Thursday, 28 February 2013

Chaos and Determinism in a Game

This article will attempt to answer the question "How much should luck play a factor in my game?". I will explain both ends of the spectrum and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each. It will also discuss the various methods of introducing chance into your games.
Determinism has the following benefits:

  • Makes for a very intellectual game
  • With sufficient testing, allows for a high level of play
  • Players feel encouraged to improve at the game, rather than blame bad luck for a loss
  • At sufficiently high levels of play, beautiful strategies will emerge
  • Experienced players can play very quickly in familiar scenarios
And the following drawbacks:
  • Tends to encourage Analysis Paralysis (AP)
  • Is not approachable for new players; having a skilled friend tends to scare people away
  • Requires an understanding of the game to appreciate it
  • Has a significant learning curve
  • Is discouraging if you do not feel that you are learning while you play
  • Tends to only work with fewer players (usually only 2)
Chaos has the following benefits:
  • Allows for diversity of play, by having unlikely scenarios emerge
  • Chance is faster than decisions - if you let players choose, they will take time to think about it, even if it isn't very important. Leaving things to chance allows you to improve the speed and flow of the game
  • It allows players of disparate skill levels each enjoy a chance of victory
  • It can, in some cases, intensify the player interaction experience
  • It forces you to react to things as they happen, rather than plan infinitely in advance
And the following drawbacks:
  • It is insanely frustrating to lose because of bad dice rolls
  • If there is too much chance involved, player skill becomes irrelevant
  • It is difficult to tell if a strategy is good or bad when it could just be the luck
  • Can occasionally cause AP by adding additional possibilities to the outcome
  • Will usually result in a runaway leader when more people are playing
  • Generally favours more casual games; is generally unable to support a high skill-ceiling
  • Often requires large scale to normalize its odds

Ultimately, one is not strictly superior to the other. In most cases, a balance of the two will provide the best outcome; giving them a game-plan, but still requiring them to keep on their toes. Depending on the nature of your game, and your own personal preferences, you may want to lean one way or the other.

Methods of Uncertainty
Dice are pure chance. They can be good to you, or betray you when you need them most. You can use a single dice to maximize the randomness, or use multiple dice to weigh the odds (example: both 3D6 and 1D20 have the same average roll, but you are more likely to roll 'average' numbers with 3D6).  Their unpredictability is their strength and weakness, and pretty-much embody the pros and cons of Chaos. You can also include coin flips as dice, as they are essentially a D2.
Cards are my preferred method of chance. They are easily malleable, as you can add or subtract possibilities, and each will happen throughout the course of the deck, normalizing the outcome. I feel that they are an excellent balance between Order and Chaos. You can also store large amounts of information per card (relative to the other mediums). Things like tiles from Carcassonne would also be included as cards. You can also manipulate the cards, allowing you to do things like search the deck, or add or remove cards from it at will.
Hidden Information
This is most notable in StrategoShadows over Japan, and Old Maid. Allow each player their own hidden pieces, and have other players react not knowing which is which. It adds a certain amount of metagame to it, imposing mind-games between you and your opponents. It also adds a touch of skill in reading your opponents and knowing how they think. It is not technically random, but it is uncertainty, which for all intents and purposes is the same thing.

This can also include hidden information that is not known to any player. The best example that I can think of this is from Clue, where players have to figure out which clues were set aside at the beginning of the game.
I generally frown on this one for board games, but it includes anything that requires you to physically accomplish a task. Examples of this include Crokinole, Operation, and Jenga. It generally works if it fits your theme, but isn't something I'd consider to be strategic in any way; generally lending itself better to casual, family, or comedy-oriented games.
This is another one I'd frown upon, but having a GM or other neutral party judge/choose an outcome can be a valid method in some circumstances. This is generally most applicable to story-telling games, where the scoring might be determined either by a central judge or a panel of the other players.

An example of this would be Cards Against Humanity, which actually supports both Judge (Card Czar) and Jury (God is Dead) scoring systems.

Be sure to choose the best methods for your mechanics, although in many cases it is more a question of preference than precision.

Until next time,


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