IMPERIAL LECTURE SERIES
Luck and Skill in 40k
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This theory was originally published on DakkaDakka.com. Click here to see the debate in its entirety.
For the purpose of this theory, luck is a catchword for all of the uncontrollable variables in a game of 40k. In a tournament, this includes the order in which you play people, the list they bring, the terrain setup, etc. Of course, luck also refers to the results of individual die rolls, whether it be for mission or first turn, or for whether a meltagun penetrated armor on a vehicle.
In any reasonable game of 40k, your ability to win is going to be based on destroying (or in some other way neutralizing) your opponent's units. After all, you can not win a kill point game without killing units, and you can not win an objectives game without removing your opponent's units from the objectives. In any given event in a game, luck (especially die rolls) is going to be the determining factor of if you destroy an opponent's unit or not. The game was purposely designed in such a way that you can not ever see an opponent's unit destroyed without dice determining if they were destroyed or not. Unlike chess, which allows you to destroy your opponent's units with movement alone, 40k is solely dependent, then, on how you roll the dice.
You can do things to lengthen the odds of failure, or shorten the odds of success, but you can't remove dice as the primary mechanic of the game, and thus can not remove luck from its core.
Just as luck is the overarching idea of uncontrollable variables, so is skill the the idea that represents all controllable variables. Skill includes such things as building a powerful list, and using them to their maximum effectiveness on the field.
Given that luck is the primary mover in the game, skill's role is entirely devoted to altering luck. Its role is predominantly to shorten your own odds of success, while lengthening the odds that your opponent succeeds. For example, if you move a meltagun that was out of range of any target in such a way where they are now in range of the target, the odds that you successfully destroy that particular target with a meltagun is shortened from a 0% chance of success to something much better, depending on what exactly you shot at. Likewise, if you move one of your units out of LOS of all your opponent's weapons (and they didn't bring any barrage), the odds that your opponent will be able to destroy that unit just lengthened from whatever it was before down to 0% (barring other circumstances like deepstriking units which can suddenly acuire LOS out of nowhere).
Remember, that this also counts list-building skill. If you have a Land raider, and your opponent does not bring anything with S8 or better, then the odds that the vehicle remains on the table the entire game are incredibly short. Likewise, the more you have on the table, the more power you have over changing the odds. You can not exploit the bad luck of your opponent if you have no units on the board, nor can you mitigate his good luck.
THE EFFECT OF LUCK
Better players may be able to get more odds-bending power out of their units, and thus can do more with less, but while the percentage of the power based on the maximum power may go up, it can never exceed the actual power, which is based on the aggregate of units on the field. After all, if someone has half their army blown off the table turn 1, they have half the potential power of their opponent. They can still win the game if, for example, they are able to get 100% out of their 50% while their opponent is only able to get 10% out of their 100%, but the maximum possible has still been determined by the luck of how hit, wounding, cover, armor penetration, leadership, etc. rolls go.
More obviously, there are several individual die rolls, over which no player has control, that can be very key rolls, and not just if one critical shot managed to destroy its target or not. This includes things such as which player goes first, and when the game ends. Most people can recall a game in which one person would have won a game, except the roll to continue ended the game one turn too early, or one turn too late.
THE EFFECT OF SKILL
Skill allows you to change the odds of luck in an attempt to control the effect of luck. If a vehicle is destroyed or not is determined by luck (after all, if you can't roll above a 2 on a vehicle damage chart, you will never destroy a vehicle), but you can make the odds of a vehicle destruction result go up with skill (such as moving several meltaguns into melta range of the vehicle, compared to only shooting a single lascannon at it). Thus skill is able to affect the results of any particular event by making a certain outcome more likely.
A better player, then, would be able to more exactingly move the odds in whatever direction he so desires. In the end, though, it's not that more skill makes the "best" result, happen, rather more skill makes the more "desired" result more likely.
This is because, 40k being based on dice, the purpose of skill is risk management. Being a risky player is not inherently better or worse than being a conservative player. If it is direly important that you destroy two of your opponent's vehicles over the course of two turns, it makes no difference if you shoot 6 lascannons at one on one turn and then 6 lascannons at the other on the second, or if you shoot 3 lascannons at both targets for both turns. In the case of the more conservative decision (the first one), you are more likely to destroy one vehicle on the first turn, while with the more risky, you are less likely to destroy either vehicle in a single turn, but you are (much) more likely to destroy both on the same turn.
Furthermore, riskier play comes with its own costs. The riskier you are, the more that the results of your actions are based on the uncontrollable factors of luck. If you roll poorly, you are likely to have less to show for your choices than the more conservative player. On the other hand conservative play also has its own cost. Being able to win REQUIRES you to roll dice, so rolling fewer dice comes at a premium - the fewer dice you roll, the more that the particular outcome of those dice matters, as you're making less use of the law of large numbers. Also, the more you focus your odds on fewer enemy units, the more likely that that one unit is to die, but the less likely that you do more damage over all (loss due to overkill).
The style of play one has plays odds in different ways, but ultimately, neither has any impact on the fact that it's still luck at the heart of it all.
If skill has no impact on luck itself, and luck has an impact on the game, then what impact does skill have on the game? In the end, while skill will not make results more favorable over the course of a game, skill will increase the chances that you have more relatively positive results. Luck is still the determiner, but a player can make more rolls where the end result is more likely favorable results. In short, player skill makes luck kinder. Said another way, skill allows a player to play the odds better.
As a player's skill improves, they are able to make the battlefield more and more accurately reflect the odds they want to play. It does too, of course, also effect the odds that they want to play. Poorer players will tend to make decisions that, if successful, will have less strategic gain, and if they fail, will have more grave strategic consequenses (much less their ability to fix odds one way or another in future turns).
This means that if you were able to completely control for the uncontrollable variables, the only determiner of the game would be the relative skill of the two players. The better player would gain more from success, and lose less from failure. Of course, if you had two players who played at exactly equal skill level for any given game, AND all other variables were controlled for, the end result would always be a draw. The likelihood of victory, then would be determined by the relative skill inequality of the two players. The more one player played better relative to the other, the more likely it would be that they won the game.
But this relative skill between the two players is not, in fact, the only determiner of outcome, because there is this whole set of uncontrolled variables which also have an impact on the game. As mentioned, if the players are of very different skill level, the relative skill of the two players makes a big difference on the outcome. As such, when you have a gross disparity of player skills, player skill has a bigger impact on who wins a game relative to the uncontrolled variables.
Remember, it's the relative impact of relative skill that's important here. Take, for example, two players who were perfectly equal in skill. They had the same list, playing on a symmetrical board, playing the same odds just as successfully. In this case, the only determiner of who wins the game would be luck. If one player only rolled 6's and the other player only rolled 1's, there is a 100% chance that the lucky player would win. Likewise, if both players were equal in skill, the result of who won could be determined by just a single die roll.
If you control for one factor, it becomes less important to the outcome as the other factors. Likewise, as you control for all controllable factors, then controllable factors become less important to the outcome of the game as uncontrollable factors.
As player skill approaches perfectly equal in any given game, the impact of skill on who won or lost is less. To put it another way, the closer you are in skill level to your opponent, the more that the outcome of the game is determined by luck*.
If luck is the prime determiner of games, then, the only way to improve your chances of winning at all are to become better than your opponent. The wider you can force the skill gap, the more skill will be a determiner of the outcome compared to luck.
The problem with skill advancement, however, is that it has diminishing return. The more that you can lengthen or shorten the odds of a particular event occuring, the more difficult it is to continue to lengthen or shorten those odds. If you really want a vehicle dead, the shortening of the odds by bringing in 1 meltagun where there was once zero is enormous. This is comparatively easy to do. However, if you're already a skilled player, and already have 20 meltaguns in melta range, being that little bit extra skilled so that you have 21 present isn't actually increasing the odds of a dead vehicle by very much.
Furthermore, just shortening the odds is not actually necessarily the sign of a better player. In the above example, the better player would likely apply 10 meltaguns to two vehicles rather than 20 onto just one. In this case, the person who shoots all 20 at a single vehicle is suffering from overkill. While the short player is insignificantly more likely to kill the vehicle they shot at, for one dead vehicle, the "risky" player is still very likely to have 2 dead vehicles as the end result of their shooting**.
As such, skill advancement doesn't really allow you to shorten or lengthen odds further (although it does this too), so much as it allows you to shorten them to exactly how short you want them, and lengthen them to the extent that you want them lengthened more exactly. As you get better in skill, the more likely that you are actually playing the the odds that you want to play.
In the end, though, you're not, over all, getting "better" odds, you are just getting more "accurate" playing of odds. This gets harder to get better at the better you get. Furthermore, it doesn't have any bearing on the actual effect of the die rolls (only shortness and length do, and even then, it's not an actual predictor).
What, then does the impact of playing exactly the odds you intended to have on the actual results of any given event or the game as a whole? None whatsoever. This means that luck is an independent variable of skill (which we already knew).
THE EFFECT OF SKILL ADVANCEMENT AND LUCK
If skill allows you to play odds better, and if the better you get, the less getting better allows you to play the odds better, this means that the better you get, the closer you get in skill level to your opponent***.
As the closer you get in skill level to your opponent, the less skill matters, and as the higher your skill level gets, the less difference there becomes in skill level, we can conclude that the end result of increasing your skill level is to lessen the impact of skill on your games, and to increase the role that luck plays in determining the outcome of your games***.
This theory, then, means that the more one advances in skill at playing 40k, the less they will see their games determined by their increase in skill, and the more that they will see their games determined by luck. For a person who wishes to advance in skill, this is naturally frustrating. At whatever level of skill one notices that luck is becoming a bigger factor, at some point, they are likely to hit a level where the game is just too much about luck for personal taste.
There are a few paths open to such a gamer:
- Play more conservatively. With determined skill, you can reduce the impact of luck on your own decisions. As mentioned, though, this comes at a cost. Furthermore, you can not control how risky your opponent chooses to be. In the end, the player will see them win more games when their opponent's dice were bad, but continue to lose games due to luck when their opponents are not. More conservative play may slightly increase the threshold of winning, but in the end, the meek often lose to the bold.
- Quit. If a person can not stand losing a game because of luck, then they shouldn't play a game that's based on dice.
- Engage in selective reasoning. Some players may choose to discard the effect of luck altogether from their games. They may come up with very elaborate and complex theories with regards to why they lost a game - after all, if they can't win or lose because of luck, then there must be some other reason. Of course, the accuracy of any such theory is immediately suspect, as removing luck from a game whose main mechanic is based on dice is unlikely to be particularly accurate, regardless of how much said hallucinations comfort the thinker. Furthermore, such theories tend to be as ugly and based on fallacy as they are ultimately useless. If that doesn't bother you, though, believe in whatever you want.
- Change one's aesthetic. 40k can't be a game based solely on skill and tactics and still leave the player sane. In the end, 40k isn't actually that deep of a game. One way to handle this is to change what one is looking for out of 40k and the way that they engage the game other than purely skill. It's not to say that if a player "gives up" on skill that they won't still get better at the game slowly over time (indeed, it would be hard not to). The point, however, is to tread a different path.
This may take on the form of purposely handicapping one's self, or mixing things up in some other way (I won with the best units in my codex, now can I win with the worst?). It may take on the form of placing a greater element on the hobbying aspect, or it may take on the form of placing a greater emphasis on the social aspect. It could also even be a change within the game itself, whether it's learning to relish the chance factor, rather than decry it when it goes against you, or whether you play to take epic photographs and write narrative battle reports. While 40k may not be the most tactically complex game, there is an awful lot to 40k other than just playing odds.
* Or, for this information in graphical form:
Note that this graph is meant to show the relationship between variables, not to represent any specific math equation.
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** A player can manipulate the odds, but there is always cost associated with any decision. No player can make all odds short. For example, in order to shorten the odds of destroying one vehicle, he has to lengthen the odds of destroying a different vehicle at the same time. A player has a set amount of power in their list at once. How they choose to pool and spend that power does not change this. They may be able to reduce the impact of luck in any one event, but in 40k, this reduction comes at a strategic cost (depending on the particulars at the moment, but also due to general principles like overkill). After all, no one would advocate always only shooting 100% of your army at a single opponent's unit every turn. Plus, just shooting 100% of your army at a single unit does not guarantee its destruction.
As such, the better player is not the one who reduces the impact of luck the most, but is the one that plays the odds the best.
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*** Unless you just continue on playing against much worse opponents, of course. Assuming that you continue to play against opponents of roughly the same skill level, the skill level difference between the two of you will decrease as you all get collectively better. The skill difference between basically new players is huge between someone who has literally never played before, and someone who has played a couple of games. The skill difference between a seasoned veteran and a seasoned veteran who has a couple more games worth of experience is likely to be very minimal
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(I'd like to thank ArtfcllyFlvrd, Kilkrazy, Redbeard, jmurph, ElCheezus, nyenyec, and Relic_OMO for their contributions to this piece. Some of their commentary can be seen here)