Input-Output Randomness (Part 1)
Exploring different types of random elements in tabletop games
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This is Part 1 of a two part series on input and output randomness. Don’t miss Part 2!
Last week we had an interview with Kyle Tam of Urania Games. We talked about game mechanisms and influences. Go check it out if you missed it!
This week we are back to tabletop game design, and the concept of “randomness.”
Let’s see if we can improve our vocabulary when it comes to describing random elements in games!
Random elements in games
In game design, random elements are commonly introduced to add some excitement, luck, and chance to a game.
This could be done in many ways:
Drawing cards from a shuffled deck
Pulling tokens from a bag
Flipping a coin
While some games are zero-luck (e.g. chess) I’d argue most games include at least some form of randomness, even if it just determines the starting conditions of the game.
It’s also common (especially in board games), to have players that think games have too much luck or chance in them. It is sometimes true that a victory or defeat based on too much luck can feel less satisfying.
So this week, let’s break down “randomness” and see if we can determine which types increase or decrease player satisfaction!
We’ve all played children’s games that are like this. Candy Land (Abbott, 1949) is the classic example. Players draw cards and move to the next location with a matching color. There is no player agency and no decision to be made.
It’s a good way to introduce children to the concept of board games, and to learn concepts such as winning/losing and taking turns.
As a modern board game? There’s a reason it’s rated a 3.2 on BGG.
Input randomness is a random event that happens before the player makes decisions.
Modern board games rely heavily on input randomness and the examples are countless:
Deck building games like Shards of Infinity (Arant & Gary, 2018) introduce randomness both in the cards drawn each round as well as the cards available in the market. Players make decisions based on what they happen to draw.
Input randomness is also used in the random turn order system of For What Remains (Thompson, et al., 2020). Players draw unit activation tokens from a bag, not knowing which ones they will receive that round. They make decisions based on which ones they pull.
In general, players appreciate this type of randomness.
Although care must be taken to give the players meaningful choices. Pulling random cards that can all be played or have no options in how they are used is no choice at all.
Output randomness is when the random event happens after the player has made their decision.
In some ways, this is the opposite of input randomness. Combat is in the game of Risk (Lamorisse & Levin, 1959) is commonly used as an example. Players make their decision to move or attack, and dice determine the outcome and combat result.
In those games the strategy comes in aligning your forces to ensure the odds are in your favor when it’s time for combat. Even then, however, you might just get a bad roll.
Sometimes the dice are just cursed, leading to a less than satisfying result. Anyone who has swung and missed multiple times in MÖRK BORG knows this pain.
Some things to think about:
Not all randomness is equal: It’s easy to put games on a spectrum with chess at one end and Candy Land at the other. There’s more to it than that. Games can have very satisfying randomness, and deterministic games might feel flat and lifeless. It’s the careful application of chance that makes them fun.
Input randomness might be better: Of course there are no hard rules, but I’d guess that players are more tolerant of input randomness than output randomness. It’s better to get some options to deal with rather than have your strategy ruined by a bad roll.
Randomness in TTRPGs: While the concepts of input and output randomness are almost always discussed in terms of board games, they apply to TTRPGs as well. In many cases they lean toward output randomness (e.g. decide to attack and then roll to hit), which might show their wargaming roots. More on this in Part 2!
In this week’s poll, I’m curious which type of randomness you prefer? There’s no wrong answer!
We’ll continue tomorrow (Part 2) with a look at input-output randomness! See you then!
— E.P. 💀
P.S. I’ll be at PAX Unplugged this week! While Exeunt Press won’t have a booth, you can purchase Eleventh Beast and Exclusion Zone Botanist at the Plus One Exp Booth #4338. Hope to see you there!
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