Random Gone Awry

A recent event from the emerging competitive Hearthstone scene triggered a mini-panic. The event was a match between well-known players; the audience expected a highly skilled, interesting battle. Instead, a few cards with random mechanics dominated play, heavily favoring one side and allowing them to sweep up the games. Audience expectation was deflated by what appeared to be unpredictability gone awry.

There has always been a tension in game design between random events and player choice. Below I’ve outlined four reflective offerings of randomness gone awry; I don’t think they should be always avoided, but offer a glimmer of potential consequences when random events are unleashed in a game.

Random events that cannot be anticipated limit player choice

The significances of a random event should be foreseeable. This is partially what gives randomness its fun factor: it can shake a game up in an unexpected way, but it’s important to allow players some foresight so that they can imagine several decision trees in their mind. In games that utilize dice as the movement generator, players can anticipate (and hope for) certain rolls.

Random events that cannot be mitigated limit strategic decision-making

Certain games allow randomness to consume player strategy, relegating player choice beneath a chaotic sea the game-state has facilitated. Occasionally, glimpses of strategy emerge to affect the game-state, but more often than not players are frustrated by their lack of impact. Who’s playing the game, the rules or the players? Dungeons & Dragons is a game built almost entirely on rolling d20s, but it long ago introduced ways of modifying those rolls to allow players a feeling of control.

Random events that offer all-or-nothing consequences are frustrating

Random events that are all or nothing can lead to frustration. All or nothing scenarios can also incorporate power swings that are unacceptable. Positive random events give players something for the effort no matter what; yes, it may not be the optimal choice, but they are rewarded for rolling the dice or flipping the card.

Magic: the Gathering has evolved its thinking on randomness to a sophisticated level, and Mark Rosewater offers up the Cascade mechanic as a good example of positive randomness. Cascade allows players to flip cards of their library until a card costing X or less is revealed. The point is that whatever happens, you’ll get something: the event will ensure something unexpected, but you’re guaranteed to find something.

When the stakes are too high, the random event doesn’t value the game

Yes, it’s fun draw the right card at the right time and win the game. But those moments are exciting because the game-state is tense, the players are both close to winning, and the path to that end moment was filled with interesting decisions.

When the random events consistently overpower any other choices, players feel like they lose control and the rest of the game rules are undermined. The worst result should not leave a player with nothing, nor should the best result leave them with everything. Random events are supports: they should enhance and add value to the rest of the game and its players. The game road should not lead to a random event: instead, players should encounter interesting decisions along their way, which may include random events to disrupt or enhance their play.

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Randomness has always been present in card games and games in general, although this particular instance is evident of a game that may be in search of the right balance. In recent years, refinement of random design has moved the industry past things like rolling a die in Monopoly or Risk.

Newer editions of Dungeons & Dragons, which still relies heavily on dice rolls, pad the random roll with modifiers and penalties. Settlers of Catan moved dice rolling from random events to statistical chance, basing its strategic premise off the principle of normal distribution. These are two successful examples of moving away from “raw” randomness—randomness in its harshest, most untouchable form. In its place is a friendlier randomness—to be precise, it isn’t truly random—a randomness that allows strategic thinking because there are manipulation and interactions methods.