Randomness in Games

Morning Table Talk is a series where our designer Trevor Harron takes Sunday mornings to muse about games and game related topics.

For people who enjoy games this is a big topic and for game designers it is question that confront every time we make a game: “how much randomness in a game is good?” This morning I want to talk with all of you wonderful people about my views on randomness in games and when it is a good thing and when it is bothersome.

Every game created lands on a spectrum of randomness with on one end games like Chess, Go, Shogi and some eurogames like Hansa that are deterministic i.e. they have no randomness in them every game is chosen by the actions of the players. On the other end there are games that are pure chance like Yahtzee, Craps, and Zombie dice. An in between there is everything else, games where chance influences the decisions you make (and vice versa) as well as card games, tile laying game, and the list goes on. In all of these examples it is important to find why those games have the amount of chance in them that they do. For instance in Chess you can certainly make a random factor in it but would you want to? For players well experienced in chess this randomness would be irksome and frustrating since they could not act purely on their knowledge of the game for winning while less skilled and knowledgeable players would feel like the playing field had been balanced in their favor. On the other side it would not make sense to make Yahtzee without chance, players would simply score the maximum for every category and call it good. So from this we can see that the amount of chance in these games is designed with the player’s experience in mind. The games of no-chance and pure chance then cater to widely different players. In short, with any great game the randomness is balances and caters to the audience (ideally).

But there are many quantities and qualities of randomness that can be put into games. If a player wants to play a game of pure skill then games with little to no randomness are ideal. There are some exceptions to this of course for instance Magic the Gathering. In Magic players have a deck they have constructed from a pool of cards and the randomness comes from drawing cards. With these players of skill playing at any level, frustration comes from not drawing the right cards at the right time. That is an example of a game that has an element of chance that is not right for the audience. However this is counterbalanced by the excitement that one experiences when luck is on their side, there is nothing better than the feeling when you draw the right card. From this we can see that with some of these chances while can be frustrating can be equally or more elating. But aside from adding elation and frustration when is chance right? In Affectionate Cats and Cuddles (by Blue Heron Entertainment LLC) the target audience is families and children as well as a light experience so dice are used to determine actions. For kids chance gives them a win in games that would normally be beyond their grasps. Simply put, putting chance in a game helps equalize the playfield. I am certainly not the first to make such an observation and it’s important to think of it while playing any game. Also something to think about before moving on is that randomness can add to replayability of games since every time the game is played it is not the same as before.

Of course there are different kinds of randomness to consider (aside from the lack of) and we will talk about the main two, which I will simply call cards and dice. To discuss these two kinds of randomness we have to think of them as consistent and inconsistent; cards have their probabilities change as people draw cards causing the probabilities to change (unless you constantly reshuffle the deck). With dice though, barring some breakage in the die itself the probabilities will always be the same from roll to roll. When playing a game then players have different expectations of the randomness in the game they are playing. With cards like in Collectors and Capers, players can try to guess what to expect from the deck and what their fellows will play as well. In games with dice players can try to predict what can happen from a fixed range of options constantly, like for instance deciding in D&D if a player could get away with being stealthy by having to roll for it. Each of these types of probability are used in games (ideally) for the benefit of the experience the game is trying to deliver on.

So to look back at our initial question of “how much randomness in a game is good?” I would answer it depends on the players and what they want. If players want a game where only their wits are used, then randomness is not ideal for the situation. If players would want something that everyone, even the newest players, to play then high randomness can be helpful. Personally, I like games where you have to consider the odds and work with a set of options that may not be set in stone (though I do like my chess and Hansa). A lot of games fall in between these two extremes and designers tend to be good about what kind of randomness to use. So next time you play a game and luck isn’t on your side, think about why randomness was put into that game.

All of this is just food for thought so take some time, sip some of your morning beverage, and have a great day!