Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thinking Cap: Is Randomness Necessary? Part 2

Warning!  Wall of text/deep philosophical content ahead!

Recently I've not had the opportunity to play Warmachine/Hordes, but instead I've been playing other games and I had a thought: is randomness really necessary for a game?  Yesterday, in Part 1, I started by looking at the kinds of mechanics that exist out there in various game formats that incur randomness.  Today I will look at a couple of games where there is limited - if any - randomness to see if we can answer the question that I've posed.  Lastly, I will share my thoughts about how a miniatures game could be fun without incorporating randomness.  I would first like to clarify that randomness is not the same as uncertaintyRandomness can change your desired action after the decision has been made, while uncertainty will affect your decision before you make it.

The first example I would like to give has a limited randomness, and that is a board game called Power Grid.  This game has won no less than 12 awards since 2004 and is an incredibly fun game for such a simple premise.  While this game does have a degree of randomness with the deck of power plants, there are mechanics in play that ensure some reliability of the power plants available, and it's the only random mechanic in the game.  Everything else in the game depends upon decisions that players make, and how those decisions affect the decisions of others, but there's no level of randomness beyond what power plants show up.  The funds you earn, the costs of building power stations, and the cost of resources are all non-random, but there may be some degree of uncertainty in what the other players choose to do, but again - it's not random.  This game has won numerous awards and is tons of fun.  In fact, I am interested in even removing what randomness there is next time to see if the game plays any differently (not very difficult to do within the mechanics of the game).  "But there's still a degree of randomness!" I hear you cry.  Well, there are a few games that don't incorporate any randomness at all!

More information can be found here
What about Stratego?  This is a game that's played on a 10x10 gridded board, where each player places various pieces with assorted numbers, without being able to see what the numbers on your opponent's pieces, and you need to somehow capture your opponent's flag (again, hidden).  There is no randomness in this game - you don't need to roll any dice or draw any cards to deploy your pieces, or to determine whether or not you actually defeat an opponent's piece.  Instead, there is a high degree of uncertainty instead, in the form of your opponent hiding information from you in a game of reconnaissance and deception.  There are surprises, but it's due to a ruse by an opponent, leading to skill and strategy being the keys to success without any degree of randomness to affect that.

More information can be found here
Stratego is not alone in the list of strategy games in which there is no degree of randomness.  Stratego is actually just one in a list of strategy games where randomness plays no impact in the results of the game but in which it depends on the decisions that you and your opponent make.  Some other examples include Chess, Checkers, and the Chinese game Go.  In each of these great strategy games, there are degrees of uncertainty in that you might not know how your opponent will react to your choices, but that does involve any random changes to how your pieces move or whether their actions succeed or not - which is the core of my question.  Let's also not forget the game of Diplomacy, where again there are no dice rolled and the complexity and strategy of the game comes from knowing your opponent and judging their loyalties and motivations.  Now you might think that all of these games are overly simplistic games, without the complexities of battle, but I think we're forgetting a particular group of games where randomness doesn't factor at all but can still demonstrate the complexities of the genre of strategy: computer/video games.

Arguably the best RTS of all time
What about the ever-popular computer game Starcraft?  There is no degree of randomness in this game - your units always hit, their damage never randomized, and you always get the same amount of resources when your workers collect them.  While your opponent's choices are uncertain thanks to the fog of war, there is no randomness at all!  In fact, Starcraft has more similarities to Warhammer 40k than most of these other games that I've mentioned, and yet there's no degree of randomness.  Hell, we can even look at the popular Dawn of War series of video games to see the Warhammer 40k universe without any randomness.  My point is that it's totally possible to have games without any degree of randomness in games, but could this translate to a miniatures game?  Why not?

So what might a miniatures game without any randomness look like?  Well unfortunately, given the current breadth of miniatures games out there and their mechanics, it's difficult to take what currently exists in these games and make them non-random by assuming the most probable result.  In Warmachine if we assume that every die roll will be the most probable result, damage rolls would largely be unaffected, but high-DEF models would become prohibitively difficult to kill without the proper probabilities - especially when it comes to infantry models which rely on volume of attacks rather than the quality of attacks like Warjacks/Warbeasts do.  Similarly, in Warhammer games, assuming the most probable results will be difficult with vehicles where each result on a D6 is equally probable, and with vehicles typically suffering different results for each number on the D6, it again would be impossible to assume the most-probable result.

Perhaps miniatures games can learn from Diplomacy?
No, one would need to imagine an entirely new miniatures game without any need for dice or a degree of randomness.  How could that be achieved?  Well looking back at the games of Chess, Go, and Diplomacy, the uncertainty and excitement of the game comes from analyzing your opponent, what reactions they might make in response to your moves, and how predictable they are.  There is no randomness in the results of your actions - only the uncertainty of how your opponent will react.  Uncertainty is important to make games exciting, but randomness is chaos - with a player having little to no control over the actions that they make.  For a game without randomness to stay exciting, the uncertainty must instead come from the decisions that the opposing player might make, or perhaps the abilities they might have.  Lack of information on ones enemy (composition, strength, equipment) makes for a more realistic wargame, without adding randomness.  Perhaps we could imagine a miniatures game where all of the statistics on the models are constant, but certain information about the composition of an opponent's forces are kept secret until engaged.  This is not an unknown concept and has actually been part of Warhammer Fantasy Battles throughout the years - magical equipment is kept secret until used - and adds to the strategic depth of the game.
There are still plenty of problems with
8th edition of Warhammer, though.

Does this mean that randomness is a bad thing?  No.  I do think, however, that it's not necessary.  Uncertainty is definitely something that humanity actually craves, as it harkens back to our primal instincts of keeping our minds sharp and fresh.  Randomness and chaos has been attributed over time by those who feel like the universe is outside of their control, but as we've evolved as humans, I think we've come to realize that there really isn't much randomness to the world and that it's merely the decisions that we and others make that shape the world around us; no longer is the world determined by a pantheon of gods, but by the natural forces of nature.  So I ask you: is randomness really necessary to have a fun miniatures game?
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