Tales of a Married Gamer – Uncertainty of Outcome

Greetings and welcome back to another Tales of a Married Gamer.  Over the last few weeks we have been discussing the idea of winning, losing and other related topics in board games.  Today I will talk about the conception of “uncertainty” and why it may or may not be important for you in your game play.  In a previous post (i.e. rant) about Games Workshop, I discussed an academic idea found in sport economics called: The Uncertainty of Outcome Hypothesis.

lolcatboxThe Uncertainty of Outcome Hypothesis (henceforth UOH) was first proposed by University of Chicago economist Simon Rottenberg in the seminal paper of the economics of sport leagues.  How does this relate to games?  Well sport contests are like games, in that there should be a level of uncertainty in regards to what will happen during the game, as well as the final outcome of the game.  Rottenberg was truly a visionary, as he wrote this paper in 1956 noting that people have more interest in a sporting contest when there is more uncertainty over who will win (As a side footnote, he would also propose the “invariance principle,” which is very similar to the Coase Theorem which won Ronald Coase the Nobel Prize in Economics a few years later).  In my mind, I believe that there is a similar concept in board gaming, that is, we will have more interest in a game when there is more uncertainty over the events of the game and who will win.

Take the game of Settlers of Catan in my household.  We have come to find that if we play just the base game, my wife has a very high win percentage.  Therefore, we almost always avoid playing plain old Settlers of Catan (I feel dirty for saying that).  Rather, we play it with expansions such as Knights and Cities or Seafarers.  In this way, we have found that the dynamics change a bit, and the probability of my wife winning will decrease.  Thus, uncertainty increases, and I think we all get a bit more enjoyment out of the game.  That is not to say we never play normal Settlers of Catan.  We often introduce friends who are new to board gaming to Settlers of Catan, and as noted, because my wife usually wins rather easily, we have now come to see it as a carefree way to quickly introduce people to the game concept.  After a game or two, we then jump into the expansion packs, and a lot of fun is usually had by all involved.

At the same time, the concept of uncertainty of outcome has made the situation such that some of our games have been put back on the back of the shelf, where they sit lonely and neglected.  Take the game Pandemic, my wife has figured out the game so that we can win more often than not.  I understand that Pandemic is a difficult game, and really the only way for me to introduce a level of uncertainty is to do something dumb and/or spontaneous outside of our normal game plan.  In this sense, Pandemic has become somewhat robotic for us, and has taken its place at the bottom of our gaming pile.

So is uncertainty important in gaming?  I think it is.  There may be some games where there might be a bit too much uncertainty where luck becomes more important than skill.  However, I still think that it is good for one to have several games where they know they can be equally matched with those they play against.

I also think I need to take my wife to Vegas.  If she can figure out Blackjack like she has figured out Pandemic/Catan, I’ll be buying round of Louis XIV for everyone.

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