One could read an article by a professional on randomness in gaming (especially Magic) by reading this: http://www.wizards.com/magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/37
Or, one could read on.
Chess. I never got into it. Sure, I played it, not so much with my father who apparently had a real interest in it but for some brief time in high school. Is chess random?
Well, yes and no. The game itself is one of a number of games that has no random element to play. But, I’d contend that every game needs a random component to make it viable. Chess just happens to have the same random component that every game starts with – the players. Even if someone argued that a machine playing would not have any randomness to its game, having the machine be an opponent was a random (variable) match of opponents.
I’m not much for chess. I used to have somewhat more interest in Chinese Chess and other less common members of the family. But, the problem I have is the perception of solvability, of the mechanical nature of the game. It’s not enough to have games vary depending upon players or how the players think that day or whatever. Now, of course, the number of possible moves is high enough that I won’t solve the game, even if I were more interested in doing so. Still, I fail to see the point.
So, I was playing Talisman last night. Talisman is pretty much the same game to me as WizWar and a bunch of more mainstream games. It’s randomness with the payoff having nothing to do with the goal and everything to do with the activity. If chess fails in being conceptually dull, Talisman fails in being conceptually about nothing.
I’m quite fond of weird/unexpected interactions in games. I’m pretty sure I can say I try to produce them, which is why I favor games such as CCGs where there’s greater control over the play (is this ironic?). But, weird/unexpected/whatever is always within a context of what is normal and what isn’t. When there’s no baseline, no standard of normality, then there’s also no unusual.
Now, someone could play the game differently than what I experience. Instead of being more interested in screwing over other players for whatever social reasons, players can be memorizing card pools and working out probabilities of any result arising.
RPGs. Just talking about resolution systems, off the top of my head, I believe every RPG I’ve ever played had some sort of random element to resolution. Two things …
One, systems that feel too random to me irritate me. Whatever the actual probability math is on White Wolf games – I’m thinking World of Darkness games, the resolution feels way too high variance to me. Characters who are supposed to be good at things routinely fail; the opposite – character getting unusually lucky may not bother me at all, after all, I like L5R’s d10 system with its long tail on the high side. d20 – same problem with perceived excessive variance. d20 should really be d10 as then proficiency would have a far greater impact, again addressing the appearance that high levels of supposed competence don’t really bear out in actual play. On the other hand, while failure is often boring, catastrophic failure is often fun, so it could be more about whether a system sufficiently penalizes failure (as I feel that L5R does) rather than the commonality of failure.
I created a new Mechwarrior character yesterday as our first mercenary unit in the Summer campaign we decided upon had a TPF (total party failure). I used die rolls to randomly determine my lifepaths. This is MW3, btw, a ludicrous system for character creation. I had heard of people using spreadsheets to create characters for other systems before, this was the first time I needed to use a spreadsheet to reasonably track the absurd levels of detail and copious amounts of meaningless numbers. It’s quite amusing how MW1 and MW2 were so restrained when it came to numbering up a character and MW3 goes into some pseudo-realism overload.
Anyway, the overcomplexity of the lifepath system combined with the lack of perceivable connectivity between different aspects of character creation left me with a desire to take the decisions out of my hands. I didn’t completely randomize character creation, since I wasn’t exactly looking to play an accountant or a farmer. What did happen, though, showed the strength of having lifecharts in RPGs for those people who need some inspiration. From the streets of St. Ives Compact to the military academies of the Federated Commonwealth to Knight of Randis – yeah, that’s exactly what I had in mind when I was conceiving of a new character.
Actually, to some extent, it was. Two sorts of character types are comfortable to me. No, not brainfolk (scholars, wizards, scientists, etc.). Rogues (if awfully analytical ones) and paladins. I tried once to combine the two in a D&D campaign where we used gestalt rules, but I don’t think anyone else got that it wasn’t trying to be wacky but trying to cater to both of my archetypes at once that I was hoping to achieve. My first MW character was a rogue, if a militaristic one. This character is, obviously, the paladin.
Of course, there’s my Conan character, a rogue with a streak of paladin. But, I’m getting way off topic.
CCGs. What is the most important driver to the appeal of CCGs? I don’t know. I’m big on how deck creation enables bringing one’s personality into the game in ways that boardgames can’t achieve. But, maybe, the most important is the random draw. A CCG doesn’t really matter if I play my supercool, sweet, neato deck against your lame, banal, loser deck and one deck trumps the other. There must always be that element of “no guarantees”, just as sports are so popular because sometimes the underdog wins.
I didn’t bother rereading Mark’s article. I do know that he talked about coin-flipping cards and the like and how randomness isn’t as random as people think. Games are exercises in probability. I sucked at probability in school and I still can’t remember the formulae or consistently wrap my head around why they work, but I know that I enjoy the probability games within games. When I talk about L5R combat being interesting to me, I will get into such things as “I try to figure the 60% probability of success for determining how many raises to call with my character who would have a better roll with an Honor Roll, though circumstances may dictate a tactic of a different risk level.” With many other games, it’s a matter of trying to approximate the expected value of payoffs for different actions, whether deciding how much to Power Attack for in Conan, the probability of getting a wake or an Archon Investigation when tapping my Dreams when tapped out in front of Dominate bleed, or whether any given player may take first player in Agricola if I don’t this action.
I get into deckbuilding ruts. In almost every case where I notice it, I think about how one of our former players used a computer program to determine random cards he had to build decks out of. I couldn’t figure out why he had a Carrion Crows, Tongue of the Serpent deck until I found out that he needed to build around a particular vampire and two library cards. I thought that was so cool. Constraints breed creativity, and I frequently have few constraints when it comes to CCG decks I can build. Much like trying to put together a coherent backstory for a RPG character off of random die rolls can be more fun than simply creating a character without similar constraints, I always thought it would be the big pineapple in the sky to build decks with a random generator.
I believe that CCGs have a great capacity for randomness. After all, I enjoy multiplayer CCGs, and they are far, far more random than two-player CCGs. I’m not even sure I prefer two-player CCGs so much as I miss playing them.
Is there a right level of randomness in a game? Probably, or at least some sort of range of randomness levels. I go back to the idea that there needs to be a baseline, whether that baseline is a “normal character” in a RPG, a typical series of plays in a CCG matchup, or a typical series of events in a boardgame. The randomness needs to produce those wacky results that some of us look for.