Board game design

Building with lady luck: Randomness in board game design

A random but great idea!
Many board games incorporate randomness, and for good reason! Randomness can add a lot to a game, as we’ll see. But, everything should be done in moderation and that certainly holds true for randomness.

Let’s roll the dice!

What is randomness?

Randomness (in a board game) is an event that cannot be predicted exactly, but where each possible outcome follows strict (mathematical) rules.

The quintessential example is the dice roll: You will not know how many pips will come up, but you know it’ll be a number from 1 to 6 and each side has an equal chance.

The other common method for introducing randomness is through (shuffled) cards; you don’t know which cards you’ll get, but you can only get the ones that are in the deck to start with.

We can also say that an opponent plays “randomly”, usually when what she’s doing doesn’t seem to make sense. This is not the type of randomness I’m referring to; the outcome might be unpredictable but there is no (mathematical) rule behind it. For example an opponent might throw their meeples through the room, while a card cannot do that.

The uses of randomness

Randomness has several uses in board games:

Driving interesting decisions

Randomness creates uncertainty (see this post for more on uncertainty in board games) and as such it is a driver for interesting decisions. “If I attack I need a five or six to win. If I win I’ll be well set for my next goal, but if I lose then I’ll have to struggle to get back on top. Should I take that chance…?”

Randomness allows for a great many potential events, each of which will have a different impact on the game. Which ones do I take into account and how? Can I safely ignore something with a small probability or do I hedge my bets even there? Is a 75% chance “as good as certain”? Do I expend resources to influence what card comes up or am I secure in my position no matter what I draw?

Reducing analysis paralysis

I might know the cards in the deck, but I don’t know which one will be drawn next turn. Especially if there is a wide variety of possible outcomes I can’t analyze them all. And even if I could, I can’t prepare for them all. And thus most players won’t even try, leaving this bit of (potential) information out of the process of deciding what the best move is. And every bit of information not taken into account is a save in brain power and thus a quicker decision.

In chess you can think through what are the optimal moves for you and your opponent, several turns into the future. Add some randomness in there and that ability goes out of the window: We’re able to predict our opponent because she’s logical and tries to play optimally; neither of which is the case for a random process.

For more on reducing analysis paralysis in board games, see this post.

A source of tension

”You’ve decided, you’re taking the plunge, you’re going to take one more card! Slowly you draw the card towards you and with a slam you open it up for everyone to see. You groan as the one card that would stop you is staring you in the face!

Randomness can be a source of tension. You don’t know what is going to come up, but you’re certainly hoping for something. This creates an “is this going to work”-moment, which will get players to the edge of their seats.

See this post for more on tension in board games.

The equalizer

Experience, a more logical mind, intuition, all of these can help with winning a game. But it’s no fun if the same person always wins…

Randomness can help to equalize winning probabilities. A great player can draw a bad hand, a mediocre player can roll perfectly. And thus there is more than pure “skill” in determining who will win in the end. Of course some players get put off by this and playing well but losing due to a single die role is frustrating at best. Thus, this should be used with caution. Still some randomness can make a game more enjoyable for a wider variety of players.

Adding depth

As mentioned, randomness can create a great many possible events, especially when randomness follows randomness. This means that there will be more of the game to “explore”; it will take a while before all combinations have been observed.

This also relates to the previous point: If there is a reasonable amount of randomness, you can never be sure whether your strategy won because it’s awesome, or because you got lucky. This then means that players can play the same strategy multiple times before they figure out which of the two is the case.

Randomness can increase the depth and replayability of your game.

Simulating life

Many games have a “theme”: The real-life thing it is trying to simulate with all those cards, chits and meeples. It can be the colonization of an island (Catan) or saving the world from horrible diseases (Pandemic). In a game you’re trying to do something that (a group of) humans (or animals, or computers or whatever) might try to do in real life.

Life is unpredictable. There are other people who do strange things, diseases that suddenly crop up or unplanned for robbers. All of these might have a completely rational and understandable explanation, but they certainly seem to be random.

Randomness in a game then can be used to make a more believable gaming experience, to add to the theme and immerse players further into the story they are building in their head.

Luck

Randomness is awesome. Until it is not!

The flip side of randomness is (excessive) luck: Playing perfectly but losing due a bad draw. Or playing like a wet rag but winning because the dice love you.

Randomness will always imply some form of luck, it is what drives some of the good things mentioned above. But a game can contain randomness while still keeping the game interesting for anybody who wasn’t born under a lucky star.

Limit the impact

To limit luck, limit the impact that a single brush with fate has. This means that the game won’t hinge one die or one card draw.

Having said that, the impact of something should still be meaningful. If you roll a die and it doesn’t matter at all whether you get a 1 or a 6, you might as well not have rolled at all. Use luck to see if something goes a little bad or quite bad, instead of going perfectly or horribly.

Increase the randomness

This might seem counter-intuitive, but increasing the number of random elements in your game will actually reduce luck. This is because it is much more likely to get both good and bad results in equal amounts than to consistently do well or poorly.

Watch out though, because players are biased in what they see: Even though the randomness was completely evenhanded, they might still feel like they got screwed over (I can remember games of Catan where the 8 was never thrown!).

A nice example of this is Dominion. You’re drawing so many hands, that inevitably some of them will be great (turn on that engine!) while some of them will have you seeing nothing but green. In the end it evens out and the draw is part of the excitement of the game.

Allow for reactions

In monopoly you roll your dice and that’s it, that’s where you’re moving. There is no way to mitigate or anticipate the randomness of that roll.

In Catan on the other hand you’re also rolling dice, but you can work with them. You know that the sixes and eights are going to come up more often (even though you won’t know when exactly!), so you’ll be vying to build your villages and cities next to these numbers. You can’t control the randomness, but it’s perfectly possible to anticipate the probabilities.

Another good way is for players to choose whether they want to take on more randomness: “I’ve got three sixes and three dice left, I’ll gamble and hope that my next roll will give me at least one additional six!”

Closing thoughts

Randomness can be a real boon to board games, but like anything in excess it becomes a burden.

In the previous parts I’ve given suggestions about what randomness can do. I’m sure that if you give it some thought you can come up with even better uses for it. You can probably also come up with even more ways in which it can screw up your game… 🙂

Even though randomness can add to a game, that doesn’t mean it should always be used. There are awesome games that use minimal to no randomness. Like everything, it should be one of the many tools in your belt, to be taken out when useful, to be left alone when there are better choices.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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