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About randomness and luck in games

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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...or why I didn’t throw out randomness from Hex and Theseus?

(this is guest post by Michal Oracz)

A warm, spring evening. You’re sitting comfily in front of the screen reading a game review. There’s a picture, a title and five blocks of text.

Scrolling...

At the end of the review there is a summary:

Rating: 8/10
Pluses:
- Beautiful graphic design
- 90 plastic figures = money well spent
- Innovative mechanics of city development
- Theme and humor
- The whole thing weighs over 5 kilos and makes a pleasurable sound when shaken = money well spent
Minuses:
- Non-standard card size
- Randomness
- No interaction
- The game is for 2 players only
- Play time: 10-15 minutes
- Player’s age: 12+
- The box is red and black

No, it’s not a summary for Her nor for Theseus, they don’t have figures, boxes are lighter and interaction level is at 200%. This is a summary of some nonexistent game taken straight from Narnia.

The question is different: when did you notice that something was wrong with this whole summary? Was it the game time or the player’s age or the red and black box? If so, not bad.

But maybe it was earlier, where randomness and lack of interaction were mentioned as minuses? Really? It’s hard to believe since we’re used to treating randomness and lack of interaction as obvious defects and evident mistakes in games.

Who didn’t hear about a „stupid, random game”?

I personally like a bit of randomness, which even may – focus here! – influence the result of the game!

Sometimes I’m asked if Hex wouldn’t be better off without the random element. If everything would be in front of the player and accessible from the very beginning, turning the game into a real contest of the minds. Similar situation takes place with Theseus. Hmmm...

It is said that Theseus is a difficult game. The rules are very simple but during the game itself you really need to flex your brain in all directions to put all that you got into a game winning, asskickin’ combo machine. Phew, tough sport. Is it good? No. In commercial sense it is absolutely a flaw. But there is something instead. Theseus is very fast, experienced players can deal with it in about 20-25 minutes. Secondly all games are unique, each time there are different combos on the board composed from different cards and in different locations of the game. Finally: Theseus includes an element of RANDOMNESS. It’s not major but it’s enough – same as in Hex, you simply don’t know what will come next to your hand, that’s it. But IT IS THERE.

Oh yes, the short play time and the random element were kept in the game as a painkiller for the general brain consuming factor of the gameplay.

I wanted to make a game that would involve a huge amount of brain work while thinking about all these combos yet it would forgive the player the mistakes he makes. So that if you lose you wouldn’t leave the table feeling your brain is somehow worse than that of your opponent’s. So that you could always cheer yourself saying: This time you had some luck, let’s see how you’ll do in the next game. Let’s play again.

As a player I hate to lose because my brain was worse than somebody else’s. There surely are people who enjoy such level of competition. But I’m not one of them.

Adding the element of randomness to my games is not a result of tests, nor demand of the players, nor even a fashion. It’s the effect of the player I am, of what I enjoy in board games and of what I don’t enjoy, of what annoys me and of what I miss. Many players love to engage in heavy games with no randomness at all, logical and ruthless. I unfortunately don’t, I’m a different type of a player. I wrote earlier that I try to be honest and polish the gameplay while feeling it 100%, so I design games as if they were for myself. It’s the easiest way for me to evaluate the fun that comes from the gameplay. I’m not starting to design a complicated eurogame only because they are appreciated and a popular genre. I won’t make a game for kids only because it’s a huge and great target and a lot of players want to play with their little ones. I prefer to be honest as a designer and work only on what I know and what I feel. I like games with a well-placed and well-choses element of randomness, that’s why randomness will be present in my games.

Randomness, while anticipating the occurrence of new tiles or cards in the game, be it ours or the opponent’s, is also connected with a special type of emotion, totally different than the ones that we feel while anticipating opponent’s move. We know what may come to the opponent and what may come to us. But we don’t know when. We prepare a certain situation on the board, calculating in our heads the chances for drawing and playing more or less fortunate elements of the game in the upcoming turns. We create a flexible machine to overpower our opponent, we update it as the elements appear and we modify our plans. Sometimes we pray for a Bomb or a Sniper; sometimes we pray so that our opponent wouldn’t get a fast unit or a net-fighter or Move. We pray for him not to place the Duplicate or Safeguard. We beg our luck for the opponent not to draw Battle this turn! Not now! He got it… damn… Hurray, it’s a Bomb! I did it! A shooter, yay! I’ll close the combo! Phew, that was close, just one Push and I’m saved.

For the whole gameplay the player digests wishes and prayers in his mind, he keeps his fingers crossed and holds his breath. There is another game taking place in his mind, next to the board. Satisfaction and frustration occur, one after the other, anger and happiness. The gameplay is short and intense, the tactic is short-distanced so these emotions are also very temporal, the anger is very short and disappointment after a lost battle can be easily wiped with a rematch.

All this without feeling that your brain is somehow inferior because there always is light in the dark tunnel, a simple fact at our hand: “if I had the proper token back then everything would have been different. You were lucky!”. So what if luck or bad luck are just a minor element of the whole gameplay? What is important is the fact that we can always blame our defeat on fate.

Of course I don’t like „stupid, random games”. But I also don’t like ruthless, logical monster without the faintest trace of randomness in it. A minor and well placed element of fate is like a well-chosen spice. The game just tastes better.


PS. @ dannte: The independency of factions from randomness in drawing phase, meaning the thing I call the inner balance of an army, is in fact not the same for all the armies. It is similar in most cases, overseen precisely, especially in the newest armies but in the few earlier ones (the more experimental ones) it was sacrificed for the innovative solutions that were implemented. I’m thinking about two armies: Neojungle and Vegas. They can be extremely powerful in hands of an experienced player, incredibly weak in the hands of those that didn’t master them. Besides that, they are more dependent on the sequence of tokens that we draw and on the situation of our opponent. It’s not a festival of fate; the inner balance is just a little bit smaller than in other cases.

As for the famous Fire card I’m leaving this topic for a separate episode

As for the earlier photographic episode (and the earlier versions of Theseus), I’ll add a comment - a short story with explanations to the previous post. I’ll do it as soon as I get a hang of the current tone of work and tests that have fallen on me (it’s connected with not only my games - oh yeah, hi, Bruno! )

Brendan thanks for the kind words!
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