Press Your Luck

Epistemic Status: Oh, we’re doing this.

Press Your Luck is back! Press Your Luck is back! Wednesday Nights on ABC! Woo-hoo!

The great classic game shows each bring together several unique elements into a synergistic whole with a consistent aesthetic and central theme. Each winning game has its own style of questions, its own attitude, its own game theoretic issues. You can’t tweak an existing game show to create a great or even good new one. You must do something truly new, with its own logic.

Thus, we have very long runs of the games that have hit upon a winning formula, and revivals of them when they fail. Within a revival or long run, now you can tweak the game and improve your place in local design space. Otherwise, you can’t, even if the existing implementation left a lot on the table. Family Feud is a great example of a unique game that has severe design flaws, but which likely isn’t going to change or be improved upon.

Some of the games that I count on this list along with Press Your Luck, mostly but not entirely from my youth, would be Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, $100,000 Pyramid, Scrabble, Sale of the Century, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Greed, Let’s Make a Deal, The Price is Right, Family Feud, Deal or no Deal, Hollywood Squares and The Weakest Link.

Some of these are more evergreen and well-balanced products, with base content that informs and entertains, that one can watch for a long time, like Jeopardy. Others focus more on problems game theory,

The best reality competitions also feature this, but are much more vulnerable to cloning via minor variation (e.g. National Idol and its variations).

Enough general chatter. The new revival of Press Your Luck is here.

For those not familiar with Press Your Luck, the game takes place in two rounds with two stages each. In the first stage, contestants buzz in to answer questions. The questions are general (mostly easy) trivia. You can buzz in at any time, interrupting the question, which will finish after you answer. The first person to buzz in gets three spins if right, the others are given multiple choice between their answer and two other choices, and get one spin if right. There are four questions each round (three in the first round of the new version).

The strategy in this round mostly involves knowing when it is worth buzzing in despite not knowing for sure what the question is (they sometimes meander on purpose to trick those who try to guess too early),  and knowing when the person buzzing in knows their stuff and should be trusted. Guessing is generally very good.

In the second stage of the round, players take spins. Each spin randomly results in a prize that is added to one’s total, usually money but sometimes a trip or product that is valued at its retail price for total score, and sometimes includes an extra spin. There are also several whammies on the board. If you get one of those, you lose everything and go back to zero, and if you get four whammies you lose the game.

In the first round, whoever has the fewest spins goes first. In the second round, whoever has the least money from round one goes first.

The trick is that you can pass your spins to another player, unless the spins were already passed to you. If someone passes a spin, you have to take it yourself, but any extra spins you earn off those spins can be passed along, and if you get a whammy then you are free to again pass anything you have left. Passing always goes to the opponent with the most money.

Because of the constant danger of the whammy, and the ability of passed spins to be passed back to you, and the importance of going last in the second round (which far exceeds the value of the cash you bring to that round because of the frequency of whammies), passing at the right time is often a surprisingly complex decision. Key questions include whether you have enough time to recover should you hit a whammy, how likely the other player is to have enough spins to pass you, and whether you’re giving the other player enough spins that they are likely to be able to pass too many of them back to you even in scenarios that seem otherwise good.

The player with the most money at the end wins, and keeps those funds and prizes. In the old version, the player could then return the next day. Due to the way the game works, it always comes down to the last spin.

The great news is that this is still Press Your Luck.

Alas, the news isn’t all great.

There are changes. Some of them tiny, one of them large. They’re not great.

They all revolve around the problem of not knowing what your show is about and what its aesthetic is trying to be. It’s not that the show has to retain the tacky and vaguely sketchy 80s vibe, as much I would have voted for that. It’s that the show has to choose something and go with it, and it just… didn’t.

Let’s talk about the changes in detail.

Press Your Luck’s original run had numbers represented by numbers displayed from individual pixels displayed on a sign below each player. Thus, we used to see this:

Image result for press your luck images

Pictured: The Man Who Broke The Format, Michael Larson

Which fit perfectly into this:

Image result for press your luck set

And with this board:

Related image

It was consistent, it was unique, it was incredibly tacky and perfectly eighties. And it was awesome. It was mechanical, you could see the wheels turning. It was visceral. It was real.

Michael Larson’s trick was that the board movements were deterministic and predictable, so if you timed the buzzer right, you could chain extra spins forever. That’s obviously a bug one must fix, but the possibility of doing so, the fact that the game was mechanical and not up to the invisible and possibly fixed whim of a computer, and you could see the timing matter and the player having the fun, was all really great.

And now we still have the overall set in the background, which suddenly looks out of place, because we see this:

Image result for press your luck images

Pictured: Press Your Luck 2019 players being way, way too sympathetic to each other.

Look how warm and inviting that font is. So easy on the eyes. No! Bad design! Bad!

And this trying-to-be-non-tacky and thus missing the whole point board:

Image result for press your luck board 2019

Pictured: Someone who really wanted Maid For a Year. Which isn’t weird.

The board used to have personality. It used to look like it was tied together in the cheapest and flimsiest way possible, except on purpose. Now it’s vastly more generic, living off the echoes of an elusive age.

Those whammies are exactly as they used to be, and feel like a part of the right experience. They have new animations and things that happen, reflecting changing times and to mix it up, and they capture the old feel perfectly. The box that pops up after is exactly as it was, my only complaint is that if you lose a whammy (as one player did in their bonus round) it receded automatically rather than forcing the player to shove it down manually. Great job.

The numbers, on the other hand, feel digital, clear, warm and inviting. The coin stacks and other pictures feel fleshed out and realistic. What the hell is up with that? What kind of game do you think this is? Give us our tacky lights and hostile attitude back!

That’s the essence of the problem. They’re a cargo cult, following traditions they don’t understand. They’ve greatly weakened what they were doing, but retained enough of it to prevent them from doing anything else. They’re living off nostalgia without knowing what makes that nostalgia tick.

On a similar note, the hosting is most certainly not working for me.

Consider our old host, Peter Tomarken:

Image result for peter tomarken

Pictured: A man you should definitely not buy a used car from.

Peter was a perfect fit for the show, because he was clearly not quite on the level. There was something deliciously fake about his smile. There was something wonderfully deadpan about his reaction to answers and decisions. He was the operator of a highly suspect machine, and doing his best to sound like a neutral arbiter while hinting that he was up to something the whole time. He’d react to events, but in a just-aloof-enough kind of way. It was a great character.

Now, lets compare that to new host, the far more talented actress Elizabeth Banks, who I’ve greatly enjoyed on many other projects.

Alas, the producers that hired her gave her nothing to work with and did her no favors. Their thinking seemed to be something like “we need a big name celebrity because that’s who hosts game shows now, and the biggest name we could get that people like was Elizabeth Banks. So here you go.” And that was it, without any vision for why she would fit in or what persona she would use. So what happens?

Image result for elizabeth banks press your luck

Pictured: The first Google Image hit for “Elizabeth Banks Press Your Luck.”

All right, that freeze frame was chosen by someone who wanted her to seem like an escaped mental patient who let Wyldstyle apply her eye liner. I’ve literally never seen her look worse.

Lets look at a more intentional picture:

Image result for elizabeth banks press your luck

Pictured: Me! Big star! Me! Me!

The real issue is only made clearer. Somewhere, someone has hosted a game show in a louder outfit. I assume. There are a lot of game shows.

She’s drawing attention to the host, and presenting a completely different aesthetic, instead of being part of the machinery of the game and complementing what the set is doing. None of her artistic choices hosting play into the game of Press Your Luck.

In fact, it was like she and those reviving the show made zero artistic choices at all. They did generically reasonable things at each step. They had her show up as Elizabeth Banks, a smart, empathetic human being who knows how to explain the game rules and hope the contestants win some money.

The best hosts infuse things with their personality. Every moment she showed us anything hinting at having one, the show got more interesting. I’d love to see her be more mocking of contestants who (quite correctly) buzz in early and end up giving nonsensical answers, as a clear example. I’d love to see disdainful Elizabeth who subtly acts as if every decision made is a mistake and as risky as possible. I’d love to see hyper-confident and flirty Elizabeth (e.g. that moment when she said “You can drive me any time” and I was really hoping she’d get a response that would let her coin the new catchphrase “don’t press your luck!”). I’d love to see I’m-too-big-a-star-for-this Elizabeth. I’d love to see her ham it up as acting-being-a-terrible-overactor-who-treats-every-spin-as-huge Elizabeth as long as she didn’t keep that up for too long. I’d especially like to see her be tacky and vaguely sketchy, like she’s constantly tricking you into pressing your luck (or passing) when you shouldn’t and wants to somehow cheat you out of the money. And so on.

I’m much less excited by her ‘let’s try and win you your dream experience, that would be good’ thing she’s doing a lot, because that’s completely generic and uninteresting, and plays completely against the show’s aesthetic.

Who would be some great hosts, SNL-audition-sketch style, that we could use to take the game in a unique and interesting direction?

Emilia Clarke

Image result for emilia clarke

Pictured: The breaker of many things.

I’d have her come out and scare the hell out of everyone, all the time. Give us that Mother of Dragons stare that indicates the wrong answer will get you burned alive.

“You want to press your luck?”

Betty White

Image result for betty white

Pictured: A national treasure who is way too good and too old for this stuff.

No way to get her, of course, but wouldn’t this one have been amazing? This is the whole I-give-zero-anythings and you are all a bunch of idiots approach, with lots of great one liners. Everything’s better with Betty.

Martin Shkreli

Image result for martin shkreli

Pictured: One whose goal is to be the sleaziest man on the face of the Earth

Ethical implications of giving this man a job aside, this seems freaking perfect. You’d take the whole tacky 80s used car salesman thing and crank it up to 11. When whammies arrive, he’d smile and deny he was doing it.

Zazie Beetz

Image result for domino deadpool 2

Pictured: Dominos falling into place

I love the idea of someone known for playing a character whose superpower is “I’m lucky” running Press Your Luck and acting like every bad roll was entirely the contestant’s fault.

Donald Trump

Image result for donald trump

Pictured: A carnival barker in a tacky outfit

He’s already known to love hosting game shows on network television. You know he’d revel it. He did a great job on The Apprentice. And every minute spent on set is a minute he’s not being president.

Charlie Sheen:

Image result for charlie sheen

Pictured: A lot of cocaine

The theme here would be, he’s hit a few whammies and is constantly pressing his own luck, and is getting behind the idea of you doing so a little too much. Maybe a lot too much. Many similar good choices exist.


James Holzhauer

Image result for james holzhauer

Pictured: A man no longer in jeopardy.

Destiny calls, my friend! A professional gambler, who broke the smartest game in town by betting big at all the right times, but eventually hit his whammy just short of his goal, goes on to host a game of gambling it up. People said he was a shy nerd, if you pay attention to his interviews, you know that’s not true. The kid’s got game.

We could go on. Craig Ferguson. Alisha Tyler. Whitney Cummings. Michael Douglass. Peter Davidson. Oprah Winfrey. Sasha Cohen. Almost any iconic washed-up 80s star that went through hard times and is willing to play up being a little too desperate is a good idea. Or someone completely unknown. No reason this has to be a celebrity at all. Let’s go do a thing.

There’s also the rotating cast idea, where you bring in someone in need of a comeback, and if the players win too much money or too little (both ways are interesting), you fire the host, who has pressed their luck too far. Give them a rooting interest, then let someone else come in and ham it up a different way. Ideally, encourage them to say things that could get them in trouble.

Could the show succeed with Elizabeth Banks? Definitely, if they give her room to make it her own and develop a strong host persona that works with the game. And if they fix the big structural flaw that is the bonus game.

The bonus game, along with not allowing returning champions, is really, really bad, guys.

It’s bad in at least three important ways.

It makes the show too long. It kills the incentives, flow and tension in the main game. And the bonus game is horribly designed and not interesting.

The first point is the easiest to make. Press Your Luck, at its heart, is a simple game. There’s strategy and interesting decisions, and an arc you walk through, but at the core you’re watching random results from a board of prizes and whammies. A half-hour network show contains a good dose of that. At an hour, the whole thing is stretched quite thin. This is doubly true because the second half of it is watching one player continuously spin the wheel and not make interesting strategic decisions other than whether to stop.

By the end, you’ve had enough of the spinning. The show has worn out its welcome. It does this much more than watching two episodes in a row in syndication used to do. Press Your Luck simply isn’t an hour long show. One change I actively like was to take a question away from the first round, to make things go faster. Trying to make the show longer is a mistake.

The second point is an even bigger deal. Before, how much you won mattered. You keep your winnings, and you’re invited back on the show. But Press Your Luck is no Jeopardy, where a good player can ride a streak for weeks. Or a show like the old Sale of the Century, where players actively trade off chance of winning, and thus returning to play again, against locking in prizes. Press Your Luck is random as hell, and a top player (who didn’t pull a Michael Larson) might be 50% to win any given show. That means on average, you’ll win one additional time. It’s worth taking big risks to get a better payoff today. That tension made the show about a lot more than a binary win or loss, which made things much more fun and interesting.

When a player wins, what they just won means something. It’s a great moment, and an interestingly different moment depending on the circumstances.

Contrast this to the situation now, with the bonus game. The bonus game on average will give players several times more money than they win in the base game. It’s correct to pay almost zero attention to what one wins in the base game, and focus only on reaching the bonus game. The first half hour is about choosing which of three players will proceed to an almost purely random event outcome.

In the bonus game, you lose if you hit your fourth whammy, same as in the main game. This gave an opportunity to let something from the main game naturally carry to the bonus game – the whammy count. And they didn’t even do that. When you move to the bonus game, your whammies are cleared. If anything, they should do the opposite, and allow the money you win in the main game to have a real impact on the bonus game’s structure.

The lack of returning champions boggles my mind. It is such an unforced error. The only reason I knew Press Your Luck was returning at all was I saw an ad for it while watching Jeopardy. The only reason I was watching Jeopardy was because of James Holzhauer putting on a historic streak and show of trivia knowledge, as I’ve long ago worn out that show under normal circumstances. The old system of retirement after five shows would have been a huge lost opportunity for them. Having champions return provides an outer loop and story. There’s always someone you’re somewhat familiar with, for you to root for or against, from the last show. You can have streaks, stories, records and all that good stuff.

But lets say, for whatever reason, you are determined to have a bonus game. And you’re determined, again for whatever reason, to give up returning champions to do this, and make the show an hour long. Why in the world would you choose such a boring, completely random format? Do you think that ‘spin a random board a lot’ is the core product you need more of this badly?

And do you need to lie this much about how much someone might win?

Think about the game theory of the bonus game as I describe it to you, and what the player should care about when it happens. It’s all ludicrously simple.

You start with the board from round two of the base game, plus two customized prizes that the player would properly appreciate. A third special prize is added in round two. Should the player lose these prizes, they are returned to the board. Like in the base game, whammies take away everything, and the fourth whammy is game over.

Each round the player is given some number of spins. In round one this is five, later rounds it is less. The player must take these spins, as well as all additional spins the board provides. At the end of each round, the player can choose to stop, walk away and keep what they have, or they can continue. If they continue, they go to the next round, the big bucks and other prizes increase (to an eventual maximum of $100,000 for big bucks, up from a starting $10,000), and the number of spins per round goes down over time at least somewhat, from what we’ve seen so far. For later rounds, there is a spot where the player can choose to take money or lose a whammy, where losing a whammy is always the correct choice unless the player intends to walk away right now.

If at any time you have cash and prizes worth $500,000, the game doubles it to $1,000,000 and you win, which is a number they emphasize. Million dollar prizes are cool, you see.

Whammy frequency is unclear since the number on the board constantly changes between one and about five, out of eighteen total slots. And I wasn’t able to find it on the internet. Lets say for now we can assume a 15% chance. We can bump that estimate to 20% to account for potential extra spins, which must be taken.

If it isn’t obvious to you how this plays out, pause for a few minutes to analyze this, or until you think you understand how the bonus game works, and what matters.

In the early rounds, all that matters is avoiding whammies and getting rid of your spins to get to later rounds and enhance the board. The chance that you’ll be able to keep your initial funds, and leave without hitting the first whammy, are exceptionally low, because future rounds increase the jackpot by up to an order of magnitude, and fast enough that you expect to get there – plus, if you never hit a whammy, you definitely get there, unless you walk away when you shouldn’t. So it’s just a spin with three results: Whammy (boo!), No Whammy (yay!), or Extra Spin (no effect). Not so exciting.

In particular, the contestant hitting one of their dream prizes like their fantasy vacation doesn’t matter, because they’re almost certainly going to lose it. Tearing up in this spot, as both early contestants did and were doubtless encouraged to do, is good short-term television, but already seems lame by the end of episode two. When the player started saying purely “anything but a whammy” instead of calling for big bucks or a special prize, I was so happy seeing someone realize what mattered, and focusing on it.

Once the second whammy is hit, taking another round becomes risky, and it’s time to think about walking away even if there isn’t that much in the bank. Because if you hit a third whammy, then you’re back to nothing and continuing to spin is super risky – a round of even three spins will leave you with nothing half the time given bonus spins. You can’t really hope to sustain more than one such round before quitting. So anything substantially better than one future round’s average non-whammy take starts to look really good.

Therefore, working backwards, walking away with only one whammy or even no whammies don’t look so bad, if one has an unexpectedly strong current count.

And that’s without risk aversion!

The exact numbers don’t matter too much. The important thing is that the game is hugely dangerous, doesn’t have that high an expected value, and thus must be played conservatively in the only place you make a decision – whether to walk away.

No one will ever win the million dollar prize, unless they change the rules.

Period. Lucky players will break $100,000. Very lucky players will break $200,000. But only a completely insane player will then try to get to $500,000 and claim the million, instead of walking away. This isn’t a skill game where you can be good enough to take a big risk. It’s a very-low-skill game where the only skill is knowing when to quit.

Will someone win the cool million eventually if they do this show enough times? Of course. There are two ways this happens. First, someone could get super duper lucky and chain a bunch of extra spins and/or big bucks all at once, to get close enough to the $500,000 mark that it makes sense to keep going, or even get there mostly within a single round. Eventually that would happen once.

Alternatively, someone could be totally insane and go for it when they shouldn’t, and again get super lucky. Which, again, will happen eventually if things go on long enough. Indeed do many things come to pass.

The chance that either of those things happens faster than cancellation or a rules change? Very, very small.

Thus, a core ‘selling point’ of the entire revival, the big cash prize, isn’t real. It’s a mirage. A theoretical possibility.

The bigger issue is the simpler one. What was the point of all that? A well-designed and balanced game is now just a random click-fest, the first half of which means nothing and takes forever.

A bonus game with its own unique board that includes things like multipliers, and things giving decision points (e.g. perhaps with landing on an exit square being how you stop playing? Or perhaps you have to buy your spins with dollars or risk running out? Or assemble the grand prize through hitting a set of squares that spell out Big Bucks?) Without way too many whammies to give? That might have been interesting.

What we have now is tragically terrible.

My kid still loves the game, though. How could he not? Lights! Numbers!

And anything we can watch together, and both enjoy, is pretty damn good.






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2 Responses to Press Your Luck

  1. Presley says:

    Great post! Would you mind elaborating on the design flaws in Family Feud?

    • TheZvi says:

      Triple points on the last game where you basically can’t ever win without it, and you win with that and any other, so the points don’t actually matter beyond ‘try not to get swept in the early rounds’ combined with using a 4-answer question at the end. Plus the issue of not knowing what is grouped together and what isn’t is also pretty severe. And there are places where it’s correct to intentionally miss to keep the scoring down but no one ever sees it…

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