Ah, randomness – my mortal enemy. Way back since the days of Settlers of Catan, you’ve been mucking up my games, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and all that.
Yes, my hatred of randomness has already been discussed at length, but to sum up: randomness takes control of the game away from the player, such that if you are playing a game specifically to win a game on your own merits, randomness makes the game less fun on all fronts.
But different people play games for different reasons. In fact, a single person will even play different games for different reasons. I adore deep, complex, low-randomness games like Terra Mystica or Agricola, but I will also admit to enjoying the occasional game of King of Tokyo or Guillotine.
It’s that thrill of the unknown. You can’t be sure what your opponent is going to do. You can’t even be sure what you are going to do. It’s a powerful feeling that a lot of people enjoy and even I enjoy in small doses. I don’t want to base a 2-hour game on the roll of the dice, but 20-30 minutes is fine. A game needs to deliver that thrill quickly and then I need to be able to move on to something more stable.
There are other draws to randomness from a game design perspective, though – the most important being the concept of replayability. Random elements have a funny way of making every game different. You can, of course, introduce randomness without removing the sense of player control with stuff like variable setup – randomness that occurs to all players instead of just one.
But, anyway, I don’t want to sit here and rehash my thoughts on the merits and demerits of randomness. Let’s say that we did want to play around with randomness in a game – randomness that was applied to each player individually. How could we play around with that randomness to still add that thrill of the unknown, but also mitigate that lack of control?
Consider the basic D6. Randomness in it’s purest form. It’s a flat distribution, meaning that you have an equal chance of getting each of the six outcomes. Need to roll a 3? 1-in-6 chance. Need to roll a 4 or above? 3-in-6. The problem here is that more than being purely random, dice just feel random. There’s that moment of the unknown when the die is spinning, but then that quickly comes crashing down when it stops and reveals your fate.
Plus, it’s so easy to calculate the odds, you can’t help but feel cheated when they go against you. All you needed to do was not roll a 1 and then you rolled a 1. That happened to me recently in Firefly. Tanked my entire 3+ hour game. I was flabbergasted that such horrific luck mechanics still existed in recently published games.
So anyway, we need some way to mitigate the randomness of the single die – a way to give some control back to the player. The first step is easy – accomplished by good old Settlers of Catan: two dice. I know. Mind-blowing.
The important thing here is that two dice give you a distribution of numbers that is not flat. Seven is your most likely outcome, while two and twelve are the least likely. It gives the player control because when they are deciding where to build, they can go for numbers that are more likely to get rolled. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly enough control. Your fate is still firmly in the hands of the dice, and they just never seem agreeable. I can’t remember the last time I walked away from a game of Settlers feeling like the dice had actually done me justice, but I guess that could be a topic of its own dealing with negative reinforcement in games.
But uneven distributions of outcomes is a great first step. Let us consider next the flipping of a coin 5 times and counting the number of times heads appears. We still have six possible outcomes (0 to 5 times), but now the results are based on the binomial distribution. The chances of getting 3 or fewer heads is actually significantly greater than rolling a 4 or less on a D6 because the binomial distribution is weighted more heavily in the middle. So if we want more nuanced distributions, should we just add more and more dice to simulate a larger and larger number of coin flips?
Well, can I just say right here and now that dice are boring? They are little, immutable cubes of plastic. They have no versatility. They are nothing but fixed random number generators, and to really achieve nuanced distributions we’re going to need to change how our system generates those random numbers. What if we wanted to give control back to the player on how those numbers are generated?
Well, the most obvious next option to consider is cards. A deck of cards is a great random number generator. It’s a little more unwieldy than a die, but it makes up for that in its versatility. If you want to change the possible outcomes in a deck of cards, all you have to do is switch out the cards. You’d have to rewrite the faces of a die to achieve the same thing. Moreover, if you want to change the number of outcomes in a deck of cards, you just add more cards. With a die, you have to add entire new balanced faces to it. To accomplish what a single deck of cards can do, you would need lots and lots of dice.
Of course, randomness through cards is nothing new. In fact, it’s probably one of the oldest ideas in gaming. The idea of giving control of the randomness to the player, however, didn’t really make a full appearance until Dominion came along and introduced the idea of deck-building. I guess you could argue that Dominion was highly influence by Magic, which gave the player similar control, but that control happened outside of the game. Dominion was the first self-contained game that allowed a player to change the randomness they experienced in such a direct way through the course of the game.
And it was one of the biggest successes in all of board gaming because of it. Countless games copied its formula, probably not even understanding why its formula of randomness mitigation was so powerful.
I am making a new game. I never set out to make a deck-builder. I started with this idea of randomness mitigation and followed it through this thought process. In the end, it seems I stumbled upon deck-building through the back door. But because I approached the concept from a completely different direction, it is unlike any deck-builder I can think of. I’m pretty excited about it.
In my next post, I’ll get into the specifics of how the mechanics of my game attempt to give control back to the player while still promoting a thrill of the unknown. For now, though, I think that’s a good place to stop.