The earliest records of “tabletop games” – games that were designed (we’re not counting “wrestling” or other forms of fighting which, while certainly games, often just had rules based on physics or human safety) – were games like Senet and the Royal Game of Ur, back between 2000 and 3000 BC. These games all relied heavily on luck, and were often used in gambling, like modern Blackjack or Roulette.
Today, designers still use the design element of “luck” — or “randomness” — in their designs for various reasons, and not just in gambling games, but in almost every genre you could name. Randomness has a huge part to play in single-player games; in fact, I’ve often said that in order for a single player game to remain a game, it has to have significant randomness (a game, by the way, by my definition, which is a “contest of ambiguous decision-making”. Read more at Gamasutra). Without randomness, a single-player game necessarily breaks down into a memorization puzzle (or possibly an execution/memorization contest).
So I’m totally down with randomness for single-player games. However, when it comes to multiplayer games, randomness is like fire: it can be useful, but if you have even just a little bit too much of it, the whole game could go up in flames.
Multiplayer is sort of the “natural” state for games. In fact, single player games are almost always asynchronous multiplayer games anyway, due to the scoring mechanism that just about every single player game has (again, not talking about Mass Effect here, I’m talking about things that meet my definition of game). If I’m playing Tetris or Civilization, I’m doing it to beat a previously established high score. That score may have been established by myself, and it may have been established by another person. A very literal illustration of this can be seen in a Match Race of, say, Super Mario Kart, where it lets you actually race against your “ghost”: an ethereal, translucent recording of a previous play.
In multiplayer games, you generally don’t need randomness in the way that you do for a single player game. You’ve got another human mind that’s trying to outsmart you, which already provides the ambiguity that’s required to be a game. However, randomness can certainly be okay, and can even be a good thing overall in multiplayer games, when used wisely.
Different Types of Randomness
There are two very distinct types of randomness that a game can have:
- Random in Setup: Maps or other game items that are random, but accessible to all players. This kind of random just lays out the game-space, and (if designed properly) should have no effect on who wins.
Examples would be: In videogames, Roguelike maps, Civilization maps. For boardgames, examples would be Through the Desert oases placement, or Puerto Rico plantations.
- Random in Execution: Dice rolls or random number generators which determine whether an action is successful. read more