Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Randomness in boardgames: Forgiveness

[The latest in a series about randomness in games. Here are the links for the first and second parts.]

I have a reputation in our little gaming group for hating train games. I only partially deserve it, because the reputation started with things I actually said. I really dislike Ticket To Ride, for reasons that aren't relevant for this blog post. And I really hated my first session of Age of Steam, for exactly the reasons I'm writing this post. The fact that I dislike two train games doesn't mean that I'll never play a train game, but don't bother asking me to play either of those.

Age of Steam irritated me because, as a new player, it wasn't fun. Our game consisted of two noobs and two pros, and whaddaya know, the pros mopped the floor with the noobs. Turn one, I felt as though I was making a sub-optimal choice, but I had no idea how bad it really was until later. Every turn gave me greater awareness of exactly how dark the shadow of doom o'erhanging me really was. Decisions made early in the game came back to haunt me, so that by mid-game, it was clear that I was blocked from doing anything interesting.

I might have learned something from that experience that I could have applied to the next game, but frankly, Age of Steam just didn't grab me enough to make me want to play that game on that theme for another two or three hours. Maybe I'm wrong in making this conclusion, but Age of Steam did not feel like a game that would give me much room for trying out new strategies. The idea of playing a couple of turns, finding myself blocked again (it just seems like that sort of game), and then sitting around waiting for the end just didn't grab me.

To be honest, I'm not that interested in railroads, so the theme didn't give me impetus to play again, either. However, it's also the case that, unlike other Martin Wallace games I've played and loved, Age of Steam did not give much room for improvisation in the middle of the game. Nor did it feel, unlike Princes of the Renaissance, that the final outcome was really up for grabs until the end of the game.

In Princes, smart plays do increase significantly the odds of victory. But it's also entirely possible for new players to get enough of a clue to give more experienced players a real challenge. Princes provides just enough randomness where it matters, such as battle die rolls, to make it possible for players to catch up through smarter bids or more productive wars.

One of the most common complaints about randomness in boardgames is that it undermines the decisions you make. From one perspective, that's certainly true. In a game with no randomness, such as chess, you're completely in control of your fortunes. No flip of a card or roll of a die is going to screw up your strategy.

However, the lack of randomness makes learning within a game of chess possible, but not immediately applicable. If you're so new to the game that you don't understand how important the opening is, you'll lose to a more experienced player. Assuming you don't run out of patience with chess altogether before the game ends, you'll apply the lessons learned to the next session.

Chess isn't for everyone, however. It's not a casual game for friendly get-togethers in the same vein as Carcassone. You have to want to be a chess player to buy into the series of brutal lessons you'll endure as you gradually improve your understanding of the game. If you just want a quick diversion that poses an interesting challenge, and which rewards you with a score at the end, play something else.

If you want your game to appeal to more than just the most dedicated players, this is an important principle. Sure, bad luck can mess with you, but randomness also opens opportunities you might not otherwise have. Rather than watching the cascade effect of early mistakes unfold turn by turn until the inevitable conclusion, you can capitalize on a few lucky die rolls or card draws. The leader can be somewhat confident of a victory, but there's always the risk of an unexpected stumble. (Which makes the game more interesting for the leader, too.)

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