The Game of Game Night

9 January 2013 | 1 Comment

My co-designer, Alan, and I often discuss the roles of luck and randomness in games, as well as finding ways to help players filter decisions to avoid analysis paralysis (when a player is faced with so many choices that he is overwhelmed) while still allowing for plenty of strategy. Lately I’ve come to appreciate some element of randomness as a way to filter decisions, and something happened today that made me think of that again.

I host a weekly board game night at my condo every Wednesday. On Sunday I send out an e-mail to see who’s on board that week, and I follow up with a confirmation on Tuesday. Pretty easy.

The e-mail goes out to about a dozen people. It’s akin to rolling a 12-sided die: I put the request out there, and I really have no idea how many people will respond.

The thing I realized tonight as responses trickled in is that the number of people who can attend board game night greatly impacts the game that we choose to play. But the interesting thing is that while the number of players (a random number) narrows down the number of games we can play, that number doesn’t dictate the game that we play (a strategic choice). We still have to decide if we play a game specifically tailored to 2 players or a 2-X player game that might require a “ghost player.” And even within that decision, we have the choice to play a Euro game vs. a thematic game, a new game vs. an old game, a few quick games vs. one long game, etc.

The illuminating aspect about this to me is that I like having no control over the number of players. I like the anticipation of seeing who can attend and then optimizing the game selection based on those people and the number of people. It’s not only easier to make the decision rather than not knowing anything about the players attending, but it’s more interesting.

This has given me a new level of respect for games that use randomness to limit a player’s decisions and challenge their optimization skills. In fact, it’s given me a new appreciation for ways that dice can be used in strategy games and not feel like luck. Alien Frontiers and Kingsburg use dice to this effect.

Cards are also used in a similar fashion in many games, and there was a time when I looked down upon any random card draw. In fact, early versions of Viticulture had all possible cards spread out on the table for all to see and choose from. Not only did it take up way too much space, but there were too many choices and there was no anticipation or excitement after they were placed. Can you imagine a game of poker where all the cards were on the table? It simply wouldn’t work.

What is your favorite game that uses an element of randomness to filter your choices in a way that makes the game more strategically interesting than if all of the choices were there for you from the beginning?

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1 Comment on “The Game of Game Night

  1. I like this construct you put up here – randomness as a limiter for choices, versus randomness for its own sake, the former allowing more directed response, the latter really throwing you on the defensive. I think it’s the latter that predominates in finance and business where the (apparent) randomness of asset market valuation or fickleness of consumer tastes compels either a flexible strategy to begin with or insurance against an untoward outcome.

    I don’t think I’ve seen enough examples of randomness to say I have a favorite in gaming. It gets abused a lot in video games – especially RPGs. In Elder Scrolls, if you enter a cave that has randomly-determined loot, and you don’t like what you find, you load the game from the cave’s entrance and fight through again. In Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, the monsters appear randomly – didn’t bring enough spells or armor? You’re bantha pudu! But without randomness the game is incredibly boring – the same monsters appear at the same point and drop the same weapons always. For some reason this works fine in Return to Krondor (totally underrated classic) but there you’re playing through a story instead of writing your own.

    So I think of card game randomness – while you have formerly detested random card draws, I’ve actually enjoyed them. They’re the only way a novice MTG player has a chance against a more powerful deck – maybe all his Black Orchids and Pit Lieges are buried at the bottom, next to his search cards. Even so, I see how this is unsatisfying – we’re wizards, right? Why is it that we can’t recall our most powerful spells until late in the battle? Or with EVE, we run a galactic megacorp based on an orbiting space station – what do you mean you only have plans for 10-cost battlecruisers, I need some cheap frigates NOW! :-)

    I guess I don’t have a satisfying answer right now from gaming. If you want to talk about randomization in research – say conjoint models – that’s another story. There, randomness is necessary to limit choices to be able to observe the impact of incremental change. While conjoint is normally used to price, say, computers, researchers at MIT have put together a conjoint survey asking respondents which immigrant to grant visa status to:

    This is a remarkable idea – and it has a remarkable result, that there’s actually consensus despite differences in respondent education, political leanings, or age. This is only possible to find via randomization, in which the order in which a potential visa applicant’s case is brought up is not within the control of the respondent. If the respondent could control it, he or she could simply limit any one factor he or she doesn’t like, rather than accepting the reality that people come as they are.

    More to think about on this one…

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