Chance vs Strategy: Which Works Best in Serious Games?

Chance vs Strategy

If you are creating a serious game to help your employees improve their performance, the type of game you create depends greatly on the type of job your employees have. Are either of the following statements true?

  • Day-to-day work is highly reactive in an “anything can happen” environment. Employees complete tasks such as responding to varying customer needs or emergency situations.
  • Work is based on organization, planning and foresight. This might be the case for sales managers, executive leadership or even individual contributors who must carefully plan and execute project work.

Depending on your situation, you should include an appropriate amount of chance or strategy in your serious game that reflects the work environment. As always in game design, you’ll want to avoid game elements that are irrelevant to learners. Gadgets and gimmicks within a game serve as more of a distraction than an engagement tool.

Sharon Boller talks about this at length in her learning game design blog series. With so many different game elements and game mechanics to potentially include in a game design, instructional designers new to game design often struggle to find focus and direction. We think about the “fun” of commercial games we have all played and enjoyed and try to incorporate all of this into games for our learners.

The result? Games that are distracting, out of focus and ultimately ineffective for learning.

The two game elements most commonly misused are chance and strategy. The usual mistake? too much chance. Would-be designers add lots of “surprises” to their games thinking it will make the experience more fun. The other mistake is to include strategy or chance in a game when the real answer is to use neither. Sometimes, the best corporate learning games focus on just a few game mechanics and game elements so mastery of the content can be brought front and center.

Consider the following examples Sharon gives in her blog post on game elements:

  • Is my game unintentionally creating win states that are largely achieved by chance or a specific sequence of events? (This can happen more easily than you think. We recently played a board game where it became clear over several game plays that the person who got to go first—which was determined by age—had a much greater chance of winning than the person who went last.)
  • Do I blend strategy and chance in a way that mirrors the skill I want my player to learn, or the context in which they will have to apply the skill?
  • What control do players have  in the real world over decisions? How do I design that into the game?

Don’t forget that chance and strategy, while seemingly very important, are only two of the many game elements available to you. A game does not need chance or strategy to be fun or effective for learning.

game elements chart


Case In Point

Knowledge Guru’s game play is essentially simple and straightforward. Why? Each game is really a template of sorts for whatever content you put into it. If the game had too much chance, it would undermine scenario questions where learners must formulate a strategy. And if the game had a strategic focus, it would distract learners who need to learn how to respond to seemingly random situations in real time.

Instead, Knowledge Guru includes the following game elements:

  • Story
  • Aesthetics
  • Rewards/achievements
  • Levels
  • Theme
  • Competition

So, what about strategy and chance?

You probably already know if your learners’ jobs involve more chance or strategy. Whichever is more true for them, be sure to include the appropriate game element in the game they will play.

The bottom line: When designing a game, you should never include a game element or game mechanic if you do not understand how it is linked to the desired learning outcome.

  • Nick Draeger

    “A game does not need chance or strategy to be fun or effective for learning.” I suppose it comes down to how wide/narrow your definitions of strategy and chance are, but what is an example of a game that does not contain either elements of strategy or chance?

    • LessonsOnLearning

      You are right; it would be virtually impossible for a game to have literally *no* strategy OR chance. It is possible, however, for a game to be effective for learning without containing large amounts of chance or strategy.

      I was referring primarily to Knowledge Guru. The game mechanics and elements that make it fun are the story, goal, competition, points, rewards and levels. It is not a strategic game (players have to answer questions and the question order is set on each path) and there is only a little bit of chance (variability of question order in the sudden death “Grab Bag” mode).

      The point here is that, for games being used as part of training, using lots of chance and strategy is most useful if chance and strategy are highly related to the content being presented. It depends on what the game is being used for.

      • Nick Draeger

        I would say it depends how you classify games, which are by nature a diverse and complex set of activities. If we look at games on a spectrum of change and strategy, strategy requiring more complex thinking and chance being largely a matter of luck, that can give us an insight into the role of chance/strategy in learning situations.

        A game card game like “Go Fish” falls on the end of chance, whereas a game like chess falls, clearly, on the end of strategy. I think it’s more useful to consider how chance and strategy fall into the learning process (specifically Bloom’s Taxonomy). Chance, or at least chance as the dominant feature, is more relevant for processes of knowledge or comprehension, as an engagement element. Strategy, on the other hand, fits with the synthesis or analysis components in which learners construct their knowledge.

        Essentially, it’s more important to evaluate what the game teaches, and what types of cognitive processes go into learning the content than simply what type of job the person has (again, each job type has elements of chance and strategy).

        Thanks for the response; it’s an interesting discussion.

    • Sharon Boller

      Great question. I am thinking about knowledge-based learning games, mostly. It’s not common, but our Knowledge Guru games offer an example. The strategy within them is focused on attending to feedback. If you do so, you will score higher faster than someone who initially doens’t attend to feedback. Otherwise, your success in the game is a byproduct of being able to correctly respond.

      You could definitely argue that someone could guess – and succeed by chance if they guess correctly. This “chance,” however is minimized by the use of reasonable distractors and multiple iterations of content.

      I advocate for ONLY including chance in a learning game when it represents something – not for the sake of including chance. I’ve seen novice game designers unintentionally make winning almost totally a chance event, which is never good.