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The 2 types of randomness and how to apply them to your board game

Nobody likes to lose a game because of complete randomness. You want to feel like your decisions matter and that you’ve either won or lost based on your ability to pull off a particular strategy.

At the same time, creating a game with absolutely no randomness can sometimes lead to a bit of a stale experience. Randomness, done the right way, can actually add a lot of replayability and fun to your board game.

In today’s article, we’ll talk about the two types of randomness, the distinction between the two, and how to apply randomness to your board game in an effective manner. I will also share plenty of examples from board games new and old to help you understand the distinction between the two types of randomness and how other game designers have applied it to their games.

Input randomness

It can be said that input randomness will help a player to inform their decisions. It’s about being put in a situation and then allowing the players to determine their own path.

Essentially, there are one or more things that have been randomized, such as cards, tiles, or tokens, that provide players with different options. This may happen at the start of the game, the beginning of every round, or at different points throughout the game.

For example, think about the tiles that are laid out at the start of each round in Azul or the cards available to be purchased in Splendor. They have been randomly drawn from a bag or a deck and now players must decide what to do with this random assortment of things in front of them.

When a game does this right, it allows players to see different paths that they may take in order to try to achieve victory. But when it makes choices too obvious, players can see that there is a certain path that is better than others and if they were paying attention, their best move is to take this path.

In general, input randomness is more acceptable to experienced gamers than output randomness and leads to players using their skills more than just luck.

So, let’s look now at output randomness and how this differs from input randomness.

Output randomness

With output randomness, on the other hand, your fate is dictated by the roll of a die, draw of a card, or some other action. You have no say in the outcome because it is completely random.

One of the simplest examples of this is flipping a coin. Heads you win, tails you lose.

Imagine playing a game for an hour or two and at the end, you flip a coin to determine whether or not you are the winner. This wouldn’t feel very satisfying, would it? You’d wonder why you wasted your evening playing a game where the outcome was determined by a coin flip you could have just made it the start.

However, in some cases, output randomness can bring a lot of excitement to a game.

For example, in D&D (Dungeons and Dragons), when you attack a creature you roll a die to see if you hit. Then you roll another die to see how much damage you have inflicted. This can lead to some really big moments in a game where you either slay the dragon or trip over your own sword. These memories can last a lifetime.

In other cases, this randomness simply takes away player choice and it feels more like the game is playing you. In Monopoly, for example, you often get a double-shot of output randomness. First, you roll the dice and are forced to move exactly that many spaces. There are no alternate paths, no ability to choose between the dice you rolled, and no way to manipulate the dice by even a single pip to make your outcome more favourable. Then, depending on where you land, you may have to draw a card and do whatever it says, pay a fee, or go to jail. If you land on someone else’s property, you owe them money.

Just about the only choice you have are whether or not to buy an unowned property you land on and whether or not to put up houses or hotels on your own properties (and these decisions are mostly dependent on whether you have enough money to afford them).

So, you can see that output randomness in certain circumstances can lead to some wonderful experiences in some cases, however, much of the time it can feel more like the game is playing you.

How to apply randomness well in your own game

When applying randomness to your own game, the first thing you’ll want to do is determine what type of experience you want your players to have. Do you want outcomes determined by luck or skilful play? Do you want big swingy moments in your game or more predictability?

Asking yourself these types of questions will help you understand how best to proceed.

Allowing players to make random draws or select from random objects (possibly with replacement as options are taken), allows them to develop a strategy over time. They have to react to what is presented and make the best choice or choose which direction to go. However, this may also open up “hate drafting.” That is, players select something not because it helps them but because they know another player wants this and they want to deny them. So, it’s helpful to see how this plays out through extensive playtesting and getting feedback.

Just keep in mind that too little choice may lead to obvious decisions, whereas too much choice can lead to analysis paralysis (AP). I find that 3-5 choices usually works well in many games, however, this is dependent on the game and how flexible or rigid you want to be.

Final thoughts

I always like to go back to the vision for my game when I’m making decisions about changes and possible mechanics to use. I want the actual player experience to match what I have intended. Sometimes that may require either input or output randomness depending on the game.

However, I would generally stick to input randomness to create challenges for players and add to the replayability over output randomness, which often leads to more luck-based outcomes.

How have you seen randomness done really well in a game? What’s an example of a game that you find too random?

Please click the button below and leave a comment. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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    Castles of burgundy is randomness done well because there are always options and ways to mitigate luck.

    Catan is luck done badly. I loved it getting into the hobby but there are serious issues with the base mechanics expansions don’t address. Lack of variable win conditions and too much emphasis on starting positions is a long term issue.

    Thanks for your comment, Zafri! Whether the robber moves where you want in Catan is certainly luck-based!

    Hi Joe! TY for the great topic!
    Looking at my own game, Escape Deathrace 2182 “Micro”, under this particular lens, and this was a very important element that was of extreme importance to get as close to right as possible, knowing that nothing is ever perfect.
    Players have a lot of choices within their set number of Actions to take.
    For example, it’s a road building game that players have to draw road tiles to create a shared road/board for all players. Players must roll the dice and reveal that number of tiles, then connect the road tiles. Now, that part is always the same, the kicker is that immediately after, the player moves up to the same amount of spaces as they rolled. Key words “up to”.
    Giving the players agency on exactly how many spaces to move greatly decreases randomness yet also keeps the players connected to the game/theme.
    Another look at randomness in “Micro” are the event tiles. These trigger forced events that the players must entertain. They are like chance cards in the way that something good or bad will happen, and they seldom provide player choice.

    I love the tension in games, push your luck in games. Randomness is one way to create this.

    Output randomness is not the best for some reasons you mention. I love it when you can manipulate components in a game to give your randomnesses the most chance of success. War games do this a lot. Roll a die for combat but if you have the support you get to roll 2 dice. More support roll even more dice. Move troop tokens into or out of cover can affect the number of dice rolled or possibly the number needed for a successful attack, it is a bit of input randomness but you are not doing the choices after the random event but before and the final randomness is more output randomness. Some games do both of these. Input and output. For example, put yourself in line for the most chance of success and then after the roll, an ability may allow you to re-roll bad outcomes or change outcomes. Keep in mind too much of ‘if this’ and ‘if that’ rules can bog down a game.

    I do love the feeling of I set this up and now the randomness creates the tension of was my tactics good enough and it is all on the roll of some dice or the draw of a card.

    Thanks Joe, great article.