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This week we’re going to discuss ways to approach randomness and uncertainty when designing games to bring about tension and engagement.
For the sake of consistency we will be using the definitions of uncertainty and randomness found in “Game Elements: Uncertainty” by Teale Fristoe. As per the article, randomness is a subset of uncertainty--where uncertainty is when there is at least one unknown for at least one player. Randomness is defined as something that is left completely up to chance (which still causes uncertainty for players). For instance, in a game of Werewolf roles are assigned randomly causing uncertainty amongst the players of who could be on which team. However, once the roles are assigned, randomness is taken out of the equation, but the uncertainty remains due to an information imbalance. You know your role and that will not change throughout the game, or when you are revealed, so your role is no longer random. However, other players don’t know who you are and so although the information has been revealed to you, making it no longer random, your role is hidden to the other players causing uncertainty amongst them.
This distinction may not seem to be very important and a little bit like splitting hairs, but its power will come into play when we discuss tension and engagement. Before we do though, we need to discuss another set of terms that sometimes blur together: input and output randomness.
Input randomness is when a random event occurs and afterwards players get the chance to react. It can be part of the setup of a game, similar to roles being randomly assigned in Werewolf, or it can be part of the beginning sequence of a turn/round like rolling dice in King of Tokyo. Output randomness is when the randomness defines the course of the game or cannot be counteracted by the players. A good example of this is roll and move mechanics in games like Monopoly or Trouble. However, output randomness is not equivalent to a game being void of choice. Players may still make choices and weigh probabilities before a random output. An example of this is rolling for combat (or almost anything else) in Dungeons and Dragons (DnD). Sometimes these lines blur though, especially when a turn or game can end on a random outcome that would otherwise be reacted to.
In Pandemic, players are both reacting to what has happened from the last infection cards drawn and are planning for what could happen when the next infection cards are drawn (a mostly random event that may end the game). Therefore drawing infection cards can be considered both an input and output randomness event. If we take another look at the King of Tokyo example (or Yahtzee), the last roll of a player’s turn (when no more rerolls are left) is an output randomness event; the player is stuck with whatever they’ve rolled. Otherwise, when rerolls are available and players can decide which dice to “lock in” rolling is a input randomness event.
Some designers (including myself until recently), believe that input randomness is more palatable and satisfying for players than output randomness. What really matters though is how many meaningful choices are made, how they are presented, and the audience you’re going after. Figuring out your strategy for a game of Scythe after seeing what factions, player mats, and objectives are in play is fun; equally as fun though is slaying a mighty dragon with a tree branch because you rolled a critical (an unexpected outcome only possible by a random output).
Regardless if you have input or output randomness in your game, it is important to make sure there are meaningful choices either before or after the random event. Again, this depends on the type of game you’re making, but even in a very light-hearted luck-driven game the few choices made should be meaningful. For instance, Dead Man’s Draw makes every draw important as almost every card is either changing what you’re doing on your turn or will make you bust. Dice-driven roleplaying games, like DnD, can get away with randomness determining quite a bit of what your character is and isn’t able to do because they create a world where you can do almost anything. Additionally, they provide almost all the data needed to weigh your options before making a risky decision right in front of you on your character sheet. Yahtzee on the other hand makes sure that your choices become less meaningful as the game goes on. Although you can choose which dice to keep and which to reroll, eventually the game forces you to focus on a shrinking list of objectives. This means as the game goes on you begin to notice more and more you’re playing a game of chance.
If you want the randomness in your game to bring about tension and engagement one of the best ways to do it is to give the players some information on how a random event will turn out. Social deduction games thrive on the notion that no one else knowing your “random” role creates discussion. The best ones though make sure each player gets a little bit of extra information about the other players’ roles either through gameplay or special abilities (for example, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong). These games don’t rely solely on players making up their own facts through social deduction. Instead, they reveal little bits of information about other players while keeping uncertainty.
Pandemic does a fantastic job of presenting randomness to the players in the infection card deck. Drawing a card from a shuffled deck is a random event, and when that random event can determine the fate of the game there is a noticeable level of tension drawing from that particular deck. What increases that tension is if you know the card that ruins your plans is in that deck. Pandemic makes sure you stay at that level of tension with the nasty “Intensify” phase of each Epidemic card. Not only does this give the players the knowledge that the card(s) that can ruin all their plans will be drawn at random eventually, but they know it will happen soon (most likely too soon to do everything they need to). By “revealing” this information about a random event and presenting it in such a fashion that “doom is always around the corner” brings about a level of tension and engagement that is hard to match.
To make your games truly intense and engaging you want to have randomness that is slowly changing with bits of information being revealed along the way so players still have a chance to either plan or react to it in meaningful way. Generally, you want randomness that turns into a strict uncertainty where what is known about the random events will cause players to analyze the opportunity costs of their choices. For example, in a social deduction game, revealing you know a piece of information about another player to hopefully obtain additional intel could be at the cost of giving enough information to the other team to win. In a game like Pandemic, going for cures may make the game easier in the long run, but it may be at the cost of potentially allowing another outbreak waiting in the infection deck to occur. These are the types of decisions that make for great gaming experiences and should be what you strive for when designing.
When implementing randomness into a game design it is our belief that making sure players still make meaningful choices while maintaining uncertainty (and not just pure randomness) is the most critical factor in ensuring an engaging game. Whether or not players make those choices before or after a random event only matters for what audience you’re targeting. What do you think though? Are we underplaying the role of input and output randomness in design? Have we forgotten another important element in implementing uncertainty and randomness into a game design? Let us know in the comments.
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.