Randomness in Board Games: A Study in Beige

I recently found myself in a conversation about luck in the game Calimala. That conversation got me thinking a lot about the general role of luck and randomness in board games. It was more than just being introspective and considering my opinion against the opinions of others. I started to look into randomness as a concept in gaming itself, researching how it can be used and manipulated in order to be the optimal tool for the game it is a part of. I discovered a lot that I would like to share with my fellow gamers in the hope you will see these tools in a different light the next time you draw a card or roll a die.

Calimala

While I was looking over other people’s thoughts on randomness, the purpose of it as a mechanism in board games became more and more clear. There must be a level of uncertainty between the start of the game and the end of the game, otherwise, all moves become scripted.

People have noted this flaw in the base game of Puerto Rico since it came out. Given enough play sessions, people started to see there was a clear set of initial moves that were optimal. They started to apply an algorithm to the first several turns, which took away from the enjoyment of the session as a whole. Some players find the process of spotting these opportunities to be the fun part of the game; I would argue that process is a meta game and is not what I will be talking about in this article.

So, the question I would rather ask is: is randomness in games even a necessity?

Spoiler Alert: Of course it is. Even in games such as Chess and Go.

I would argue that every game requires some level of uncertainty to maintain the engagement of the players. While the randomness in these more strategic games comes from the choices that players make, it is undeniable that when given only the initial state of the game it is impossible to predict the final state. That is part of their beauty and why they have withstood the test of time. If a game did not have an element of randomness, then it would become akin to Candyland, but with a deck of cards that was static from game to game. Every game and every session would be identical, and would not be nearly as interesting.

The right level of randomness, however, depends on the game. When designers choose to include a randomizing element in their games, they have some important decisions to make. They must know the difference between the different types of random available (yes, there is more than one type.)

In my research, there appear to be four types of random. Input vs output on one axis, and variable vs uniform on the perpendicular. I really want players to consider this when sitting down to some of their favorite games, so I will mostly be talking about input vs output, and leave you to explore how they are affected by variable vs uniform on your own time. With input and output randomness the key difference comes down to timing.

For a more in-depth exploration of random, check out this video, this article, and this one too.

Swinging back to Calimala, there is a rule in the game that says if you are unable to take the action you chose, you must draw the top card of the deck. The deck is comprised of multiple copies of the same nine cards, so there is a good chance you will get something useful, albeit maybe not what was at the top of your wish list.

This is an example of Output Random. I made my choice and got a random outcome from it. Other players on the post and on BGG have discussed a variant they favor where the top three cards of the deck are on display, and rather than drawing random, you can choose one of the face-up cards, a fine example of Input Random. The randomizer has affected the game state and is informing your choices, arguably changing how you would play the game.

Both of these are actually great methods for accomplishing a similar thing, and players will have their preferences based on what they find enjoyable. What I am asking of you, however, is to consider how this impacts the game design.

In the standard rule (drawing from the top of a shuffled deck), your choices are an effort to optimize what the game state is showing you. Your focus is not on the deck and what it holds for you. It is actually centered around the action board and making informed choices based on available options. There is player interaction in this area as well as complex decisions to be made.

Using the variant method above (with the face-up cards available to draw), the focus has been pulled away from player interaction and (what I feel is) the point of the game, which is optimizing your actions. This variant switches the game toward an alternative strategy of choosing the “least” optimal choice in order to draw the exact cards you want. While still interesting, engaging, and fun, this fundamentally changes the game at its core.

It’s no longer a game of outplaying your opponents, but a game of seizing opportunities before others at the table.

Rather than strategy, it becomes a race.

With a simple switch of Output Random to Input Random, the core purpose and heart of the game is changed. My point is not to try and convince the players that use this variant they are wrong. Quite the contrary: I am asking all players that have ever said a game is broken or decided to use a house rule or felt like the designer made a terrible mistake or missed an opportunity, to really evaluate that feeling.

Chase that white rabbit.

The choices that designers make are (usually) for good reasons. A simple switch or variant might be preferable for you (in which case I encourage you to use it), but don’t fault the designer for following through on the game they wanted to make.

Those small choices can change the whole feel of the game.

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