Three Element Alchemy

Most games can be broken down into three elements – Skill, Luck, and Social. These three elements are mixed together in vastly different ratios and with vastly different results, but the basic building blocks are always the same.

Skill game mechanics take innumerable forms, but the essence of such mechanics is always player choice. The choices you make building an army or constructing a deck, the choices you make when positioning your pieces or tiles, the choices you make when determining the right card or spell to use at a given time – any player choice that can impact the outcome of the game falls under the umbrella of skill-based game mechanics.

Luck game mechanics are the simplest of the three elements to identify. Their core essence is randomization. Rolling dice and shuffling cards are extremely common luck elements, but spinning a spinner, mixing face-down items on the table, blindly pulling an item from a bag, and various other means of randomization are all luck-based game mechanics.

Social game mechanics have a core essence of player interaction. Any time you need something you can only get from another player, it’s a social game mechanic. Voluntarily trading cards, resources, or information is a very common and easily-recognized social game mechanic, but any game mechanic that requires players to read one another or bluff is also a socially-based game mechanic.

Let’s look at a few examples that focus on just a single element.

Chess is a great example of a pure skill game. There are no cards or dice providing luck elements. You can play a whole game without ever communicating with your opponent, so there is no intrinsic social element. Chess, Go, Mancala, Checkers, and the like are games of pure skill.

War, the traditional card game, is a pure luck game. There are no decisions the players can make or social interactions the players can have that will impact the results of the game. War, Bingo, and Chutes & Ladders are games of pure luck.

Some Diceless RPGs fall into the category of pure social games. Some include player decisions that impact the outcome of encounters but others are a purely social experience. And naturally, the big draw of diceless RPGs is the lack of randomization that typically comes from dice. Diceless RPGs and various story-telling games are some of the rare games that are purely social.

Chances are, your favorite games are some alchemical admixture of at least two (if not all three) of these elements.

Most Hobby Miniatures Games lean heavily on skill-based game mechanics when it comes to constructing an army, positioning your figures, and engineering favorable trades. There are typically luck-based elements, though, and even occasional social components requiring player interaction in order to resolve the game.

Most Dice Games lean heavily on luck-based game mechanics since the entire genre is based around a randomization mechanic – rolling dice. The popular dice game King of Tokyo, however, incorporates some critical player decisions as well as lots of player interaction if you’re playing with three or more players.

Most Co-op Games lean heavily on socially-based game mechanics. There is typically no chance of success without working together toward the common goal. But randomized cards and/or dice are common, and individual player choices (skill-based game mechanics) greatly influence the outcome of the game.

The three core elements – skill, luck, and social game mechanics – come together in some ratio to form the greater whole. The biggest piece of the pie varies greatly from game to game, but (nearly) every game out there boils down to a mix of these three elements.

The game mechanic of card drafting is particularly noteworthy, here. This increasingly popular game mechanic is one of the few that is intrinsically skill-based (card choice), luck-based (card draw), and socially-based (card passing).

Do you favor one element above the others? What games do you think have the best balance of skill, luck, and social elements? What mixture of the skill, luck, and social elements leads to the best games? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or via email at

YTN Episode 005

The 5th episode of Your Turn Next has just gone live!

Join the YTN team as we discuss the Stay on Target blog from July 6th and then discuss target audiences, the games we think hit their target audience, and the games we think have appeal even beyond their target audience.

Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast. The email address is:

And if you’re looking for links to some of the things we discussed this episode, here’s where to find more about:

Stay On Target

The target audience is a critical consideration for any product. During my engineering days, such considerations were very clear. The customer would provide specifications, and I would create the control panel or wiring diagram or program to meet those specifications.

As a game developer and sometimes-writer, the target audience’s wants and needs are far less cut and dried. When it comes to creative pursuits, it’s very easy to fall into creating the game you would want to play or the story you would want to read, but this can be a trap. It can lead to an audience that’s much narrower than the target audience you truly want. In the worst cases, it can lead to restricting yourself to an audience of one! Obviously, this is less than ideal for any sort of product.

And so it becomes very important to define the target audience at the start and to keep that target audience firmly in mind, even if you are not a member of that target audience, make that especially if you are not a member of that target audience. Target audience will impact art choices, game mechanics, and even aspects of your game as seemingly innocuous as packaging.

It’s also highly beneficial to consider ways to expand your target audience. Movies frequently tone down certain elements in order to achieve a PG-13 rating instead of an R rating. Whether you personally like it or loathe it, the fact remains – PG-13 movies gross two to three times more than R rated movies on average.

Cutting down on over-the-top gore or sensuality can have the same impact for games. In some cases, it can broaden your audience by entire nations that have censorship laws against certain themes or imagery. Always be mindful, however, that aiming for too broad an audience can dilute the appeal. Just because a game doesn’t offend anyone out there doesn’t mean it appeals to anyone out there, either.