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'Tower of Fortune' Reminds Us That RPGs Are About Gambling

Tower of Fortune has been an enlightening reminder of what “random chance” really means.

Tower of Fortune is an iOS RPG that has you climbing the titular tower to rescue your daughter. It’s a stripped down experience, perfect for mobile platforms: You only have to manage a few stats, and you only have one attack. You eventually earn new swords and equipment that make you stronger, but in truth, there’s very little tactical depth to the game. Everything from combat to fun times at the pub -- actually, that’s kind of all you can do. That’s the totality of Tower of Fortune, fighting and drinking -- all of which is determined by random chance. And this is not a bad thing.

Role-playing games have always been based around statistics and probability -- the roll of the dice. The only way that Tower of Fortune differs is that it doesn’t roll dice. It spins slots, and for someone like me who has grown up playing digital RPGs that hide their dice rolling, Tower of Fortune has been an enlightening reminder of what “random chance” really means.

It’s worth noting how ToF puts its randomness front and center. Most modern RPGs hide their dice rolling as much as possible. They’ll give a percentage of success here or there, but they won’t show the actual computation of that percentage. Even if they did, it would be pointless. The computation happens too fast to be meaningful to us. In Borderlands, every bullet has a range of probable damage, and we see the result of that probability pop off an enemy as soon as the bullet makes contact with them. The game calculates this so fast that we can see numbers spewing from baddies like water from a fountain. Our success in battle is still based on statistics and probability, but when you remove the physical action that represents that calculation (the rolling of dice, the spinning of slots), it’s frighteningly easy to forget that randomness is involved at all.

In ToF, you spin a basic three part slot machine to determine actions in battle. There are only four possible actions. A book icon gives you bonus experience, a coin icon gives you extra money, a sword icon lets you attack, and a skull icon lets the enemy attack. What's interesting about this slot machine is that only the first icon matters. For example, if I spin a book and two skulls I get the bonus experience points, but the enemy doesn’t attack. Conversely, if I spin a skull, a sword, and a coin, the enemy attacks for that turn, and I have to spin again. However, lining up multiples of the same icon does increase that icon's power. Two books means more experience, three swords is the strongest attack, and so on.

It’s a surprisingly well-designed slot machine RPG. But as a well-designed slot machine RPG, it's important to remember that success is based on probability not strategy.

When I first started playing, I naturally approached it as I would any other RPG -- with plans of strategy. I kept planning out actions in my head as if I had control over them: "I want to get a couple books since I'm so close to leveling up, then attack, but of course some coin would be good too." Naturally, nothing ever went according to plan. It’s a god damn slot machine. I had to keep consciously reminding myself that actions were random, that when the monsters attack me four times in a row that’s not the result of poor planning, it’s just bad luck, and I’m just as likely to hit them four times in row.

In this way, Tower of Fortune speaks to the deceptiveness of games. Tons of virtual ink has been spilled about how games offer players an illusion of control, that we’re not really the masters that we think we are, but nowhere has this been made clearer for me than in my constant, instinctive attempts to rationalize this slot machine. I naturally assume a measure of control over my games, and when control isn't obvious, I seek it out.

When not in combat, you're at the pub, playing another set of slots. These slots cost money (In-game money, I should specify. There are no slot-based microtransactions in the game, just your typical real-money-for-game-money transactions), but you also can't really lose at these pub slots. You'll drink beer to heal, eat meat to raise your maximum HP, get in a bar fight at the cost of a single HP, or get kissed by the barmaid for good luck. That latter one is important.

The game doesn't explain what the LUCK stat changes. At first, I thought it applied to the slots, and as my LUCK increased I began looking for patterns in my spins. It did seem to change things. I wasn’t attacking more often, but I did seem to be getting helpful icons more often, more books and coins. The enemies were getting fewer opportunities to attack.

Except that wasn’t true at all. The slot machine only has four icons, and three of them are helpful. The odds are already stacked in my favor. I'll naturally have more helpful spins than hurtful spins. That's just probability. The LUCK stat didn’t change a thing about the slots, but for a while there, I was convinced it had because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of genuine randomness. In truth, LUCK applies to your chances of getting a critical attack (which is still quite helpful).

If games are about the illusion of control, then an important step in supporting that illusion is removing the things that imply a lack of control. A dice is a powerful image and a rolling dice even more so, so it's no wonder games shy away from such images. When we can't see the objects that create the architecture of randomness we naturally assume a pattern instead. I don’t know if this is natural for all folks or if games have just taught me to think in patterns, but what I do know is that Tower of Fortune is a game based on probability, not patterns. It's fun because it's probabilities are always skewed in the player's favor, so you're guaranteed more wins than losses, and you'll inevitably reach the top of the tower and save your daughter. The house always loses, not because I'm lucky or smart or skilled, but because that's how the house was built.

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