Randomisation Timing

I’ve been playing the new Hearthstone expansion recently and I’ve not had a particularly good time with it. I’ve noted before that I’d enjoy Hearthstone more if they deleted every card with the word “random” printed anywhere on it and this expansion seems to be pushing towards more cards of that nature (A brief aside: There is a difference between “I don’t like this” and “This is bad” – I think this is actually going to be a good direction for the game as a whole). The thing is that there are other games which involve more randomisers than the average game of Hearthstone, because what bothers me isn’t the presence of the random factor, but the timing surrounding it.


I hold to the perspective that games are about interesting choices. I like it when I feel that I’m making meaningful choices and seeing the results of those, I tend to enjoy games less when that doesn’t happen. The timing of a choice, a randomiser and a result has a fairly big impact on how I feel about playing a game.

If a game randomises something then lets me make a choice then I tend the feel good about it. I played a chess variant in which players shuffle the back row of pieces before the start of the game, but thereafter play normally. I enjoyed the introduction of a random element that made the start of the game less automatic and more novel, but once I start making decisions they’re more meaningful than the initial randomisation.

In most games random effects occur at some point during a looping turn sequence. Take Game of Thrones for instance, a series of random events occur at the start of each turn, but after that the rest of the turn is deterministic. I feel good about having a situation set up with some noise in it to keep me on my toes then getting to make decisions about how to react to those random factors. It bothers me to make a decision and then have a randomised outcome that undermines the actual choice in the game in the face of a random number generator.

This is proof that I’m deeply irrational. How is the situation in GoT different from making a series of decisions and then having a randomiser determine if they were the right ones? Arguably “Do this at the end of each turn” is another (simpler) way to write “Do this at the start of each turn except the first one”. Partly I feel it’s down to the timing of the result, I randomise, I make decisions in the context of those randomisation and then I see a result based on my decisions – but then this is just as intellectually dishonest. Why does the outcome of a battle qualify as “A result” but getting bonus troops for a newly taken territory does not? It ultimately comes down to how it feels.

feelsWhile ultimate victory or defeat in game is a culmination of all of the moments that lead up to it some milestone moments feel like they’re more significant. Killing a creature in Hearthstone or taking a castle in Game of Thrones feel like significant events and the feeling of agency that I look to experience (and create!) in games comes down to having a moment between the randomiser and the apparent result in which a player can make a decision to change its outcome.

I think this is how Hearthstone’s random cards differentiate themselves from other card games. In most games the random factor was introduced when you drew your hand and all of your options about how to play are open before you – getting the hand itself doesn’t feel like ‘A result’ but playing it does, so it feels like choice matters. If you play a card with a random effect then you’ve already made your choice and if the random number god hates you then tough. Knowing that this is irrational I have to ask the question: Is it just me?

I’m sure I’ll hear from people in the comments, but I’ve had an experience that suggests that at least to some extent it isn’t. During playtesing for an earlier version of Wizard’s Academy I ran into an issue with the random events. While I wanted a some of the players problems to be their own fault (e.g. “We’re all burning in that fire we started to kill the trolls! Oh our hubris, why did we do that?”) it’s necessary to have plenty of problems crop up on their own and for issues that players have started to periodically get worse. A series of events that influence existing problems seemed like a good solution to this.

WizAcademy(You’d think I’d have a good image of a disaster card here. If I hadn’t left my HDD behind)

The problem was that players didn’t enjoy that they’d take actions, then a disaster card would pop up and they’d find critical events happened without them having any sort of ability to act on it. A number of solutions were proposed (and tried) ranging from gutting the disaster system entirely through to simply toning down the power of the cards, but for one reason or another none of them played out particularly well.

The solution that ultimately got the best feedback was to have players open their turn by drawing a disaster card for next turn and playing the one they drew last turn. Just having a little bit of warning was enough to shift events from “I feel that we lost that because we drew crappy cards” to “We should’ve seen this coming and done something about it” or sometimes even “We saw that coming and did something about it. Go team!”

The game didn’t become less random, ultimately the same events were randomised and to exactly the same degree – but the feedback I got (and still get I suppose, though this improvement happened a while ago) suggests that the timing of the randomisation makes a big difference to how the game is experienced.

(I think that’s a good place to stop this post, but there’s SO MUCH I feel I really didn’t get into. The nature of how these ideas apply to wargames and the difference between choosing all targets and rolling the shots vs choice-random-choice-random for umpteen iterations. The possibility that a computerised card games could implement their random at the draw step, for instance by having a card that becomes one of three cards when drawn rather than when played. Ah well, all things for another time.)




9 thoughts on “Randomisation Timing

  1. This is a brilliant article, and I completely agree with this statement: “If a game randomises something then lets me make a choice then I tend the feel good about it.”

    The one area where I think randomization can be good/interesting is combat, particularly if it creates those stand-up-next-to-the-table moments as you’re rolling dice or flipping cards. It adds to the drama. I’m not sure if that could be done if you randomize something, make a choice, then reveal it to the opponent. It loses some of that tension and excitement. But I could be wrong–do you think there’s a way to create memorable moments in combat with randomization?

    • Definitely, the trick is in the meaningful choice following the randomisation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a combat outcome hinge on the roll of a die. A lot games achieve this by letting you resolve one pieces’s actions before deciding what to do with the next one – so after the randomisation you end up with an interesting choice in “Crap that was unlucky, how do I move to cover it” and another interesting choice in the order that you choose to resolve your pieces (i.e. “I’d best do this one first so I’ve got the flexibility to plan around it if it goes wrong”)

      To some extent it’s like GMing a roleplaying game. You want failure to have a consequence because otherwise the attempt isn’t exciting, but you don’t want the consequence to be “Have a boring game” I’d always be looking for ways to have a bad roll be followed up by a scamble to recover from a bad decision than be followed by an inability to interact with the game for a while (i.e. It’s now your opponents turn. No choices following the roll.)

      I’d also argue you can get those moments of tension without a randomiser, because the key element is not that something random happens but that something unpredictable happens. That can be obtained by players secretly making deterministic decisions. I’ve seen just as much tension in (for instance) the flipping of general cards in Game of Thrones or revealing the stack for a key mission in Battlestar: Galactica (though the latter does contain a couple of random cards the most important part is usually the cards that the other players chose to play)

  2. Those are great points–thanks for your reply. I think a lot of the card combat in Kemet, which has a little bit of tension (mostly added by the secret cards you can hide under the combat cards), but it rarely leads to truly memorably moments in Kemet combat. It’s fast and smooth, but not epic.

    I like your assessment that you can get those moments from unpredictability, not randomness. Well said.

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  5. I know the Ludology guys covered this, calling them ‘input randomness’ and ‘output randomness’.

    I think that there is a logical difference, not just an intellectual one.

    In your WA example, players had time to react.

    In a hypothetical game that lets you roll combat dice for each potential combat, and only afterwards decide what enemy units to engage, you are able to choose the ‘least bad option’. To some extent, the outcome would still be dictated by the dice, but you are able to make a judgement call and weigh up the choice between a bad roll on a unit you need to eventually kill, or a good roll on a low-priority unit afterwards.

    If we agree that those are different, then again drawing cards is a different sort of randomness. Yes, you might eventually want to play all your cards but not necessarily this turn. I’m assuming that Hearthstone has things like ‘deal 2-4 damage to a creature’? If you have other cards in hand, this can work out well – deal that damage and then do the extra as needed. And it can add another type of skill – probability analysis.

    However, with the digital medium, the numbers could be decided when the card is drawn. If that were to happen, then you would be able to make your decision with full knowledge of the potential outcome. The cards are not outcomes, but rather options that you have.

    • I think that the distinction between input and output randomness is a fuzzy one anytime between the start and end of a game. It’s easy to identify a setup instruction as input randomness and a random victory point generated after all decisions are made as output randomness, but anything in between is both. Is it that your previous action had a random effect or that your next action is driven by the need to react to random effects? It depends a lot on the perspective of the player.

      Probability analysis is a useful skill, but it’s not at its best when there are a few highly influential events rather than several less influential ones. I never feel cheated by a randomiser that’s set up such that cumulative probability almost guarantees that consistently choosing well will eventually pay off, but feel frustrated by games in which you can play a much better game than your opponent and still lose. Admittedly if you stop viewing it in terms of games and look at it on a longer scale – how many games did I win out of these 50? What’s my rank? – then the problem disappears. Perhaps this is what Hearthstone is configured for, but I never have time for more than a few games at once.

      • On reflection it’s funny. I can live with a 2 hour game where I think “This was the 10min phase where all of the dice/cards went against me, but I can still win” but if I play twelve 10 minute games it annoys me to think “This was the game where the RNG/cards went against me, my decisions didn’t matter, I wasted my time with this one.”

        Obviously there’s also its little brother “This was the game where the dice favoured me to the point I didn’t really have to play, what a waste of my time.” that never seems quite so bad but really is just as bothersome.

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