Randomness 1

It’s Friday! Let’s talk about randomness; this is a lengthy topic, so I’ll be breaking it up in to a number of posts.

A lot of games incorporate ‘randomness’, unpredictability in order to make the efforts of the players innately risky. Games can often be measured on a spectrum as to how random they are, where on one end winning and losing is entirely unpredictable, and on the other end all elements are completely predictable and deliberate. Different levels of randomness can invoke different sensations in players, and can be very important for creating the right vibe for the game.

There’s a lot of methods used for creating randomness. Lots of games will use multiple methods for randomness in some regard in order to influence various portions of the game.


Dice
Rolling dice is a very popular form of creating randomness. Dice come in a variety of sizes, with most people recognizing 6 sided dice most quickly, though 4, 8, 10, 12, 20 sided dice are also quite common. Most of these dice can be used to create different values; 6 sided dice can have sides repeated to emulate a 3 sided die. 2 ten sided dice can be used to represent 100 possibilities, and is often used for percentiles.

One of the key things about dice is their reliability. Dice, depending on their construction, will produce each of theirs sides an approximately equal number of times. Because of this, they can be expected to produce an approximate value. In the case of a 6 sided die, that value is 3.5, which you can determine by adding up the value of each of the die’s side and averaging them (divide the total by the number of sides). This is generally is half the die’s maximum value, plus a half, though some unique dice might be different.

For a single die, an expected value is only somewhat useful; half of the time, the die will roll higher than that value, the other half it will roll under. Knowing an expected value can help you determine the riskiness of rolling a die on the fly, but has little more use. However, when there are multiple dice being rolled and added expected values become significantly more important. As the number of dice are increased, the variation decreases. In the case of 2 six sided dice, the expected value becomes 7 — however, rolling 7 is also the most common value you can roll on those two dice. At first glance you might assume it’s a fair chance to roll between 2 and 12, but the reality is that there are 36 combinations you can roll (6 by 6, accounting for each side of each die), and of those 36, six combinations will roll 7. 5 combinations will produce 6 and 8, and it decreases in each direction until 2 and 12, which each only have 1 combination which will produce them.

Every die you add will increase this homoginization, producing more and more predictable rolls. The Settlers of Catan is a boardgame which takes advantage of this property — each turn, the dice are rolled to determine which spaces on the board generate materials; much of the strategy is to place settlements in places, and the tiles are ranked from 1 to 4 by how fruitful they’ll be.

Also, in Warmachine, most rolls are made with two six sided dice. This means players can rely on 7s as they roll, but allows weaker units to sometimes perform better and stronger units the occasion to fumble; this they further enhance by adding criticals and automatic failures as special scenarios when proper rolling conditions occur.

Finally, dice are a great item to use in games, as they are tactile, easy to come by, and commonly understood and accepted — rolling dice is understood by almost everyone. They


Cards
Cards come in a number of flavors — many games use unique decks to run their games, like Bang! or Munchkin, and some games allow players to assemble decks, like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-gi-oh!, and most everyone knows some games that use ordinary playing cards, like the many varieties of Poker, or Crazy Eights.

Cards are great as they provide a closed system in which the designer can control the content. This allows any randomness (by shuffling) to be minimized to only a preset number of possible outcomes. Cards get utilized in a number of ways, but card games generally have players draw from the deck and in to a hand, over which players have some amount of control. Within this, they can make educated guesses about what cards are left in the deck and what cards their opponents may have. Often with discards, attentive players can be increasingly certain as to what the other players have, but the distribution of cards between players is generally random.

Cards work quite well in a lot of ways — by having a closed system, the designer can ensure fairness between cards, and the skill of the game is not in what cards you draw, but rather in how to use the cards you receive. The reality is, unfortunately, that balancing game elements like this can be a very difficult task, and the more variety there is in a deck, or the more complicated the cards are, the more the balance is likely to be upset. Generally in card games, there are distinctly better and worse cards, but the benefit of those cards is subdued by how unlikely they are to appear. Having perfectly balanced cards isn’t vital, but if they are too unbalanced, the randomness of the cards will become the deciding factor in how the game is won.

One of the other prominent problems with cards is that they carry a lot of preceeding conventions. Particularly with more complicated games, like Magic: The Gathering, there are a number of definitions and terms used that may be narrowly applied to one game, or not exist in another, or be notably different in another. For example, Magic: The Gathering features ‘Instant’ cards which can be played on your opponents turns and ‘before’ other cards that they play as disruptions. Most card games however do not offer the ability to play ‘in front’ of other cards, and thus react, but Munchkin features ‘play anytime’ cards which can be construed as such, and it is not always clear to players of several games as to how these rules are alike, and how they differ.

Moreover, some games include card restrictions unique to their games — Bohnanza for example, doesn’t let players rearrange cards in their hands, and is in fact vital to the game’s flow that they do not. This restriction is unique to Bohnanza (in my experience) and can lead to upset when a player forgets it or a new player is introduced to the game.

These are small problems, ultimately, and well crafted rules can thwart them quickly, but they need to be kept in mind. Cards are flexible, and commonly used, but they are also more complicated and easier to confuse than something simple like dice.

To be continued!…

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One Response to “Randomness 1”

  1. Randomness 2 « The Art of Game Says:

    […] By Greg So, in the last Randomness post I went over the consistency of dice and the closed system of cards. There’s more to say about […]

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