Ex England NAF captain, and uber-competitive munchkin, PeteW is very good at Blood Bowl. There’s a saying on FUMBBL, the famous free fantasy football online website: “Don’t play PeteW on a Sunday.” This is because PeteW is known to be lucky, and as a noted Christian, it’s feared by the otherwise sane and rational minds of analytical Blood Bowl coaches, that PeteW will be even luckier on Sundays.
He’s not alone. Some coaches are perceived, judged and mystified as lucky. Yet clearly, they cannot be. I give no truck to hoodoo, as a modern human I don’t read horoscopes, I don’t believe in goblins, Santa Claus, or trickle-down economics. I’m a grown-up. It barely even bothers me if someone else touches my dice. Surely people aren’t just lucky, are they? I mean, not really. Or are they?
The bad news is the answer is mainly, sanely, no. It’s all about perception. The good news is that it means it can be learned.
If asked what my plan is in any given game, I usually answer the same: “Plan A: be luckier than the other guy.” I’m only partly joking. The guy with the dice is usually the one in the better position. We cannot control the dice rolls, only what you plan to do, and how you cope, but the rolls are nonetheless critical to success.
In every game where there’s an element of chance. Between two opponents, one will will be luckier than the other. This is an obvious fact. The net total of luck is always zero, it’s how it’s distributed that matters. Not just to whom, but when and concerning what. You can have had exactly the same dice rolls as an opponent but if yours came at the right time, and his less so, the luck won’t feel the same. Luck isn’t just about statistics, despite the mad-eyed Twitch streamers desperate for content and devouring the dice logs as if truth and justice existed there. Luck is about timing and impact. Luck is about feelings and morale. Luck is about drama.
No one cares if you rolled six 2+’s in a turn. But, roll a single 5+ and people will talk. Yet, the raw odds pre-rerolls are pretty much the same.
Every game someone is the unluckiest coach. Every day someone has the worst Blood Bowl rolls, every week someone has had the worst dice. This year, one poor coach is at the far end of the bell-curve of luck and has had poor dice all year. Yet, on average, it should all be more or less the same for everyone, and the larger the sample size, the more your luck should trend toward average and normal amounts of both good and back. The guy who had the worst dice in all of Blood Bowl today probably won’t have the same dice tomorrow. He might, but he probably won’t.
So, we have to accept that luck exists and is part of the game, yet that we cannot control it. It should be neutral to us over time and hence we build plans and strategies and look to play in a way that minimises its impact and mitigates its extremities. All sane and normal, all that a coach should do when trying to leave behind the nursery slopes of occasional play and be good at Blood Bowl.
Why be lucky
But if luck is part of the game, shouldn’t we be thinking about it? Beyond merely “oh that wasn’t lucky”, and “why do the dice hate me” and “I’m never as lucky as the other guy”. Shouldn’t we, as well as be trying to avoid it and limit it, be trying to use it? To weaponise it? To game it?
The expected outcome of every drive is, realistically and statistically, that the receiving team scores. Through coaching, and choice, and use of skills, and knowledge of the maths, and interactions, we try to enforce or alter this outcome. But some games, some drives, some turns, some single dice rolls, you will be in the bad seat. Facing the uphill task. We even have builds that specialise in it, the high roll builds for NAF events, and even sometimes seen in league and perpetual play.
At Blood Bowl, if everything goes as expected, it’s Tic-Tac-Toe. It’s a stalemate. Chess avoids this through complexity, Blood Bowl has that too with bits of randomness. An easy game might mean a standard drive, and then their team falls apart and you get the ball and it’s now 2-0. But both to drive home and to turn over their ball may also require good luck, bringing the high roll mentality to a single moment or action, or an entire game or drive.
In tennis, the points won are often categorised as “winners”, “unforced errors” and “forced errors”. At Blood Bowl, too often I see even high-level coaches settle for basing the ball, hoping for the unforced error of the player still being based next turn, or the forced error of a failed dodge-off or of a failed blitz to clear the piece. In reality, too many of these are exceptional long shots; the 1 in 9 that the blitz doesn’t remove the marking piece, the 1 in 9 or 1 in 36 that a dodge-off fails … Even when we discount the number of times some better odds of a better play were offered – and refused – to achieve such an unlikely they might fail state.
Let’s keep it simple. Let’s say we have turned down a 5+ dodge and a one die needing a Pow, so another 5+. Well, those look like pretty bleak odds, don’t they? So better not to try the bad odds thing and make them roll some dice? But hang on, that 5+ 5+ is exactly the same as the 1 in 9 dodge-off fail we’re hoping to force on them, or far better odds than the 1 in 36 we somehow are praying they fail when we instead chose to base the ball.
Mainly, we prefer to see others fail than risk failure ourselves. We, humans, are risk-averse at best anyway. It’s a good survival trait, and Blood Bowl teaches us to fear the risk, avoid the dice and do the safe stuff. Sometimes, it’s also far easier mentally to think “oh he just rolled good dice” when in fact we just wimped out of rolling tough ones. Somehow us failing often feels worse. Ego protection would rather we rue the opponent rolling well than us badly. But too often isn’t this used to justify them not failing a fairly easy task? Or us turning down a plausible win shot for a remote one instead?
Maybe it’s time to pull on the big boy pants and take your shot.
When to be lucky
Clearly one cannot play with reckless abandon. Despite outlining the edge case above, it makes sense that we play the sane and sensible risk-averse Blood Bowl so beloved of the better coaches: The maths approach, the least prone to chance. But does it make good sense?
In some matches, we, despite everything, will always be at a disadvantage. Due to race, coach, size, whatever. And from the outset of these matches, we should be looking for those moments to get lucky and to change the expected outcome.
Even within games where we start as favourite there may be moments we’re behind the curve or even unexpected events that lead to a change in the expected outcome of the game and suddenly we’re the underdog. Being able to spot these moments and changes in the game state will always be a key factor of higher-level coaching and so it’s here with luck. Moreover, a myriad of other factors come into play. “What is the failure state of this play?” “What is the upside?” But sometimes a decision has to be taken: “Right, I’m going to have to get lucky here.”
It’s hard to be specific, but a classic example came up in a recent BB2 Chalice match. Two very well-known and highly respected coaches faced each other and both missed a strength 4 Zombie hanging at the back of the play marked only by a rookie Beastman. The ball was 3 squares away, held by a Block Beastman with no Dodge, one step out from the side-line, in rain. A 4+ for 2 dice with good bounce-out odds and rain-related bonuses.
What was beautiful about it was how unrelated to everything else it was. The coach in question could have moved every other piece, taken every precaution, set up his elf walls, and Frenzy traps, and Side Step edge covers, and still have 2 or 3 pieces left for a possible retrieval if the scatter was lucky, and zero cost to the defensive position if it failed.
The exact risk analysis will vary depending on race and game state, but that case illustrates perfectly some of the key factors in risking getting lucky. There’s no point in taking a long shot if there’s no retrieval chance, or if it destroys the position and exposes key pieces. There’s no gain in gambling on a winning hand, but the inverse remains true, sticking while losing is a mug bet. The later in a drive it gets, the more the expected bleak outcome becomes certain, the more you see people take massive long shots which were available earlier but turned down, or perhaps were better earlier but turned down, in the hope of the perfect shot appearing.
Of course, some games require you to attack at just the right moment but all too often people wait and take the single long shot when a better appraisal of the situation earlier in the drive could have seen them make the most of three such opportunities, tripling their chance of joy.
There’s an old joke, where a pious man prays every night for 40 years to win the lottery. He leads a good life, does all the church and God ask of him, and after 40 years he cries out: “Why have you never answered me, Lord? All I wish is a small lottery win to help me in doing your work! Why have I never won even a small amount?” and God replied: “Meet me half way, buy a ticket!”
So seek that perfect moment, sure. But also learn when doing the safe stuff won’t cut it, learn when the tide has turned, the momentum shifted, and suddenly things are bleak and going to get bleaker. Don’t wait for the desperation play, try the simply lucky play two turns before. Go big early. Buy a ticket.
How to be lucky
“Ok, I hear you cry, I’m willing to make a heap of all my winnings and risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss.”
Good for you, and well done for knowing Kipling. But it’s not just as simple as you deciding to be luckier, and Hey presto, everything is coming up Millhouse. There’s work involved, there was always going to be wasn’t there? Well, yes. There was.
In a quote widely repeated and variously attributed, but for me said by Alex The Hurricane Higgins: “the more I practice, the luckier I get.”
Underpinning every lucky event is maths. The maths of success and the maths of failure. Most humans aren’t very good at maths, I’m certainly not, and probably you aren’t either. The maths underpinning Blood Bowl are deceptively simple. No big numbers, simple sets of outcomes, small number of dice.
A 2 die block. Quite likely to knock someone over? Happy with that statement? Yes? Good. You’re right.
A chance to knock down on 2 dice assuming both have Block or no Block is 20/36 or 55.5%. That’s pretty tasty and it’s likely to happen. But would you walk across a bridge with a 55% chance of holding your weight? Likely no. Yet time and again we see people build Blood Bowl turns around the certainty of that 2 die block making a knockdown.
Remember the earlier example of a 5+ into a cage and then a 5+ to pop the ball? It all seemed very unlikely, and possibly only a good idea if compared to hoping they fail a 1 in 9 or a 1 in 36.
But what if the cage-breaking player had Dodge? Then that 5+ is, guess what? 55.5%, or 20/36 to work, just like that 2 die block we thought was likely to succeed. The 5+ to pop the ball? Well, if we throw a reroll at it, we can have another 55% good outcome there. Do both and suddenly our 1 in 9 is a 30.9% chance of success. Very nearly a 1 in 3. Try it three times in a drive and you have a whopping 67% chance of it working one of them.
Similarly, the bane of most Dwarf coaches’ lives, in NAF style at least, is a Wardancer leaping into your cage and rolling 2 dice uphill with good outcomes. The despicable filth. Now while I’m sure we can all agree it oughtn’t to be allowed, that coaches that do such things are lesser men and that all Wardancers should be stomped in the face repeatedly, are they actually that lucky?
2 dice uphill requiring Pows, Block vs no Block is a 1 in 4, 25%. But throw in a reroll and suddenly it’s 7/16 or 43.75%. You don’t need to throw many of those before the lucky outcome is suddenly an expectation, not on any single shot, but over the drive. This is why Italian NAF/online and legendarily aggressive on-pitch coach Spartako is so offensive with his Wood Elves so often. Going all out for the ball every turn can work, and if people aren’t ready for it, it can be terrifying.
Even taking Block on your ball carrier, and staying in a Guard cage doesn’t make you safe. Sure 2 die uphill vs Block is bleak. 11% bleak, only 21% with a reroll, but throw three of those in a drive and suddenly you have a 50.7% chance of one of them working.
OK, OK, enough maths now, what does it all mean?
What it all means
If you want to be thought of as lucky you need to really know the maths underlying Blood Bowl, and specifically which chances are actually not, either individually or cumulatively, as lucky as people think they are. You need to read the game well and know when such chances have arisen, and when they need to be taken. And, at those times, you need to seamlessly change gear from controlled to lucky. You need to be persistent as not all lucky shots work. But most of all you need the courage to ask for more. You need to not do the safe thing all the time and to risk disaster to grasp for excellence. You need to say yes to rolling the hard 6 if the choice is hoping they fail the 1 in 9. And then you’ll just need some luck.
• Surfing the Winds of Luck, by Taureau Amiral