So here’s the thing. Think back to the last time you played, oh, Dominion. Can you remember any details? What stood out in your mind about the game? If someone were to ask you about that particular game a week later, what would you tell them?
Now, keep that in mind while I ask the next question. Think back to the last time you played, oh, Mage Knight. Or if you haven’t played it yet (and really, what are you waiting for?), you can substitute any other more heavily thematic game. Can you remember any details? What stood out in your mind about the game? If someone were to ask you about that particular game a week later, what would you tell them?
Now, compare your answers for the two games. Any differences? If you’re like me, there sure are. Let’s examine.
What makes a game ‘memorable’? What is it that gets a specific play stuck in your mind? It might be the folks you’re playing with, it might be the location, but if you set the environmental factors aside and concentrate solely on the in-game elements, you’ll probably find that the random, the unexpected, the “where the hell did that come from?” is where your memories are made. On the assumption that memorable games are good games (at the very least they are non-neutral experiences that have presumably enriched your life a little), it would then seem logical that yes, Virginia, randomness is a good thing.
I can hear the complaints starting already. But randomness is the Great Eurogame Satan! Random luck keeps me from planning or strategizing effectively! Random is bad bad bad!
Hogwash (you may also choose to insert another, stronger word here if you wish).
A non-random game can be a very, very good game. And many of my favourite games fall into that class. But with these kinds of games I find it hard to remember any one particular playing. The visceral reaction to things changing unexpectedly is missing, replaced by a slower, steadier drip of gaming morphine. I think of these games as “IV games”, where the needle in your arm keeps pumping endorphins into your body for a long time. Properly designed, these games can keep you getting your ‘fix’ for years.
A more random game, I submit, can also be a very, very good game. And again, many of my favourites fall into this class. However, here the gameplay and the memories associated with it are very different. I can sure as hell remember that time playing Combat Commander when a Sniper event ruined my day. Or when I chose to attack a Mage Tower in Mage Knight only to find its inhabitants uniquely equipped to deal with my fire attacks. Or even when Lone Dude ™ held off an invading army for 6 rolls in Risk. These things stick with me, and the jolt they provide is different from the slow drip. I think of these games as “Injection games”, where the needle in your arm gives you one massive hit, the memories of which stay with you forever. And of course, gaming’s addictive properties keep you seeking that hit over and over again. Once again, properly designed, these games can keep you getting your ‘fix’ for years.
As you might expect, IV games tend to be Eurogames, while Injection games tend to be Ameritrash games. A greater emphasis on thematic elements makes it easier to introduce random effects, since you can often explain away the randomness as being inherent to the real world and/or as being essential to the story the game is trying to tell. This may also be why it seems to be so difficult for designers to truly bridge the gap between the two camps – Hybrid games are stuck trying to deliver their ‘fix’ both ways, which is usually going to result in an awkward mash-up of gaming elements that just don’t quite work, kind of like two medicines that, individually work just fine but tend to have significant side effects when taken together.
So there you have it. A missive defending the lucky, the random, the WTF from a dedicated Eurogamer who’s been trying to sort out why the IV isn’t supplying the fix it used to. Could it be that, while the two styles don’t coexist very well, it’s essential for good gamer health to get exposed to both with regularity? In any case, I’m looking forward to jolting my system a lot more in the coming year while trying to find out.
How about the rest of you?
Frank Branham: There are lots of threads around perfectly good games trying to weed out undesirable random elements. The resulting games are often pale and weedy. The problem is that very predictable games feel nearly solvable. Play them once or twice, work out the general principles, and then you can pretty much be done with them. Deeper abstracts can survive this sort of rigorous analysis, but not so many Eurogames with smaller decision trees.
And at the point where you refer to playing a game with “rigorous analysis”, you are pretty much better off just drinking heavily and chucking some dice.
But even if we venture back into the realm of rigorous analysis, random games can be analyzed. There’s a whole mathematical discipline you might have heard of dedicated to it. If you bring in cards with variable effects, you also have to learn the decks to play effectively. And possibly at least a little bit of card counting or noticing if your favorite card came up. Not to mention the art of backup contingency plans. I’m pretty certain that the whole Euro thing is just for middleweights: I prefer to go for Beer and Sixes or terror-inducing complexity.
Dale Yu: My favorite random card game is Dia de los Muertos. At least it feels random to me cuz I’ve never grokked it. Followed closely by Twilight. :)
Frank: Mine as well. Possibly even in that order: Twilight might be the better game. I sometimes feel as if I’m almost getting those two, but they still surprise me sometimes.
Dale: But back to the topic at hand – I’m mostly a Eurogamer. And, I agree that I find comfort in the planning found in those games. Oftentimes, I’m at my happiest when a game gives me my own little sandbox to play in and make my stuff where the other gamers can’t really get at it. That being said, I agree with PK that it’s good to get a bit of variety in my gaming diet. For instance, in a recent gaming weekend, some of the most memorable moments came from Dungeon Fighter and Eclipse – games which are definitely not in my normal comfort zone. It was a nice change, but I’m definitely looking forward to my next game where I move little wooden cubes around a stylized board of Europe hoping to score victory points through area control or clever resource management.
Jeff Allers: I’m not so sure that one can equate randomness with “memorable experience.” I think that any well-designed multi-player game will deliver the unexpected, whether it falls into the so-called categories of Eurogame or Ameritrash. It’s true that the latter may be more thematic, and that might, indeed, be more memorable (we remember information better when it’s in story form, after all), but random surprises occur in both types of games. It might be more useful to group games according to the source of their randomness: does it come from the game itself (event cards or dice rolls) or from the other players (unpredictability because the game does not provide a clear “best option” for a player each turn).
That said, perhaps one of the best examples of a Eurogame with a very large random element–and one that is fairly memorable because of it and the story it tells–is Galaxy Trucker. In that game, Dale gets his sandbox to play in, but then has to watch helplessly while it gets blown to bits by the game, while his opponents cheer (the Germans would call this “Schadenfreude”).
But I’ve also played plenty of by-the-book Euros that were memorable because of the unexpected moves by my opponents. The ones I remember most, however, were those that told a story–or fit into the larger story of a game night in some relevant way.
Patrick: Good points, Jeff, but I did mention in my original text that I was focusing primarily on randomness that exists due to the game’s design, not the unpredictable nature of others. To be honest, that’s often something I find challenging in Euros because it’s so easy in so many games for one person’s unusual (let’s call it suboptimal) play to scuttle someone else’s plans. It’s absolutely true that an unexpected move that significantly changes the game state can be memorable – but I find that Eurogames too often don’t provide gamers with the opportunities to make such moves, instead forcing players into a fairly rigid ‘path of optimal VP production’.
Nathan Beeler: In my book there’s an almost perfectly linear slope to the ratio between acceptable randomness and the weight of a game. I enjoy the light gambling sensation of pressing my luck in Can’t Stop, or groaning when I manage to land a die on the bottom tier of Tumblin’ Dice only to have it quadruple just the one pip. And yes, sometimes those experiences can be fun and even memorable. They don’t usually rate among my favorite gaming moments, which unsurprisingly almost always come from party games. But I do have a few fish tales about perfectly horrid rolls (my button says “Ask me about Entenrallye”).
In the middle weight games I feel most at home in, I’m happy letting random event cards thumb their noses at my best laid plans, as long as they aren’t overwhelming the choices I’ve made. I think, as Frank points out, you often need a touch of randomness to keep games from becoming strictly a puzzle. But in the end, I still want to feel like what I did mattered most in determining the outcome. However, I get absolutely no thrill from having a long heavy slog of a game ruined by bad dice rolls, which pretty eliminates me from some of the games Patrick is talking about. Citing the overwhelming forces held off by one guy in Risk is a perfect example of a gaming experience I can happily live the rest of my life without. I suppose the difference is that never made me laugh, and now it would just make me wish I was playing Die Macher.
Patrick: Oh, it’s totally more fun to be the owner of said Lone Dude than the guy who’s seeing his plans go up in smoke thanks to a 1% (or whatever it is) fluke. But then again, winning is usually more fun than losing, right? In any case, I think we agree more than you think. Randomness tends to not be that welcome in truly deep games, which is why deep yet random games don’t often find a home with me. High Frontier might be the lone exception, but even there you do have a chance to protect yourself from “decommissioning”.
Another thing to remember is that most games that integrate random elements well tend to give you a chance at ‘getting yours back’ later on – you’re not the only person who is being affected by chance! When there is no opportunity for a comeback, or when the game doesn’t even things out properly, well, that’s not a good game. I much prefer a game where yes, you might end up with a bloody nose, but then again so might everyone else…
Nathan: In general I agree with what you’re saying, though in some games I think that might be oversimplifying. I think it was World Without End that had those kind of random event card that bloodied everyone, but based on the timing they didn’t hurt everyone equally. In a game like that and of that length and breadth it’s way too much randomness for me. For something like Vegas Showdown, which is a fair bit lighter and the events are usually less painful, it works to perfection.
Patrick Brennan: The more planning and thought you put into it, the less randomness you want resolving it. Which is why Euros with heavy luck resolution let people down. You’ve carefully planned out your victory point accumulation strategy, you’ve weighed up this vs that, etc, and the only two events that could stuff you up both happen and you can’t recover in time because the game’s so tight (there’s another nod to World Without End). With Euros, you’re invested in the result. With Ameritrash, you’re more invested in the experience rather than the result. As long as a theme-rich game with loads of randomness gives you emotional swings, with a story told, you’re happy. The emotional roller-coaster allows you to forgive any decision-light process largely resolved by luck. Until the last few years, it’s been harder to find good Trash than good Euros, but now that that gap’s been filled, I’ll happily play stuff from either camp … as long as the experience promised is delivered well. Not all Ameritrash provides a satisfying emotional experience, neither do all Euros provide a satisfying intellectual experience. The definition of game goodness changes depending on the experience you’re after; the hunt for that goodness remains eternal.
Erik Arneson: Of course randomness on its own is not what makes a game good or bad, memorable or forgettable. But I do agree that a great game with well-integrated randomness can be among the best of gaming experiences: Drawing just the right tiles in Scrabble. Having the absolutely perfect tile come up when you pick first at a party in Traumfabrik. Getting the exact right dice roll at the exact right moment in Heroscape. And the end of an epoch in Ra. All of these are exciting, fun, and random moments.
Larry Levy: Just to look at a related issue, I don’t like casino games and I don’t like gambling. The reason is it’s purely random. If I win, it doesn’t mean anything, because it’s all luck. And if I lose, I’m annoyed because I’ve pissed away my money on such a random activity.
That’s pretty much how I feel about games in general. The luck, the randomness, is rarely memorable. My most recent thematic games were Colonial and Eclipse. I remember the mechanical structure of both games, but neither was more memorable than a bunch of other games I’ve played recently. And other than recalling a demonstration of how a bad roll could diminish the former game, the randomness didn’t make either game notable.
In contrast, I can recall my most recent games of Navegador (a design that’s practically luck-free) quite well. I remember my strategies and those of my opponents. I know what worked and what didn’t and how this will affect my future plays of the game.
We each get different things from gaming. For me, it’s the intellectual stimulation and the challenge of figuring out how to best approach each design. I’m far more likely to remember a good move (by either myself or an opponent) than I am to recall a lucky or unlucky die roll. But that’s just me.
The best example of this is Ra. It’s a game I try to avoid, particularly with more than two players, and the reason is what Erik cited as a feature: the randomness at the end of an epoch. I realize lots of players love chanting “Ra, Ra” as the last remaining player pulls out tiles and sees if he gets to keep doing it or if he craps out. But to me, it spoils the game. I find that gameplay is dominated by who gets lucky or unlucky during those moments. So to my way of thinking, what’s the point of careful strategizing when your opponent can clean up at the end of an epoch and you busted on your very first draw? The reverse situation is no better, because I won due to dumb luck, not because I played well. I understand the appeal of randomness that Patrick talks about, but I think I’ll just stick to my “soulless”, but oh so interesting Euros.
Joe Huber: I’m just wondering why randomness was in such desperate need of praise as to necessitate this article. Nearly all of my favorite games – of whatever persuasion – have an element of randomness to them. I like 18xx, as a series – but my favorites are 2038 (which has a random board for every game) and 1846 (which has randomness in the distribution of privates, vastly impacting the flow of the game). Some don’t care for the randomness at the end of Louis XIV – where collected shields are revealed and counted, leading to the distribution of bonus shields – but I love that aspect of the game, as it goes a long way towards making the game interesting.
Now, having said that, randomness can be bad when it doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the game. For instance, I’m not a big fan of Andromeda – not because of the randomness of the cosmic ashtray (which I actually like), but because of how that randomness interacts with the randomness of the card draw. It’s not having too much randomness that bothers me – Nathan mentioned Entenrallye, which has a large degree of randomness, but it fits in with the game. And, critically, there are still meaningful decisions to be made. Future die rolls might negate your clever play, but you can at least set yourself up for success.
Looking through my favorite games, my highest ranked game without an element of randomness in the play is likely Le Havre, at #21. But even Le Havre has randomness in the set-up – which leads to a diversity of play that keeps the game interesting. My highest ranked game without any randomness is Autoscooter, at #46 – but it’s got enough chaos as to fulfill the desire for randomness. Which leaves my highest ranked game without anything resembling randomness as Lines of Action, my 76th favorite game.
Mark Jackson: There are four major components in this discussion. (Yes, that’s right… I have managed in my infinite & all-encompassing wisdom to boil down this discussion to a simple four-point outline. Aren’t you glad I’m here?)
I think that the enjoyment of a particular game resides in the intersection of the following four elements
- level of control (on a scale from “flip a card & do what it says” to “infinite power”)
- length of the game (on a scale from “5 minute filler” to “rest of your natural life”)
- random elements (on a scale from “perfect information” to “buckets of dice”)
- theme (on a scale from “abstract” to “dripping with color text”)
Imagine these four elements as “sliders” on a hypothetical Machine O’Gaming Fun… each person is going to set this machine differently. From the proceeding discussion, it’s easy to assume that Larry would tweak the settings quite a bit differently than, say, Erik. Or me, for that matter.
There are (as others have pointed out) very few games we play & write about here on the Opinionated Gamers that don’t have some element of randomness (even disallowing player interaction). Many of the “soulless Euros” increase their replayability by randomizing some portion of the game (the plantations in Puerto Rico, for example). I don’t think the problem is randomness – I think it’s the degree of randomness that you enjoy in relation to the other elements of a particular game.
But there’s another quirk in this machine analogy… I think that each person may have multiple optimal settings for these sliders. I find that I’m willing to tolerate and/or enjoy games with lots of randomness if the game is either (a) shorter or (b) has a compelling theme or thematic arc.
That explains why Joe (and I!) can enjoy Entenrallye AND 18xx. (Well, Joe can enjoy 18xx. I’ll use Puerto Rico or Agricola [family game].)
Patrick: Excellent summary, Mark. You’re correct that most of the games that get airtime here on the OG have some randomness in them. Which, given that most of us prefer to play good games over bad games, means that yes, randomness is not only good, it’s essential. Joe might hint that this is an obvious statement, but I’m constantly surprised at how often games are promoted as being “luck free” or castigated for being too random. My original thesis tried to distinguish between thematic randomness (and the more emotional response it generates) and design randomness (which is where most Euro games fall), since my own personal tastes these days seem to run more to the former. I suspect that’s largely a reaction to the general dullness of so many recent Euro releases, which did two things: make me look into why good Euros are in fact good, and look beyond the Euro style for other games that are good. If nothing else, this discussion has gone a long way towards my being able to quantify just why I like certain games and why others don’t grab me, which can only help me pick what to play in the future!
Matt Carlson: For short games (30 min or less), I enjoy strong themes and can tolerate quite a bit of randomness. For longer titles, I still prefer a decent theme when I can get it, but prefer less randomness. If necessary, I prefer small “nudges” of randomness (Settlers of Catan dice rolls) to larger, game-changing “event” type cards since one can usually recover from the former but can easily be permanently handicapped by an unfortunately timed “big event card”.
My most memorable gaming moment is probably playing (the fairly non-random) Lord of the Rings co-op game. Sure, the theme is almost paper-thin but in the last turn of the game the mother of the two kids I was playing with sacrificed herself so to save the other three of us and we pulled off a win… go mothers!
If it hasn’t been made clear, I think we should stick the randomness discussion to in-game random events and situations. Any random pre-game setups (Agricola, the Settlers game board, etc…) only supply a varied game play experience but since they essentially occur before the game starts, they can be planned around and aren’t truly random at all.
Erik Arneson: I find it impossible to restrain myself from confessing to a great degree of amusement (perhaps even bewilderment) in the fact that someone (Mr. Huber — a great person to play games with, by the way) who is so organized as to have their favorite games ranked to at least #76 is also quite a fan of randomness in games.
Patrick Brennan:Hey, if you can’t clearly distinguish between #75 and #76 on your all-time list, have them at different rating points using decimal places, and be able to justify the difference via the Machine O’ Gaming Fun sliders, how can you call yourself an opinionated gamer!!!
So what about you? How do you feel about randomness in your games?