fun in games

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David Parlett, author of The Oxford History of Board Games, explored the different varieties of chance and skill in a talk on April 24, hosted by Computer Games Design. At one extreme is Snakes and Ladders, where play is completely determined by the throw of the dice and at the other are skill-based games like chess. Even in skill contests, however, Parlett sees “chance factors that are extrinsic to the game”:

I first became aware of these in my schooldays, when my friend’s mother raised some objection to our playing chess on a Sunday. “It’s a game of skill,” we protested, “not a game of luck.” ‘Well”, she countered, “You’re lucky if you win, aren’t you?”. It was at this point that I realised that (a) luck and chance are not the same thing, and (b) you are indeed lucky if in a Chess tournament you happen to be drawn against a weaker player, or one whose opening you have just been mugging up, or one who happens to be feeling unwell at the time.

In chess, although the board is open and both players see the same game in physical terms, “the grandmaster can see far into into it and the weaker player is baffled by the master’s move – it might as well have been determined by a roll of dice,” he said.

Parlett noted that dice are among the oldest games and race games may have arisen as ways of recording total throws of the dice. The strategic race game The Hare and the Tortoise is the best-known of his own creations. He also reviewed the modern boardgame market that is thriving in Germany around the success of Carcassonne and other expandable tile games.

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