Wood Ports and Good Plots …

This last week, the Auxier family descended on Southern California for a wedding.  One of the things we like to do is play board games.1  One of our favorite games as of late is Settlers of Catan.

For the uninitiated, Settlers of Catan is a “German style” board game that involves building towns and cities on an island — sort of a pre-industrial Monopoly that works on bartering rather than bank accounts.  Settlers has helped usher in a golden age of board gaming, supplanting classics like Risk and Diplomacy as the favorite Friday night activity of nerdy boys in AP History.2

In fact, Risk is something I’ve used more than once to explain Settlers to newcomers.  Both games involve a map, cards, and anxious rounds of placing armies/towns on unclaimed real estate.  There is, however, one key difference between Settlers of Catan and Risk:  I hate Risk.

Risk is Candy Land in wingtips and a smoking jacket — a game of luck pretending to be a game of skill.  “But how can you say that Jonathan?” you protest.  “Risk involves military strategy! and sacrifice! and cannons!”  Perhaps, but the fact is that when all is said and done, the dice are king.  You could be Napoleon Bonaparte facing off against Gomer Pyle, but if you’re rolling bad dice, you’re going to lose.

Of course, luck is not in and of itself a bad thing.  Pretty much every good board game includes a little bit of chaos to confound best-laid plans.3  Settlers makes heavy use of dice and random card drawing — so why doesn’t it inspire the same frustrations as Risk?

This weekend I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between luck and strategy in these two games in the hope of figuring out how they differ … and I think I figured out an answer!

First let’s look at how luck and strategy work in Risk:  a player’s turn begins with fortifying his/her countries with armies (skill); then they maneuver those armies to attack their enemies (skill); then they roll the dice to see if their attacks were successful (luck).

And now Settlers of Catan:  a player starts his/her turn by rolling a dice, which determines how many resources they acquire (luck), then they barter with other players for the things they need (skill), and then they spend the resources to expand their empire (skill).

So, in Risk, people make plans and then luck determines the outcome; but in Settlers, luck initiates the action and then players must react.   When I broke it down like that, I began to wonder whether the key to a board game being fun for me was in the sequence of luck and strategy.  Whist, Canasta, Cribbage, Scrabble, Scatergories … in all these games the biggest piece of luck comes at the beginning rather than the end of play.

So what does this have to do with The Scop?

Well, the more I thought about my luck/strategy preference, the more I thought it could be applied to more than just board games.  I like the idea that humans have a chance to react to the things we can’t control.  Consider, for example, how luck interacts with stories.  In all my favorite books/movies/plays, some unpredictable event (luck) thrusts a hero into the middle of a plot in which he must react (strategy).

In fact, this idea of keeping your biggest piece of luck at the top of the story is pretty well documented in the writing world.4  When it happens at the beginning, we call it an “inciting incident.”  But when writers save their biggest roll of the dice for the final scene, we call it a “deus ex machina.”

And nobody likes those things.

*          *          *

I have recently been inspired by book critic Laura Miller to try limiting my in-text links in favor of a list at the end.  Let me know if you approve:

– A fantastic Wired feature about how Settlers of Catan is the “Monopoly Killer”

– Speaking of, watch this hilarious mock trailer for a Monopoly movie

– TV Tropes article hating on Deus Ex Machinas

A discussion of inciting incidents in screenwriting

– The Salon article in which Laura Miller dumps on hyperlinks

  1. This is an understatement: Mary was not allowed to marry into the family until she could hold her own in whist.
  2. Or IB History, as was the case for this particular nerdy boy.
  3. Except for chess, of course, which might explain its standing as a legitimate sport.
  4. “luck” in this case being defined as a plot event that the main characters have no control over.

15 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Jess Tudor says:

    Hmm. I think you’ve nailed why I like and dislike certain games.

    As for books, I don’t feel like a deus ex machina is saving your biggest dice roll for the end, it’s the failure of your strategy to provide a suitable outcome, so you overturn the board. :)

    How do you feel about Dominion? I wasn’t allowed to marry my husband until I could win at Five Crown.

  • Roboseyo says:

    I’ll be honest: this is why I was disappointed by the last two, and especially the very last Harry Potter book. Because by book 4, Harry’s luck should have run out, and his own skill/inventiveness/wit should have been the thing saving him. Instead, Who He Was got him all the way to defeating Voldemort, rather than What He Learned. The end of book 7 and the git still only knew about five spells, two of which were “Authorio Intrusio” (accio and apparating).

    Hermione had skill, and worked hard, and had become a brave little superhero by the end of the series. She should have been the hero. All Harry did was feel sorry for himself, resent everybody around him, and then rush into things because he was The One, and count on JK Rowling to make sure they worked out.

  • Jess: I have had a number of people tell me I *must* play Dominion.

    Roboseyo: That’s a seriously smart observation about the HP books. Also, “Authorio Intrusio” is brilliant. Ultimately, however, Rowlings was just delivering on what she promised readers — she was always upfront about this being a prophecy story, and she made it just that.

  • Fern says:

    I liked the links in the article more…by the time I got them at the end, I had forgotten why I cared to go look at them in relation to the post = Less interactive, more homework-y.

  • Roboseyo says:

    Thanks for the props, Jon. Meanwhile, I agree with fern. The point of being able to embed links is, uh, embedding them. Footnotes are for paper papers and paper books, not blogs.

  • Fuse #8 says:

    Couldn’t disagree with Fern and Roboseyo more! I have noted this useful “scroll bar” on the side of my screen. With it, I have the ability to see a number go down to a footnote, and then return TO THE VERY PLACE I BEGAN! Is this remarkable technology known to one and all? Clearly not, so I highly recommend that folks make use of it post haste! Any fool can embed a link. I like a blog that knows the power of the written word.

    And everyone should have an obscure board game they love more than life. This is a universal truth I was unaware of until this morning. Kudos, Jonathan!

  • Awesome! Debate! I urge any and all other readers to weigh in on the subject of hyperlinks. (Better yet, I should just beg Rob and Betsy to ask the question on their own blogs and then see what their thousands of readers have to say on the subject. That was a hint, guys.)

  • Craig Chapman says:

    I’d like to weigh in on a couple of points:

    1) Once you discover the wonder that is German board gaming, you’ll find that more than a few try to minimize (eliminate?) luck, thus putting the players in constant decision-making agony. Those that do so successfully are ultimately my favorites: Puerto Rico and Le Havre to name two. Now I wonder what this means of me as a reader? I think it means that I don’t like stories with beneficial unpredictability – that is, chaos that always works out for the hero. It is one thing for the hero to be “thrust into the middle of a plot” – it is another for them always to emerge triumphant and enlightened.

    2) Not to pick a fight with Fuse, but calling Settlers obscure is like calling Canada small. And yes, I am an ardent follower of boardgamegeek.com.

    3) I’m with the in-text links fan club. I too have blog fatigue by the end of a post, and likely have forgotten why that link would have been cool in the first place. Technology is cool – use it!

  • Craig Chapman says:


    Does anyone have Wood for Sheep?

  • Matt Bird says:

    Ha! You linked to that epic two-part “inciting incident” article that was entirely premised on criticizing an offhand comment I made on my own blog! Betsy and I loved reading that out loud, especially every time he referred to me as “Screenwriter Bird”, as in “Screenwriter Bird misses the mark here.” We’ve started saying that around the house every time I mess up.

    And I disagree that Harry Potter was set up to be a prophesy story from the beginning. The second book was my favorite precisely because the whole point was how this was not a prophesy story and you could make your own destiny (Harry finds out he was destined to be a bad guy but chose to be good).

    All of Harry’s fame in the first four books was based on his (unwitting) childhood accomplishment, not a prophesy. They only brought in the prophesies in the fifth book and the rest of the series suffered for it.

    Still, I had hopes right up until the end that all the prophesy nonsense was a fake-out, which is why I was convinced that Neville, not Harry, would kill Voldemort. I was bitterly disappointed when that didn’t happen.

  • Screenwriter Bird: For what it’s worth, the Storyfanatic piece doesn’t read as a screed to an outside observer (I certainly didn’t catch it). I linked to it because my whole “rolling the dice” metaphor requires limiting the idea of inciting incidents to arbitrary intrusions on the external world … which Blogger Hull makes a point of emphasizing. A lot. Where his argument falls short is in getting hung up on chain-reaction plot forensics. To him, every story is a butterfly-effect scenario that can be infinitely reduced to a previous event. An exercise that is much more about Jim Hull than it is about the actual story he’s discussing.

    Regarding your bitter disappointment at the end of Harry Potter: I don’t want to spoil anything, but Peter Nimble was written with that very tension in mind.

  • Matt Bird says:

    I’ve emailed with Hull in the past and he’s a nice guy, and he’s right that I don’t use the term “inciting incident” to mean the same thing that most other people mean. (I prefer to keep terms fluid, rather than nail them down, so I can try to find the best fit for them.) My amusement merely came from the fact that his tone if more grave than mine, and it sure is weird to read about yourself in those terms.

  • That fluidity is one of the things that I like about Cockeyed Caravan. A lot of how-to writing talk gets silly and dogmatic in a way that helps no one. Either way, this brief conversation has sparked an idea for a new blog post about butterfly-effect structures. So thanks for that!

  • kbryna says:

    Incidentally, and because I never miss a chance to plug it, UN LUN DUN takes on the problem of prophecy in some fantastic ways.

  • Roboseyo says:

    Oh, but Fuse#8:

    If I’m a very engaged, loyal reader of a blog, and care a great deal about the thing I’m reading, perhaps because the writer is an old college friend or has amazing godlike abilities he’s promised to teach me in the areas of “party tricks” “feats of prodigious body hair growth” or “levitation,” I shall avail myself of the scroll bar and count it no burden. If I am a casual reader who stumbled across a page, and haven’t been sold on its merits yet, and I’m asked to use the scroll bar and other such effort-taking endeavors, in order to fully engage with the material…

    well, I might…

    but cracked.com has a list of “the five funniest bum jokes in classic movies” open in another tab, which I could be reading instead, which won’t make me do any work at all while I read it… and off I go, into the ether.

    In the medium of a paper book, by buying a paper book and picking it up, the reader has agreed to have the writer put her/him to work a little… but the way people find blogs is much more serendipitous and fleeting, and loyalty is much less assured: even a trip to the library for a free book is more of an investment than clicking on a link to “Go see the Master Scopster’s new blog!”; it’s easier to click the “close window” button than to discard a book I’ve already purchased and started reading. That’s why I try to do all the work for my readers, so that they don’t have to worry about the scroll button, and they can just read, and be entertained by a few random videos or photos stuck in the midst of my text, to keep their attention from moving on to the next cat video.

    But, you know, different strokes and all.

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