Randomness is often an important discussion point when weighing up the merits of a game. Having played a number of trading card games, both digitally and physically, in recent years, I've seen my fair share of complaints over mana-screw in Magic and the number of cards with random effects in Hearthstone. The complaints that people have in these games are often born out of frustration, but they often have their roots in real games where random factors significantly influenced the outcome.
In a game like Magic or Hearthstone, where you can be finished in 15 minutes and on to the next game, you can quickly get over the odd loss to randomness. But can we get over it if we've invested a couple of hours or more into one board game, only to lose to a roll of the dice? Is randomness a good thing in the world of tabletop gaming, or is it something we should have left behind a long time ago?
The Scale of Randomness
To orientate ourselves with this topic, we need to appreciate that randomness is a scale, and every board game can be placed on some point of that scale. Let's look at each end of the scale to get a sense of what we're dealing with.
Completely Random Games
At one end are games that are completely determined by luck, with no elements of skill whatsoever. These games are pretty much exclusively made for children, with the classic Snakes and Ladders being one of the most famous examples. In Snakes and Ladders, players have no decisions to make. You're moving pieces on a single path and your moves are completely determined by dice rolls.
Games at this end of the scale are good for teaching young kids about the basics of gaming and for helping them learn how to win and lose well, but they have no application as a test of skill. Even a game like Ludo is a step up, as you at least have the choice of which piece you want to move each turn.
Games with no Randomness
At the other end of the scale we have games which have no random elements: they are purely tests of skill. Games like Chess and Drafts fall at this end of the scale, as players start off with identical pieces and are in complete control of every move they make. Games with no randomness are fantastic tests of skill, but they can be much harder to teach and less experienced players will never stand a chance against players who are better than them.
It's more common to find board games with no randomness than it is to find completely random board games, but it's still an extreme end of the scale and a category that not many games fall into.
Types of Randomness
Games that make use of randomness, even games at more or less the same point on the scale, are not always using the same type of randomness. A game could have you roll two dice in a turn and have the results have a completely different impact on the game. When we're talking about how games use randomness mechanically, there are two broad categories to discuss: input and output randomness.
Input randomness is where a turn or round's random action happens before players have to make any strategic decisions. A prime example is Castles of Burgundy. In this widely appreciated Euro game, players roll two six-sided dice at the start of each turn. They then choose which actions to take based on the numbers that they rolled. Another example would be the primary random mechanic of Magic: the Gathering: card drawing. Players draw a random card at the start of each turn, then make decisions based on the cards in their hand and under their control.
Input randomness is inherently limited in how much it can impact a player's strategy, because there is nearly always the opportunity to adapt your tactics based on what's just come up. Many of the most popular games out at the moment use input randomness in some way, whether that's to stock a trade row, as in Century: Spice Road, or to set-up the board, as in the popular party game Codenames.
Output randomness is where a random action happens after a player has made a decision. Risk is perhaps the best known example of this. In Risk, players choose a region to attack before rolling dice to see if that attack will be successful. Players can take steps to give themselves the best chance possible, but they can never guarantee success. Role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons also use output randomness, making use of different die rolls to determine the efficacy of a player's actions.
Output randomness has the potential to be much more frustrating for players than input randomness, but it can be very effective. While many gamers dislike Risk, many others absolutely love it, and the hugely popular Gloomhaven also makes use of output randomness in its RPG-esque combat mechanic.
The Purpose of Randomness
The descriptions of the scale have introduced some of the reasons why randomness is used in board games. After all, if it was a useless, un-fun tool then it would not be used in some way in the vast majority of games produced every year. When used well, randomness has a number of important functions:
Randomness allows different play-throughs of the same game to feel very different. In Chess, where there's no randomness, you could use the same strategy every game with only minor variations, but random elements mean that no two games look exactly the same. Catan is a classic example of this function, with the randomised board ensuring that the distribution of resources is different each time you play. While you can pursue similar strategies, you won't be able to do exactly the same thing. The dice rolling mechanic also means you can never be certain which resources you'll have available throughout the game.
Lowering the Skill Barrier
Random elements give newer players a chance to make up ground on players who have a lot more experience, which can make games much more exciting for a wider group of players. To use Risk as an example again, you could play worse than your opponent but stay competitive through the dice falling in your favour.
If you want games to be pure skill tests then you won't like this aspect, but I think that anyone who wants games to appeal to a broad range of inexperienced players should recognise that it's important for them to feel like they have a chance of winning if we want them to stay engaged. A well-balanced game should really still be won by the more skilled player the majority of the time, just not every time.
Creating Interesting Strategic Decisions
I don't agree with the idea that randomness is somehow the opposite of strategy. Randomness is a game design tool, and like any other tool it can be used to encourage interesting strategic decisions. As long as players are fully aware of all the random elements within a game, they can make informed, meaningful choices.
One of my favourite games, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is a good example. It has two main random mechanics: drawing cards from a face-down deck (it's a card game) and rolling 10 dice at the start of a round to determine the resources you have available. Cards are only redrawn at the start of a new round (rather than a new turn) so planning for your new hand is important.
It's also important to plan how to use the dice that you rolled and to use cards that allow you to manipulate them. Players have to be flexible enough to make decisions based on the resources that the random elements give to them, and can't stick so rigidly to one strategy that they're completely stumped if they draw or roll differently to what was needed.
For randomness to be truly effective and beneficial in board games that will appeal to regular players, players need a way to manage it, or feel like they have a chance of managing it. To continue with Ashes as an example, the game has in-built ways of changing your dice rolls so that a bad roll doesn't ruin you for a round and players also choose their starting hands, which means no one can fall too far behind in the first turns (in theory). These rules mean that while randomness affects the game, it doesn't dictate the game. That's the sweet spot that I think the best games fall into.
A friend of mine has a theory that the best tabletop games tend to include either one major random element (like card drawing in Magic) or a couple of minor random elements, like the dice roll and tile distribution in Castles of Burgundy. Any more randomisation than that is likely to lead to the game being too unpredictable.
In most cases, I would agree with that theory, though we should recognise that some wildly successful games, like Catan, arguably have both a major random element (dice rolling every turn) and a minor one (board set-up). Although there are plenty of more experienced gamers who don't like Catan for that very reason!
Whatever its levels of randomness, for a game to be considered strategic it needs some way for players to manage that randomness and strategise around it. Catan does that by giving players free choice over where to place their first two settlements, while Castles of Burgundy allows players to alter dice rolls by paying worker tokens. These rules and mechanics are the things that allow randomness to influence the game without necessarily deciding the winner, as it does in Snakes and Ladders.
When used well, random mechanics can be very beneficial. There are hundreds of games out there that show all the ways that randomness can be incorporated into a strategic game, bringing with it a unique mechanical flavour and lowering the barrier to entry.
Individual players will have different tolerances for randomness - I enjoy Catan but many others find it too unpredictable - and that's okay. Board gamers have so many different tastes that we shouldn't be surprised if something as interesting and variable as randomness divides opinion.
Ultimately, it's helpful to be aware of the random mechanics that are out there and how they influence individual games, as this knowledge will make it much easier to decide whether or not a game is right for you and your gaming groups. If you know what you're getting into, randomness can facilitate unique, fun tabletop gaming experiences and should be readily embraced by the community at large.