The Role of Randomness


In game design, a random element or random mechanic is not always desirable. Randomness in some circles is even looked down upon as a cheap mechanic that degrades the strategic or tactical elements of a game. The phrase luck based, has been used to label the random element of games to showcase that the skill of the player cannot be fully expressed in that type of game. On the flip side, many games hinge solely on a central random mechanic and in some circles luck based or random games are considered more fun or more inclusive of all players regardless of skill level.

So what is the role of randomness in games? Don’t be shocked now… but the role is to provide a random element to the game. *gasp… looks right then left*… did I lose anyone?

Both circles of thought about randomness in games make valid points. But what if I told you that they were both mistaken about the nature of randomness. Now before you tune me out, I don’t think either side is wrong about “how randomness gets used in games”, but they are both confused about how randomness can be used in games. I don’t feel that random and strategic elements are always mutually exclusive.

At the core, randomness in game design deals with the concept of unpredictability.

Predict: “Say or estimate that (a specified thing) will happen in the future or will be a consequence of an action.”

Randomness that creates unpredictability is not very desirable in a strategy game. In most strategy games players expect a certain level of predictability to the outcome of the actions they take. If a player cannot predict the outcome of an action (or set of actions) building strategies becomes nearly impossible.

All randomness in games creates unpredictability but the level of complexity within a game can also create unpredictability without the use of randomness.

Let’s take a step back and look at some sub-types of randomness:

  • Endless random
  • Dwindling random
  • Random output (after a player makes a choice)
  • Random Input (before a player makes a choice)

Endless random is straightforward, like dice that give an inexhaustible supply of random numbers. This might also be a deck of cards that once depleted is shuffled (randomized) and reused. There is virtually no way for a human to accurately predict the outcome of endless truly random elements.

Dwindling random is like a deck of cards that is not shuffled (randomized) and reused. This might also be a set of tokens in a bag. As you draw cards or tokens from the supply the number left becomes less and less until only one predictable non-random card or token is drawn. This assumes the players are familiar with the set of random elements in the deck of cards or set of tokens in the bag.

This touches on the idea of counting cards as a player that knows the number and types in a set can mentally track what elements remain in the set as those elements are drawn or used. This idea is that the randomness becomes less and less as the elements of the set are used. In this design structure, an experienced player can begin to predict to some extent the outcome of events the closer to the end of the set. To eliminate or lessen this type of predictability within the dwindling random system the majority of blackjack games today use six or eight decks so that counting cards becomes much more difficult (nearing impossible for humans).

Random output deals with the timing of the random element. This is the place that randomness in strategy games is undesirable. The player takes an action, then the random force or element changes things right before the outcome of that action is decided. The outcome or output of the action is affected by the random element. This is frustrating in strategy games because the player cannot predict the outcome before the action is taken. While this type of randomness is great for many other types of games it is poorly suited for building extended long-term strategies. It might be true to life that there are random forces at work in just about everything, but the strategy game (as such) depends on predictability.

Where this type of randomness shines is in role-playing and simulation games that deal with unpredictable forces. This is the luck factor and the wind of the game world. Many times this type of randomness is measured or controlled by the mathematical and statistical formulas related to probability. This can set things up so that a player can know what chance they have to succeed or fail before taking an action. But in the end, the random force controls the output. So there can be some strategy to the way a game is played within this form of randomness, just not the type of strategy needed for traditional strategy based games.

Random Input is when the random element is known by the player before the decision to take and action is made. This can be done many ways but similar to output, this type also deals with the timing of the random element and not necessarily the method of randomness used. For instance, a random tile is flipped revealing the next challenge a player must overcome in a tactical way. If all of the tiles used to build a random game board are set out before the game even starts, the players would all have access to the same random information about the board. This would still give the players the ability to plan out or build a strategy for this game. This type of randomness will not work in strategy based games unless most if not all of the random elements happen before the game starts. But the timing of the randomness it the important part here.

This is also called procedural generation in the video game world. It can throw a monkey wrench into the realm predictability but it does not always need to in order to be effectively used in game design. This type of randomness, more than any other, is overlooked by board game designers. This has been changing some in the last few years so we will see how it can be used in the future.

As game designers, it is critical to understand what role we want randomness to play in the game we are designing and also how that randomness will affect player strategy. Randomness can have a place in any style or type of game if used in the right way, but the players will be the final judge of whether or not the game is fun.

Note: “Player action selection, when no single choice is better than any other choice in a set of predetermined choices, is never truly random.”

The thing to understand here as a designers is, there is nothing all that “random” about what a player selects when playing rock – paper – scissors (RPS). They may “feel” like they are choosing a random selection but science has proven that humans do not naturally select true random strings.

Player choice or selection is a type of unpredictability.  Its is not covered by the types of randomness above. This is when a player needs to pick one option but does care what action is selected because all of the choices have the same potential benefit. Humans don’t do true randomness in their selection of any choice.

When people play this game against machines that can create true random strings, the machine wins many more games than it loses. So while the dominant strategy of RPS is to select the most random option each time, humans and computers can’t do it. Keep this in mind when taking the player based random selection into account during game design. This is Pseudo-Random vs. True Random, and while it is less important to get into this subject for board game design. Just keep in mind that balanced dice really do give random numbers and common board game dice just like people don’t.

For the board game designer, whatever method or procedure you pick for the role randomness in your games, just make sure it does the “thing” you designed it to do and everything will work out fine. (until the playtesters get their hands on it)

This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.

“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”


“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”


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