Friday, 22 June 2007

What about Randomness?

So I got to play a quick four player game of Twilight Imperium on Wednesday, we have a great game and it was nice to see that I can get thing done on weeknight. So after the game I was cleaning up (this is the real downside of Twilight Imperium IMHO) and one of the other gamers makes a comment along the lines that the dice wreck that game. Now everyone is entitled to thier opinion, but this struck me as insane. Combat is such a small part of actually winning that game that the small amount of randomness involved hardly has any bearing on the winner.

That being said I wanted to take a look at randomness in games and get into a little deeper an essential element in re-playability that has at times gotten a bad name.

Randomness, while not as high up on the list as other no no's of "Modern Games Design" as say Player Elimination, does at times take a fair amount of beating. And certainly Randomness can be used poorly in games, yet with out it we have no games. Even in games with seemingly no random elements your opponents and the choices they make during game, are in essence a random element. They may be predictable, and to some people that a good thing, but they are not certain. Good games give players a large number of viable plays, this keeps you guessing, lesser quality games tend to have a number of choices, but with one that stands out as the most advantageous to the player. The former is the way I feel about games like Age of Steam (even if i find it boring), the latter is how I feel about Goa.

This really is about the level of tolerance for randomness in most hard core Euro Gamers. Folks who love perfect information and having a map of game play from the start and only needing to make minor course corrections as the game progresses.

As an aside Diplomacy is a good example of a non Euro game where this type of randomness is used exclusively. The moves the other powers make IS the game here. You have a chance to influence this, and thats a game in and of itself, but the gameboard tension is based on what options the other players are going to select.

On the other end of the spectrum is something like a classic roll and move. Monopoly comes to mind. Randomness here is king, you are going to move a random number of spaces and the have to deal with the consequences when you get there. Most folks who read this blog will probably agree that this is too little control over game play. That the dice rolls determine the winner. I personally an not so sure that last statement is 100% true in monopoly, there certainly is some politics and bullying that can go on with trading properties, but for arguments sake lets call it 70% true and agree that Monopoly is not going to be our most played game of 2007.

Another game that gets put down for randomness is Risk. This is where most folks are dead wrong. Risk uses randomness to determine the outcome of combat, but the odds are clear and the sheer volume of dice rolls ensures that the odds play out over the course of the game. Risk certainly has some other flaws, but being random is not one of them. In fact this type of almost predictable combat works very well, and it is the aspect of risk most often stolen by newer games for that very reason. A simple engine for arriving at a predictable, but not certain outcome. Something that pure war gamers and conflict sim. fans out there live by.

So that brings me back to Twilight Imperium, and why I personally feel it is a great game. This is because it applies just enough randomness to make combat somewhat predictable but not certain, and then makes combat itself one of many options for limiting the actions of your opponents. I have yet to see a game of TI3 come down to a single space battle, in fact, players that focus too much on the conflict tend to do very poorly, but not because the dice were against them, but due to the fact that the VP system in this game is based on making stead progress each turn, and building up and setting up for conflict eats up too much time for you to get the needed objectives complete.

So remember don't blame the dice, blame the jackass that was tossing them.

-M

25 comments:

Twelve said...

The thing about randomness is, it can cut down on the competitive nature of a game. The metagame of trying to improve one's ability to play a particular game is a fun one, and it works best on games without a significant random element. No one likes to feel like they won or lost a game simply because the dice were in their favor, and it can be difficult to deal with games where the fitness of a move is unrelated to the actual outcome of the game. (eg in Poker you have to try to justify a particular action is a situation with math or logic, unfortunately you can be unduly swayed by seeing a random outcome that is attached to that action.)

Of course, it can also be fun to watch your fortunes rise and fall based on aspects of the game not entirely under your control, that's just a different style of game. It could be that your friend prefers the more determinate style of game, or it could be that he played poorly is flailing about for something, anything that doesn't involve him, to blame his loss on. I haven't played TI so I can't say what it is for sure.

--noon

Clarissimus said...

Even in games with seemingly no random elements your opponents and the choices they make during game, are in essence a random element.

Randomness is not the same thing as uncertainty! Shame on you.

adrianbolt said...

Good article, I'm leaning more towards buying TI.

More dice rolling = more randomness.
That's what a lot of casual gamers think, they don't calculate odds.

mads said...

I really like dice and other random factors in a game. It means that you have to plan for what could happen instead of what will happen. A great example is A Game of Thrones. We've always played that the three Westeros cards were revealed one at a time, but recently I read that you draw 'em all at once and then resolve each card in order. But knowing what will happen makes bidding less exciting and you basically feel that less it at stake which is - I believe - a shame.

But about Risk. I like the newer versions and have played a lot of vanilla Risk, but the dice are not the real problem; the cards are. Drawing the right combination can make a huge difference - especially early in the game.

mads

Mr Skeletor said...

I don't know if what you are referring to could really be described as randomness. It's a choice you have control over, uncertainty as clar said is a better turn.

Still I like a bit of randomness. It keeps tensions up and forces you to be more dynamic. Dungeon Twister sounded good on paper but ended up far too dreary for me.

Gary Sax said...

There seems to be a vast struggle among some Euro gamers to calculate any type of uncertainty in their actions where there are probabilistic elements and be prepared for many potential eventualities. As stated above, this is all best thought of as uncertainty, not as randomness. Of course, yes, in a corner case the game is almost completely uncertain and worthless, but that is rare.

Basically what I've decided is its sometimes ignorance (that die roll was random and there was no way to prepare for the results!) and some part preference--a lot of the really hardcore Euro guys just do not see risk management as an essential or interesting skill in games; I find it fascinating.

The one thing that burns me up and has been discussed before is the bizarre villianization of the die roll when those same gamers are extremely involved with games with very different sources of randomness (card or tile draws, for example) which can often be a far harsher mistress. Shit, at least the results of a die roll are far more transparent in its probability distribution to everyone at the table!

Shellhead said...

adrianbolt: More dice rolling = more randomness. That's what a lot of casual gamers think, they don't calculate odds.

Excellent point. A lot of Euro players, for all their obsession with "maths," seem curiously ignorant of probabilities. If you roll a single die, every side of the die has an equal chance of landing face up, which is quite random. If you roll ten dice, the resulting probabilities will follow a bell curve, and generally produce less random results.

I think that a certain amount of randomness is good, because it creates the potential for a close game even between opponents of different skill level. Chess really isn't much fun unless you are playing an opponent of approximately the same level of competence, unless you are the stronger player and really just like winning for the sake of winning.

In some games, randomness also creates greater replay value. Arkham Horror, with it's many cards and many dice rolls, holds vast capacity for replay, with no two games alike.

I do disagree that uncertainty is a form of randomness. The results may seem random at times, but that is simply due to lack of information on the part of the observer. The better you know your opponent, the less uncertain you will be about his strategy, even if there are significant hidden elements to the game. Some players can overcome that with a less predictable style of play. That's why some people play Dracula more effectively than others in Fury of Dracula.

Malloc said...


Even in games with seemingly no random elements your opponents and the choices they make during game, are in essence a random element.

Randomness is not the same thing as uncertainty! Shame on you.


No they are not but uncertainty is the effect that randomness has on the player. I stand by my statement that choices made by other players are a for of somewhat predictable randomness.

-M

Malloc said...

The thing about randomness is, it can cut down on the competitive nature of a game. The metagame of trying to improve one's ability to play a particular game is a fun one,

Not true at all. Poorly done games where a truly random even dictates a winner, yeah we all know this is bad, just play shoots and ladders if you wanna see this. But having to plan for uncertain events in a game is part of the competition. Not being able to do exactly what you want when you want to do it is a competitive part of a game. This is a problem for me in a lot of euros. Their predictability makes knowing when to pull the proverbial trigger all to easy to calculate. Knowing when you have a significant advantage in a game where there is a small chance you could lose a key battle, doing a risk assessment on what it costs you to wait. These are all things that are part of any competition.

I find that most people (notice i didn't say gamers) are slow to realize when they took a rather poor gamble that didn't pay off.

-M

Malloc said...

A lot of Euro players, for all their obsession with "maths," seem curiously ignorant of probabilities.


I think it has more to do with not liking uncertainty in the decision making process than it does not knowing math.

Most euro gamers I know write off things like combat resolved by dice before even sitting down and playing. I have seen countless times a player attack with even odds and be upset that his "plan" was ruined. My comment is usually something like "Didn't you plan have a case for when you didn't succeed in battle? you only have about a 50/50 chance."

I personally find perfect information games dull, I guess to each his own, but not knowing everything is where the fun is for me.

-M

Anonymous said...

One thing about random elements in a game, whether they are cards or dice is that they will make each game different and may require the player to make tactical adjustments during the game to react to the changing environment. Pure Randomness? What's wrong with it? Usually when you are in a casino the craps table is the loudest and has the most interesting characters around it.

Clarissimus said...

uncertainty is the effect that randomness has on the player.

So talk about uncertainty and how randomness contributes to it. Don't pretend they're the same thing.

vialiy said...

So talk about uncertainty and how randomness contributes to it. Don't pretend they're the same thing.

Radical uncertainty is phenomenally indistinguishable from randomness. Even in a game with no formal randomness, if you have absolutely no idea what your opponent will choose then his choice to you is essentially random. That what happens in the Battle of the Sexes in game theory.

Clarissimus said...

if you have absolutely no idea what your opponent will choose then his choice to you is essentially random.

But how often does this happen in a game? Unless you're playing Rock-Paper-Scissors over the internet with strangers, you'll have at least some sort of clue what you're opponent's choice will be.

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

Clarissimus said...
"if you have absolutely no idea what your opponent will choose then his choice to you is essentially random."

But how often does this happen in a game? Unless you're playing Rock-Paper-Scissors over the internet with strangers, you'll have at least some sort of clue what you're opponent's choice will be.


Same argument with a dice throw then - you have a good idea what the dice throw could be and, unlike with a human opponent, you know the probability of what is to come.

Fellonmyhead said...

Great artice Malloc; also an excellent point about games being spoiled by near-scripted actions. However where you state:

"This really is about the level of tolerance for randomness in most hard core Euro Gamers",

I have to object. If BGG is a haven for hard-core Eurogamers then why does almost every Euro in the top ten games on BGG contain a natural random element with direct influence over play? Caylus is the exception; although PR might also be if you believe the random element of the plantations which become available is too insignificant.

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

I think Malloc is talking more about different groups of gamers attitude towards randomness, rather than what games and to what extent randomness occurs in.

Fellonmyhead said...

I know I am talking about the same thing Malloc is.

Malloc said...



But how often does this happen in a game? Unless you're playing Rock-Paper-Scissors over the internet with strangers, you'll have at least some sort of clue what you're opponent's choice will be.


Sure but I also have "some sort" of an idea of the odds of rolling a seven on 2 dice. Its the same thing, but with less accuracy. My point is that in a good game your opponent has more than one viable choice.

-M

Malloc said...


I have to object. If BGG is a haven for hard-core Eurogamers then why does almost every Euro in the top ten games on BGG contain a natural random element with direct influence over play? Caylus is the exception; although PR might also be if you believe the random element of the plantations which become available is too insignificant.



Did I say BGG was a haven for hard core Euro Gamers? Sure its got a euro bias, but there are too many casual gamers there who think Carcassonne is the pinnacle og board gaming for the rating of any hard core euro gamers to make a difference on ratings.

-M

Fellonmyhead said...

Malloc: Sure its got a euro bias, but there are too many casual gamers there who think Carcassonne is the pinnacle og board gaming for the rating of any hard core euro gamers to make a difference on ratings.

Well that's very odd, because I hardly think "too many casual gamers" would result in a top ten that goes from AoS up to PR passing Caylus, Die Macher and PoF on the way. Carc only makes the top 50; see here.

Anonymous said...

On a side note, the Shattered Empires expansion for TI3 makes a heavily combat oriented strategy more viable. Most of the stage I and II objectives from the expansion invovle military victories.

O_O

(mpw182 from BGG)

Malloc said...


On a side note, the Shattered Empires expansion for TI3 makes a heavily combat oriented strategy more viable. Most of the stage I and II objectives from the expansion invovle military victories.


While true the new objectives encourage more conflict, playing the game as a war monger is usually a good way to lose.

Mr Skeletor said...

While true the new objectives encourage more conflict, playing the game as a war monger is usually a good way to lose.

Only when playing with Douchebag americans who like to gang up!
Last time I ever role play a race.

Malloc said...


Only when playing with Douchebag americans who like to gang up!
Last time I ever role play a race.


Funny thing is Frank you never actually got hte chance to be the war monger.

BTW you are not out of it yet. Build some GF and lobby hard for some help.

-M