Riding Chaos in Tabletop Games


Inis board game picture of a game in progress
A particularly chaotic session of Inis

I like chaos in games. But I also like strategy and tactics. And I don’t think those two preferences are at odds.

For some, that opening statement won’t seem odd or mismatched at all. For others, though, it will seem off. I speak from experience.

See, the type of gamer who likes to plan multiple turns in advance, who enjoys seeing the fruition of a strategy, will tend to hurl comments at some games like “too much randomness” or “you can’t plan anything since what the player does immediately before you will change your plans.” These are not-uncommon comments to see attached to games in reviews or comment sections of game pages on Board Game Geek.

It’s not that these comments are wrong (especially since they speak to personal preference, which is subjective), but I occasionally disagree with them for certain games. And I disagree because I do see layers of strategy both within and overtop of the chaos.

I’ll get out of the abstract here soon with some specific examples, but want to set some criteria first.

Chaotic vs. Random

A dice roll or card draw is random. Many games include this specifically. We could argue that accounting for probabilities means that even these “random” elements can be somewhat predictable over a large enough sample size. But on an individual level, I’m ok with calling these elements random.

A card draft is semi-random, since you’ll have choices, but certain cards will never make their way into your draft pool sometimes.

Chaos, however, is not necessarily random. In fact, it can often be predicted and incorporated into a strategy. It’s in these moments that I generally find myself having the most fun.

If it helps, I often think of chaos as player-driven randomness (as opposed to game-driven). In other words, it’s an unexpected outcome or game state, albeit from a defined or predictable set of possible actions. So rather than a dice roll or card draw, it’s the choices made around you that create the unexpected situation.

RPGs – The Epitome of Player-Driven Chaos

If you think you can predict what your players will do when you’re the Dungeon Master (DM) for a Dungeons & Dragons, game, it’s only a matter of time until you’re very, very wrong.

This is a feature of the game, not a bug, and it only grates on players or DMs who are unwilling to share collaborative creative space with their players in the creation of a shared story and experience.

But it can still be intimidating, since it means you’re having to react to something you didn’t plan for. Several strategies can help with this:

  • Be patient and forgiving with yourself. If you have a good group, they will be as well.
  • Don’t fear these moments. Learn to love the excitement of the unknown! You’ll still feel that ping of nervousness, but it will trigger a smile instead of a frown.
  • Preparing modular elements in your campaign; characters, encounters or plot beats that can be inserted into a variety of situations. As soon as you’re off the beaten path, that’s when you pull these out.

Collectively, this can be something to relish about the game.

Dune – Predictable Chaos

Let’s turn our gaze back to board games, since they’re more bounded and less likely to accommodate chaos well. Dune is a notoriously brutal game, but there’s still a cadence to it. The Storm, Sand Worm, and other army-destroying events are never entirely unforeseen.

RELATED: Dune Board Game Review

You can gamble, for example, that the Storm will move 1-3 spaces, instead of the 4 it would need to move to wreck your plans for the next turn. But if it moves 4, you can’t claim surprise, only disappointment.

The game, then, becomes about mitigating these risks, or allowing others to take the greater risks. Or, occasionally, simply risking it, knowing that—for example—you have a 1 in 4 chance of the Sand Worm devouring your units. These moments make for exciting conclusions.

Inis – Epic Tale Cards and Defining the Environment

Inis is another that feels very chaotic. And occasionally, it is. More often, though, I think we’re misapplying this term.

One of the reasons for this is Epic Tale Cards. The game has a set number of Season cards that everyone will quickly learn, since these are the action cards that will be played every round. The Epic Tale Cards, though, are myriad, and you can also hang onto them round to round. These cards are powerful, but specific, so they allow you to spend multiple rounds maneuvering the board into a state where your Epic Tale Card will be a game-changing force.

Often, you’ll see multiple players hang onto these cards until the final round or two of the game before unleashing them. The confluence of so many powerful abilities can be jarring.

However, Inis only has three possible victory conditions. These are known and can be assessed at any point. So you know, for example, that John needs to be in regions with two more sanctuaries in order to achieve a victory condition, while Jane is already in six regions, and so she has a victory condition. She has to hang onto these (or expand further) to protect her position.

Whatever those Epic Tale Cards do, they will serve one of those three ends. The board is only so large, so the number of possibilities is, in fact, definable.

So as the board state swings wildly in the late-game in “unpredictable” ways, there are ways to deftly avoid at least some of it through careful analysis, which will allow your own plans to continue with minimal hindrance.

Five Tribes – Pivoting Through the Shifting Sands

I think Five Tribes is the king of this concept for me. Due to the shifting tableau of meeples, if there are 2-3 players ahead of you, you can almost be certain that whatever you’re planning won’t be possible.

Play enough, though, and you’ll become adept at seeing 2-3 “good” possible moves at any given time, which increases the chances that one of them is still available on your turn. Still, there’s no guarantee of this.

So how is it more than reactionary? Or is it at all?

Like many set collection, point salad games, Five Tribes has about half a dozen different types of scoring that will lead to points. Usually, you’re not going to want to dip a toe into a bunch of these tracks, but would rather go whole-hog into 2-3 of them.

Therein lies the strategy, because it allows you to narrow your goals and prioritize long-term actions. In rounds 1-2, maybe you’re simply taking the “best available” option. Following this, though, you’ve started down certain point tracks. So as I’m playing, these tracks separate into tiers in my mind. It might look something like this:

  1. Have the most yellow meeples
  2. Take advantage of all the blue tiles in the upper left, until the blue meeples are depleted.
  3. Target a genie with long-term benefits in rounds 1-4, after which, ignore genies.
  4. Ignore the market cards. Two players are going hard in that direction already.

Now, maybe my plan to grab a bunch of yellow meeples goes south, but I have a priority list to inform my decisions beyond that.

And that’s the point. You’re building a strategy on top of the round-to-round “chaos” of individual tactical decisions. Stated differently (and to tie it into the title), you’re riding the chaos like a surfer on a wave. You’re not in control of the wave, but its movements inform your own and you stay on a steady course throughout the run.

Responses to Imbalance

Related to this is the concept of imbalances. Cosmic Encounter is a great example that I’ve discussed before. It is chaos incarnate in board gaming, but it also gives players negotiation tools to be able to mitigate this.

So the entire point is that imbalances will occur through chaotic elements, but it’s up to the players themselves to rebalance the game to give themselves the chance to win.

Riding this type of chaos is its own metagame, because it involves things like honoring your bargains, not looking like you’re clearly in the lead, and pointing out when others are in the lead.

Fans of table talk are intimately familiar with these practices. To some, flying under the radar in games is an artform, only to swoop in with a late victory. Those who dislike having to self-balance won’t be fans of these elements, but I tend to love them.

Dune allows for negotiation. Inis and Five Tribes, not so much, but that’s why different strategic responses exist in games to mitigate chaotic mechanics in games.

Regardless, chaos is awesome. Not knowing what to expect, and having the challenge of trying to plan around, within, or on top of those unknowns, is one of the more exciting challenges in all of tabletop gaming.

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