Monday, March 26, 2012

Random Thoughts: Examining the Role of Randomness versus Skill

Today I want to relate some musings on the role of randomness in games. Many games – be they card games, board games, or role-playing games – include some elements of randomness. Some games contain more than others. The role that randomness plays in a game generally runs counter to the role that player skill has in the same game. For example, games like Chess or Othello contain no randomness and rely entirely on player skill. Games like Candy Land or Left Center Right are entirely random and do not rely on player skill at all. Most games fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Randomness can be implemented into a game in various ways. Probably the two most common methods are with dice rolls and card draws, and there can be many variations on just those two randomizing mechanics. There are also variations in when and where randomness comes into a game. Sometimes you choose an action and then roll dice or draw a card to determine the outcome of that action. Other times, you may roll dice or draw a card and the results will determine what actions you can now take. Games might have randomness play into some player actions, but not others.

As an example, let’s look at how randomness and skill play into one game: The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game from Fantasy Flight Games.

This game begins with each player building a deck of cards to play with by selecting 50 or more cards from all available cards. This is a neat idea common to most collectable- or trading-card games. By selecting the 50+ cards for your own deck, you can build a general strategy as to how you will play the game, and “stack the deck” in favor of being able to pull off that strategy. Once you get into the game, you find some randomness in which specific cards you’re going to draw from your deck. Once you have cards in your hand, though, you’re going to use skill to decide which cards to play and how to best use them. At various points during the course of each round, you’re also going to draw cards from an “Encounter Deck” which comes pre-built for the game and represents the forces opposing the players. These might randomly affect the players’ attempts at making progress in the game and defending against enemies.

Some people prefer more randomness or more skill in a game. In an article on my approach to gaming, I explained that I mostly enjoy games for the challenges they present. For this reason, I don’t generally care for games that are mostly random, because without the ability to make meaningful choices in a game, it lacks any meaningful challenge. However, I find games that are strictly skill-based a bit too intense and not quite as exciting for me. I think my general preference for games falls somewhere in the range of 65% Skill/35% Randomness. I like games with some randomness, but I like to be able to do things before the dice roll or the card draw to somewhat influence the results I can expect. Or, I like to have some meaningful decisions to make as to what I’m going to do with the random results I just received.

I can kind of understand why some people prefer a stronger emphasis on skill. It can be frustrating to have a good plan in place and then see it fall apart due to one bad roll. Though, personally, I like a touch of uncertainty. I have a more difficult time appreciating why some people prefer games that are mostly random. While I can enjoy playing a very random game with the right group of people, my enjoyment comes more from the association than from the game. If someone who really enjoys very random games could explain to me why they have this preference, I would really appreciate it. Regardless of my own preferences, I want to be able to design games that appeal to a variety of people, so understanding different audiences would be great.

What are your preferences when it comes to randomness versus skill?


  1. The only time I enjoy randomness is when it tests the player's skill to react to the random element. Whether that may be a test of reflexes to an unexpected obstacle, adjusting your gaming to deal with a random challenge, or building a strategy that allows you the greatest variety in being able to overcome all possible randomness.
    To clarify a little more, I dislike randomness when you have no ability to react to it and salvage the situation. To me, that means: I put a lot of effort into formulating this strategy, and it is THE best I can do, but there is still only a possibility of success. Either, my best is not good enough, or the game is flawed. Really, I feel it has to be one of the two. If the first is the case, then I will happily go back to the drawing board of tactics. With the latter, I get frustrated and go about analyzing the flaws.
    So, I guess the bottom line is: I prefer skill/strategy, but I don't mind if some of the challenge, not unavoidable outcome, is generated through randomness.

    1. I agree with this. This is one of the reasons I think it is important in RPGs for the GM not to create a scenario where everything hinges on a single die roll. Perhaps that critical roll to sneak past the guard fails, but now you have the option of trying to talk your way out of trouble, or just go into combat.

  2. The majority of the time I enjoy games that have some of both, strategy and randomness. How much of each, I'm not sure of, but I think I prefer more randomness then strategy. One of the reasons for this, I spoke about in a comment on an older post. Another reason is that, when I play a game with a lot of randomness, I don't have to do a lot of thinking or concentrating, I can just enjoy the ride. For me it is kind of like driving verses riding a ride at an amusement park. I enjoy both experiences.
    With driving a car, I enjoy the challenge of getting to my destination as safely as possible and doing so as quickly or efficiently as I can. (Without breaking any laws, of course. ^_^) I enjoy the little decisions you have to make along the way and challenges you face. On the other hand, I really enjoy all sorts of rides. You can just relax, experience and enjoy it. You don't have to make any decisions so you can kind of just shut off that part of the brain for a while.
    A game with a lot of randomness at the end of a day I've spent a lot of time thinking and making decisions can be very relaxing. On the other hand, on a day I've not spent as much time thinking deeply or making decisions, a game with more strategy can be invigorating. :)

    1. I like your analogy with driving vs. amusement park ride. I know other people who have said that after having to do a lot of thinking during the day, they aren't really up for recreation that requires them to do a lot of deep thinking.