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Why, Why, Why?! #2: Games Need Randomness

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Why, Why, Why?! is a series of highly subjective, perhaps personally charged, and often provocative statements about the board gaming hobby.  At least they’re always worth debating.  Maybe you agree.  Maybe you don’t – but that doesn’t mean they’re not true!  And because I’m fair and balanced, I also draw upon the diversity of experience that we offer you here at iSlaytheDragon to present the “other side.” 

Today we address…

Games Need Randomness – or “Do you feel lucky, punk?” 

Post-impressionist artist Paul Cézanne once said, “We live in a rainbow of chaos.”  Well, when that rainbow splashes its vibrant colors upon our games, the hobby is better off for it!  Now, by design games will always need structure and rules and formulas.  However, incorporating a vigorous dose of arbitrary randomness should not be taboo.  On the contrary, luck is necessary and quite fruitful.  Not every gamer can handle it and many will whine incessantly about it – so you need to judge what is best for your gaming group.  Nonetheless, games need randomness and here’s Why, Why, Why?!

1. Randomness is the best way to provide replayability.  A game with completely open information and a “perfect strategy” will generally play the same every time.  Those games quickly grow stale.  Even designs with variability will get old, because after a while you’ve gone through all its variables.  Luck, on the other hand, always changes, mixes things up a little, creates tension, and keeps players on their toes.  Injecting randomness doesn’t detract players from devising and pursuing grand strategies, nor does it negate their purpose.  On the contrary, it compliments those efforts with some exciting mystery and prevents them from becoming routine, so that you can explore myriad permutations of even the same plan session after session.  In an age that sees 2,000 titles published in a year, a game’s replay value is often the difference between gathering dust on the shelf and being enjoyed on the table.

2. Randomness is a great equalizer.  Purely player-driven designs alienate the uninitiated.  They rarely stand a chance and will loathe the beat-down they are about to receive.  No one enjoys being punished for a lack of experience.  For casual gamers, children, and newcomers to the hobby, this can be devastating.  They’ll walk away before having barely stepped in the waters – the exact opposite reaction we hope to elicit.  Randomness will not entirely trump experience, but it begins to level the playing field while still letting players exert influence over the game’s progress.  Luck does not mean choices become irrelevant, nor does it toss decision-making out the window.  It gives everyone the same opportunities, whether it’s their first time or most played game of the year.  Plus experienced gamers don’t need to “lighten up” and feel guilty about crushing a greenhorn.  And they can always blame defeat on the dice that hate them!

3. Randomness is real life.  “The best laid plans of mice and men” isn’t just a hollow idiom.  It’s an ironic rejoinder that mocks humanity’s desires and efforts at order and perfection.  We all know that life is unpredictable.  You can prepare.  You can save.  Hard work can get you ahead…for a while.  But some time, one day, unforeseen events swirling beyond your control will blow those plans right off the tracks.  It happens all the time, whether minor or tragic.  In that case, we must instead learn how to adapt and adjust, develop contingencies, and deal with reality.  Why not welcome the unknown in our board games, where the stakes are low and the consequences moot?  It’s perfect as a training ground to understand – and prepare for – life’s discord.

Some people complain that luck skews a game, benefiting one player over others, as if it’s sentient.  I say, “Bring it on!”  Learn to roll with good fortune or bad and revel in the excitement.   Still other gamers may cry for ways to “mitigate” luck, which is clearly an oxymoron.  I say, “Leave your crutches at home!”  Games with chance are endearingly popular given the storied history of gambling and traditional of card games.  It is an irresistible lure.

Arbitrary randomness via drawing cards or tossing dice or pulling cubes from a bag may frighten many gamers.  It can be frustrating when your carefully calculated moves are mercilessly squashed by the whims of chance.  I get that.  But it’s a game, not a test.  Get over it and have fun.  Yes, grey matter and strategy are important – and it’s rewarding to test your skills against another.  However, if you can’t throw in some chance, it’s just another puzzle.

Randomness is good for the hobby.  It should be embraced – not shunned like a begging leper.  If you want all open information and formulaic strategy, then enjoy your spreadsheet.  But a little luck spices up every game.  It creates excitement and tension for plays to come, treats all players like equals, and teaches you to roll with the punches…just as we must in life!

 

And now for another view…

Games Don’t Need Randomness – or “Truly, you have a dizzying intellect” 

Randomness in games represents uncertainty.  How well will I do on my skill check?  How is the board going to be set up for this time?  Which resources are going to be abundant and which will be rare?  What terrible (or good) things are going to happen to me?  Randomness is at odds with control, the more randomness there is the less control that players are going to have during a game.  People might find randomness to be exciting but it can also be frustrating so why put up with it?  There are other ways, games don’t need randomness and here’s Why, Why, Why?!

1. There are many nonrandom ways to create variability.  There are players that have dedicated their lives to games with no chance at all, these are games like chess or Go.  Lacking randomness has not diminished their long term playability because they have two important things: depth of strategy and player interaction.  Randomness is not the only way of creating uncertainty in a game, that’s what your opponents are for.  Likewise having a wide array of options can make it nearly impossible to optimize the best way to play.

2. Randomness can undermine strategy.  If randomness is used as a way to balance a game, to ensure that all players have a fighting chance then it can make all your hard work fruitless.  Players should be rewarded for playing well and allowing randomness to level the playing field can be not only discouraging but downright disrespectful of the efforts that were put forth to do well in the first place.  On the other hand, randomness can just as often swing in the favor of someone who is already winning making the game even less fun for those that are trying to catch up.

3. Games aren’t real life.  Games are a form of escape from the stresses of real life.  I personally like the order and control that games provide which you rarely find in real life.  The whole idea of playing a game is getting to experience something new, something different, something that lets you relax and have fun.  In real life we don’t like to see our hard work go to waste because of some misfortune that we suffered.  It’s true that uncertainty can be exciting but it can also be stressful, shouldn’t we strive to have fun in our hobby without the stress of real life?  Randomness may be a part of our lives but that doesn’t mean we need to drag it into our games too.

All players have a different tolerance for randomness, some love the rush and excitement that it provides and some fell that it undermines their ability to play at all.  Randomness isn’t inherently bad but it is polarizing and we should be careful not to impose it onto those who are trying to avoid it.  Any good design knows it’s audience and strives to create a fun and rewarding experience.  Let’s not assume that all players want the same things and that one design decision is strictly better than any other.

Perhaps Jason is right and I should just lighten up, relax, and have fun.  But I’d be more likely to encourage everyone to figure out what they like, be it chaotic or orderly, and have fun their own way.  Now stop trying to add dice to all my Euros!

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion9 Comments

  1. I think some randomness or variability is good. Mixing the race/power combinations in Small World leads to different experiences.

    But I tend to dislike unequal randomness. It’s one thing if the variability impacts all players equally. Then it’s a puzzle or a detriment for which the players must plan. It’s also not so bad if players have the ability to manage the random aspects (such as the turn order track managing cards in Macao or the Evil meter managing heroes in Dungeon Lords).

    But combat with dice rolls, as one prominent example, can lead to some very lopsided efforts. Sometimes the player with the better strategy is stymied by dice. And, especially in a longer or heavier game, that’s just not fun. In fact, it makes me NOT want to play the game again because I don’t want to have that experience or force it on my opponent. That kind of randomness REDUCES replayability. At least for me.

  2. Napoleon once said, “I’d rather have a lucky general than a good one.” That’s fine enough reason for me to keep dice in war games! 🙂

    I like strategy and to exert grey matter as much as the next gamer. But intellect can be just as unequal. In that case, I see games with randomness as still accessible to everyone – which is not the case the other way around…

    • Yes, but we see how a reliance on lucky generals worked for Napoleon.

      I’m probably somewhere in between you and Andrew. I don’t mind random elements in games as long as I can still plan for them–they don’t take me completely off guard. For example, I don’t mind rolling dice so much to resolve combat, but I want probabilities to more or less do their work. That is, I think Axis & Allies handles this better than Risk.

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  4. I would like to pose a question to all of you. I personally dislike Settlers of Catan because the dice distribution in actual play can invalidate the utility of having built a city next to a 5 or 8. This is one of the most frustrating things to happen in a game of Settlers. What are your thoughts on games with lots of dice? By lots I mean 30+ dice to be rolled. With more dice in play, their behavior will begin to normalize. I know it’s not much, but better than 2 dice. Would that be a good compromise between no chance and too much chance?

    • It always depends on the game – there are certainly games that handle dice better or worse.

      I can understand a dislike of Settlers of Catan, however there is a built in equalizer for non-normative dice rolls. That is, when a particular number is rolled a lot, the resource it produces is less valuable in trade. So if wheat is on a 5 but the 5 gets rolled once and the forest on a 3 gets rolled 8 times, wheat will likely trade for 2-3 lumber. Over the course of a game good trading beats good rolling (and a good player will use trading to expand their network to get more numbers in their control), you just have to be patient. And the fact that the rolls are unpredictable make the game more replayable – if 6’s and 8’s are always the most frequent, then whoever gets to place on those spaces at the start of the game will likely win most of the time.

      Now, rolling a fistful of dice can be fun, but at a certain point too many dice are just too hard to keep track of. Even pure dice games like Martian Dice or Zombie Dice max out at 13 dice, and the decision tree for those is very simplified.

      I dabbled in game design a while back, and in one game I designed you could roll a boatload of dice, we’re talking literally 20-25 dice, but it just bogged the game down as you sorted through your rolls to find the totals that matter or to add up dice or whatever it was, which was not so much fun.

      At some point, if you’re trying to even out or normalize dice rolls, you’re defeating the point of dice. If you want to normalize your results, rather than just bust out a ton more dice, you need a simpler mechanism with more controlled results. You could have a custom die with only 3’s and 4’s, or a deck of cards with a specific distribution of results, or some other mechanism. (Catan, in fact, has a deck you can purchase which normalizes the odds – the deck has a lot of 7s and very few 1’s so you get the even distribution).

  5. The dice-debate, although very entertaining, does remind me of the David & Goliath story (not the religious aspect). The story is told and retold many times, why? If Goliath would have won (as will have happened in similar fights throughout history), would it be much of a story?

    The fact that we always (like to) have a fighting chance gives us hope and makes any confrontation exciting, nerve racking and scary. If you can calculate your defeat, its not exciting, it is just a fact. If you have to roll for example a 6 on a d6 to win (1 out of 6 chance) it gives you hope. The idea that you may have a chance makes you hold your breath until the dice stop rolling.

    Of course game designers should not rely on chance to make their game fun or exciting. It should make a game even more exciting, even more fun. A player should be able to device a strategy that provides the optimal chance. This manoeuvring of pieces, slowly putting it all in place, that is a silent thrill, building up to the moment of a confrontation. Then the dice are rolled and all eyes are fixated on the rolling bones until phases like; “Yessss”, “You got to be kidding me”, “No, not again” are uttered.

    Of course this is not applicable for all games. Chess with dice is silly and chance cards have no business in GO.

    • Jason Meyers

      I like your David vs. Goliath analogy. And for some, rolling dice IS like a religion! 🙂

  6. Wolfie and Marko, I agree with the points you are making regarding chance.

    On the note of dice, do people enjoy rolling dice? The one thing I missed from playing Warhammer is rolling 30+ dice. There is simply no board game that allows me to roll remotely that much dice.

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