Perudo (image by manchuwok)

One of the games that contains the mechanic, but where it's only a tiny part of the game, is Codenames. Here your partner gives you a word and a number, meaning there are that number of cards in the tableau, all connected to that word. Let's say 'Animal 3'. This means you have 3 guesses, and you always get one additional free guess. If you guess all three cards, you can continue, meaning you can 'push your luck' and just choose another card randomly. The only viable time to do this is when you're about to lose the game, which is when you'd push your luck, or if you have missed a clue earlier in the game, which actually means you're not pushing your luck at all. In other words, this mechanism is ascribed to the game, but really it's such a minor aspect that it's hardly worth a mention, and I'm only mentioning here to show how games can include this mechanic, yet not really be relevant in the 'genre' of this mechanism. Oh, and here on BGG Codenames is the highest rated game with the mechanic... go figure...

Codenames in play (image by JanaZemankova)

A nice Ameritrash example of a game with push your luck elements is DungeonQuest Revised Edition. This is a game in which the players are heroes exploring the titular dungeon, and set out to try to collect more treasure than any of the other intrepid adventurers (i.e. players). Players have to deal with traps, monsters, and need to make sure they don't get lost in the labyrinth of the dungeon, while trying not to wake the dragon who is sleeping on top of the treasure heap at the center of the dungeon. The idea is to steal most treasure and then make it out alive, but that is where the press your luck aspect comes in, as when the night falls, the dungeon is sealed hermetically and you've lost. Thus there is a timer and the decision when to turn back and try to make it out of the dungeon is very similar to that of Deep Sea Adventure, for example.

Making a run for it in DungeonQuest (Revised edition) (image by mcwyrm)

Another set of games that includes some push your luck are Yahtzee type of games, where you can decide to throw away what you have to push your luck and try to get something better. Think of King of Tokyo (or King of New York), where you can have rolled two 2s, but you can't risk hoping to roll another 2 to get 2 VPs, so decide to roll all dice again. Or take D-Day Dice, where you could be trying to achieve a badge for rolling all 6 different faces on the die - do you risk getting next to nothing just to get that bonus? Similar things can be said for games like CV, Pickomino, Sushizock im Gockelwok, and even a kid's game like Tales & Games: The Three Little Pigs, where you might want to try to roll for a very cool roof section, with lots of additional flowers.

The dice in D-Day Dice (image by PhilReed)

Final Thoughts

As stated in the introduction, most push your luck games are short - in the 20-30 minute range. This is because there is quite a bit of luck involved, and players who have pushed their luck a little too hard, are always eager to play another game, which is perfect if the game isn't too long.

An interesting aspect of these games that I noticed in addition to the shortness is that they are often semi-cooperative to the extent that they are cooperative until they are no longer cooperative. In other words, you're all working on what seems to be a common project, until someone bows out and then it's just you. Can't Stop doesn't have this, but Incan Gold, for example, has you facing the dangers of the cave that you are exploring together. Furthermore, you divide any treasure/gems found equally - there's no brutal infighting between the players. It only turns into player versus player because each player must decide for him- or herself when to call it a day, when the odds are stacked too high against them, and drops out. In Ra, Zooloretto and Coloretto, the players together are drawing tiles to create a batch of new items for the taking. When you choose to draw a tile in one of these games, you are cooperating to improve the 'loot' available. In Celestia, players are the captain alternatively, and the captain solves the problems that arise for the whole group!

What I find interesting here is that the semi-cooperativeness that often isn't very popular with people, as they're confused about whether they're working together or not, and why, works very well in these games, though of course the cooperation is written into the rules, while the individual (player vs player) aspect is where the players make their own decisions.

I do feel that we have not seen the end of 'push your luck' games, and that their will be more developments in this genre. I for one already have a nice idea I am tinkering with and am rather excited about how it will work based on these thoughts.

What do you think about the genre? Have I missed some common denominators, or, heaven forbid, some of the more important games that use 'push your luck'?
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