This week I took a small break from working on Osprey Adrift to tinker around with another game (I do sometimes manage to find fifteen minutes here or there). Without giving too much away, I’ve been playing with the idea of using tokens in bags as the core random chance mechanic, as opposed to more traditional means such as dice or cards, because it’s a better fit for the game’s theme. A lot of games use bags for a variety of effects; they can add to the game’s experience in ways that dice and cards simply cannot – for example, they can make it feel more like a player is “collecting” different outcomes (although deckbuilders do this by having players build decks, it doesn’t feel quite the same).
Working with this idea of different outcomes in a bag and playing with fun ways to mitigate the random chance, screw your opponents, and creating other mechanics around the concept led me think a lot about how different random chance mechanics differ – not only statistically, but also in terms of the psychology behind them. Dice, cards, and tokens in a bag are all means to the same end: introducing an element of randomness to the game. But each one creates a unique playing experience.
Statistics: When it comes to the random chance effect of dice, there’s a lot to take into account. Dice are adaptable. They’re flexible. From the number of sides on the die, to the number of dice rolled, to the method of determining outcome (adding numbers, counting “outcomes,” etc.), to mitigating chance with re-rolls, there’s many ways to play with the math. Perhaps the one defining feature of dice, however, is the physical permanence of a die: A die with six sides has six possible different outcomes. No matter how many times the die is rolled, those outcomes will–barring other mechanical interventions–always be the same.
Experience: There’s nothing that can be compared to the feeling you get when you pick up dice and chuck them across the table, waiting to see what fate has in store for you. The weight of the dice, the clicking of them in your hand, and the tumbling on the table – it’s all part of the fun. This experiential factor is divisive, however; many people actually abhor dice – not only because they’re a vehicle to introduce heavy random chance into an otherwise strategic game, but also because of the tactile chaos that dice encourage. Extremely fiddly games with lots of delicate set-ups make dice-rolling a bit… dicey.
Statistics: Like dice, there’s a lot of ways to play with cards to get the mathematics of your random chance mechanic to work how you want it to. The randomness of drawing a card from a large deck of cards is probably most famously mitigated in the way that deckbuilding games do it: players build smaller decks during the game (either from a larger deck, or by drafting cards), and cards are then drawn from those smaller decks. The specific mechanics of what to do with cards is also important for how randomness is crafted – Are cards kept in hands? Are they discarded after drawn, or put back into the deck? Do they have a single “state” or outcome, or do they have multiple outcomes / kept permanent in the gamestate to build an engine? Just like dice, cards are versatile. Also, their defining feature is similar to dice: the outcome of drawing a card from a deck of cards is physically permanent. When the game instructs you to draw a card from the top of a deck, there’s only one card you can possibly draw.
Experience: Cards create a different sensory and psychological experience that tricks many euro-gamers into thinking they’re inherently less random chance-inducing than dice. Perhaps it’s the neatness of a deck of cards placed just next to the board in a permanent stack. Perhaps it’s the two-dimensionality of a piece of cardstock with a clean printed image confined in a design frame. Perhaps it’s the civility of holding a fan of cards close to your body and quietly setting a card down on the table when it’s played. Or perhaps it’s all of these things and more. Whatever the case may be, cards are all about neatness and order. There’s even an art to shuffling cards that some people take seriously. The arrangement of cards is important. It’s a matter of ritual and formality. While it is true that some people have rituals when it comes to rolling dice, these rituals are often more boisterous (shaking the dice in one’s fist vigorously… “C’mon, papa needs a new pair of shoes!”) or chaotic (throwing the dice low to the table so they travel a greater distance). One experience isn’t inherently better than the other; they’re simply different. It’s an important–and sometimes overlooked–thing to think about when designing a game. The experience matters.
It’s also worth mentioning that cards and dice differ spatially as well. A die has very limited real estate for displaying the result. Whereas a card has significantly much more room to showcase artwork, text, etc. Cards have a certain “cool” or novely factor that are really only achieved with dice when they’re custom-designed or made from an unexpected material.
Tokens in a bag
Statistics: Tokens drawn from a bag offer a bit of flexibility, and I’ve seen games use the mechanic in clever ways. For example, players can alter the odds easily by placing new tokens into the bag – an especially cool mechanic when players each have their own bag and collection of tokens. The element of memory also factors in. Allowing players to see what tokens go into the bag means that a savvy player could mentally catalog what’s in the bag and wager a guess at what the odds of pulling a certain token out might be… assuming they can remember.
Experience: This is where the title of this blog post comes in. Now, depending on your view of quantum mechanics, the universe, fate, and all that good stuff, this next piece could fit into the “Statistics” section as well: pulling a token out of a bag isn’t fixed in the way that the face of a die or a card from a deck is. Pulling a token out of a bag isn’t inevitably bound to its outcome.
The feeling of reaching into a dark bag to pull out your outcome has a different feel to it than rolling a die or drawing a card off of a deck. It feels limitless… like anything can happen. That token you put between your finger and thumb is Schrödinger’s token – it is every possibility in the universe (or at least the bag as “the universe”) and only reveals itself when you pull it from the quantum ocean of the bag. The feeling of pulling out your outcome and seeing it emerge from a dark bag is almost primal – there’s a stillness and a searching feeling that comes from the mechanic that is entirely different from the raucous chaos of dice or the rigid formality of drawing cards.
Anyway, that’s my (probably rambling) dissection of a few random chance mechanics. Perhaps I think too much about these things… but these are important decisions to make when designing a game. What’s the experience you’re trying to create? And how do you create that experience?
And for you cerebral gamers out there – what about you? What are your favorite ways that games add randomness?
Until next time, gang. Keep it plucky!