Alea iacta est is a variation of a Latin phrase attributed to Julius Caesar on January 10, 49 BC, as he led his army across the Rubicon river in Northern Italy. In Latin alea refers to a game with dice and, more generally, a game of hazard or chance, from which obviously derives the adjective aleatory and aleatoric. From this sentence we drew inspiration to ask ourselves: how can randomness afflict the game design?
Randomness is not evil by itself
Games are full of randomness. The result of a roll of the dice, the card you have drawn, the token extracted from a bag, the cube that does not pass through the tower or the random event generated by an app, are all the same stuff: situations and systems where the outcome is not fully determined by the game designer or the player, but driven by the unpredictable whims of luck.
But while randomness may have been responsible for some of your best gaming memories, it could also be the cruel culprit that led to unfair outcomes and your frustrating failures. How can the same thing lead to such radically different reactions? Do we just like luck when it lands in our favour, and hate it when we lose? The short answer is NO. For the long answer, it is appropriate to ask: why is randomness used in game design at all?
Randomness provides variety
Well-made games can use randomness to generate a huge amount of different set-ups, events, situations, outcomes and problems. A randomly generated set up is almost never as good and balanced as a completely crafted one, but the clear advantage is diversity and quantity.
Sometimes it’s enough to insert just one rule to completely change the game: in Kingsport Festival™, for example, a random Scenario card (drawn during the set up) imposes few additional rules and determines the rounds in which the Incursions (a special additional phase) are played; this is more than enough to give completely different game experiences.
That is beneficial because it removes the endless repetition of the same game and does not allow players to memorize the same dominant strategy. Instead, they are forced to master the underlying mechanics of the game itself and they can’t be ready to solve everything randomness might throw at them.
Randomness balances a game
Basically, lucky rolls and unlucky draws can limit the importance of pure skill, and give newer players a chance to get ahead. That’s especially true when the randomness is weighted in favour of players currently at a disadvantage.
In Kingsport Festival™ it is Sanity that provides a perfect balance that contrasts the pure randomness of the dice: it will be the players who score the lowest dice results (and therefore with fewer choices) who automatically earn these precious points. So the game is way more generous to the players at the back of the pack, than those in first place.
This is usually desirable when it’s expected that the game could be approached by players of vastly different skill levels, playing together. However, it remains fundamental that randomness doesn’t obscure who is actually the most deserving player, otherwise it will become a simple "draw" of a winner, like in a lottery.
Randomness is exciting
Finding out which Ancient Ones the results of our dice will lead to in Kingsport Festival™ is way more exciting when you know there was only a small chance for you to invoke the most powerful of them. To take this concept to the extreme, the game has been designed by arranging the Lovecraftian deities in descending order of "significance": using the theme to highlight the rarity of an event makes the experience even more memorable.
Randomness plays a role in strategy…
Yes, randomness actually affects players’ formation of plans and their long-term strategy. Making plans requires information, which is essentially the current state of the game’s variables and even the intention of their opponents, like what they’ll do next turn. The more information we have, the better our plans can be. But too much information can actually be quite troublesome.
Complete transparency can lead to players being able to calculate many possible moves into the future to figure out the optimum choice: a paralysis of analysis which can be tedious. So randomness can actually optimize the fun out of a game.
…and also in tactics
It’s often much better when plans get disrupted with surprising new information, forcing us to react, regroup and replan. There’s never been a good movie where the heroes come up with a scheme and it just perfectly works as intended. Drama is driven by the unexpected. So we generally want to cap the amount of information the player has access to, so they have to make tactical decisions step by step.
Just play a round of Kingsport Festival™ to appreciate the amount of tactical skills required in a round: the worker placement mechanic linked to the dice inevitably leads the player to make certain evaluations and choices, based first of all on his strategy, but then inevitably adapted to the information available in that turn, including the resources the players have at the moment.
The truth is that randomness certainly has a role in game design. But to really get to grips with it, we need to use it properly, based on the game style we want to provide. With hundreds of games played during its development, Kingsport Festival™ is certainly a great case study on how Cobblepot Games interprets randomness in games: a managerial experience that gives the player the ability to manage the outcome of randomness, despite the difficulties granted. Let us know what you think about this article and about the board game Kingsport Festival™ by contacting us through our social media.
If you are a game designer and you have developed a game that wisely exploits all these notions, do not hesitate to contact us in the appropriate Prototype section of our website, providing us with all the information on your project: it could become the next Cobblepot Games bestseller!