29 June 2015

On Randomness in Board Game Design

As I am now a father and busy with other projects, such as the (German language) NPConline, where I am editor-in-chief of all things text. I have recently left this place here to its own devices. But now that my son is slowly getting into an age where play starts to have any meaning, I intend to return here sometimes, be it only to note what we're doing. The roguelike board game I've been working on is also still in the making – the prototype has been feature-complete for a while and a friend of mine is currently making art for it. I think it's gonna be amazing. Anyhow, let's talk about randomness in board game design – it's not as bad as its reputation!

Randomness is usually frowned upon by a lot of grown-up board game reviewers and connoisseurs. A lot of podcasts, blogs and websites talk about how deterministic gaming that is based on strategies and the right use of resources is superior – Monopoly being given as an example of horrible design. That games main fault may also just lie in the fact that it takes hours of grind to come to an end – with most players at some point reduced to spectators while one person slowly but surely ascends to be the One Percent. Anyhow, now that I'm a family-man, my perspective on chance and randomness has changed a little.

You see, while a hard and crunchy strategy game is something that two or more grown-ups can enjoy, a steady stream of die-rolls greatly evens out the playing field when young children are involved. Of course, a seven-year-old can kick your ass in Memory and a ten-year-old will win a lot of hand-eye-coordination-based games. But when you try to get a kid at the age of three or four to the table, they gotta have a realistic chance against you. That's where rolling dice or drawing colorful cards comes into play. I'm not saying, all games should be open for kids (for heaven's sake no!), but you gotta remember that children may have totally different priorities about what constitutes good game design.

While a random victor can be really frustrating when you're competitively playing against players of a similar skill-level, the process of play itself is much more important than that when playing with children. Only an asshole would insist on playing something with their kids that they win all the time – and prior to a certain age and level of understanding, it's likely that you will. When I look back ad board-games I liked as a child, there were three of them I have really fond memories of – two of which were mostly fueled by luck:

Das verrückte Labyrinth (The aMAZEing Labyrinth) was skill-based and gave you secret objectives in the form of cards. It was a fairly component-heavy game for its age, with a custom board and sliding tiles. It obviously doesn't count as it took both analytical as well as observational skills to win – something you only really get at a certain minimum age. It was probably my first foray into dungeoneering and definitely informed my own board-game currently in development.

Monopoly. I remember playing it since a very young age, definitely before I could read (and none of the dumb kiddie-versions either). While I don't believe many games were ever played to completion, the nice thing about it was the customization of my own stuff (owning streets, houses and all that) and the simple factor of length: It felt like an epic thing to play.

Mensch ärgere Dich nicht, a German variant of Pachisi, was probably my first favorite board game, back at an age where I probably couldn't count to ten. This was the holy grail of board games for me as a toddler: I could play with (and beat) my parents – with just a little luck. Unlike some ladder-games, there was, however, an element of decision-making: You have four pawns to move, at your leisure, whenever you have rolled your die. The decision even happens after you rolled and, with a six, you could beat another players pawn. The random element allows kids to compete, this decision makes a victory a thing you did yourself, however.

I do remember creating my very first board game at an age of probably around seven or eight years old. While I do remember some parts of it, being space-based and the playing-pieces based on both real and at-the-time conceptual spacecraft (I had seen video footage of the Delta Clipper at the German museum for technologies in Munich, for example), it is sadly lost to time. The concept was similar to Mensch ärgere Dich nicht though: You had a fleet of space crafts, one of which you could move after a die-roll each turn. Every player controlled one of three space-agencies (Russian, American, European) and the goal was to get to Alpha Centauri (with, say, the Mir, a Soyus and the Buran). My attempt at a remake has sadly fallen victim to a computer-crash.

Randomness with some decision-making can do wonders of integrating players with vastly different skill-levels into the same game-session. When you're frustrated at Mario Party for the Wii because after two hours of playing the game shuffles all scores around and it was basically all for nothing, you gotta keep this in mind: It's about playing together, not winning. And it's about giving small kids the chance of feeling mighty and victorious. And these are things that I can totally get behind.

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