I hear it all the time, I even say it. This game is too random, that action is too random. There’s too much random going on. But hold on, what does too random really mean?
I remember a session of Advanced Squad Leader where there was a Heavy Machine Gun firing down a street and whole platoon ran across the street and nothing. Not a single hit. They were probably jumping and waving and throwing their berets in the air while they were doing it too. Then a commissar walks by and shouts “boo” and the HMG picks up and runs. My opponent was laughing his ears off.
So ASL is very random, right? There’s loads and loads of dice and markers and stuff. But I’ve never heard anyone call ASL random (OK, I have but I’m not going to admit it).
So there’s something more to randomness than die rolls. And that something is decisions.
See, a feeling that a game is too random has very little to do with what we mean by “random” or “chance”. I feel that Agricola is way too random and there’s absolutely no dice or random events in the game (apart from the cards at setup). But to me it feels like my decisions in Agricola don’t match what is going on in the game. I don’t understand why my opponents are acting the way they are, why I should get a better result from one action or another.
That’s because I suck at reading faces. I’m worthless at poker (and think that Poker is the dumbest game since Maffia). I don’t get that player A will have card Y because he took the fish action now and not the wood action. I’m bad at remembering what everybody did and deducing why they did it. Thus Agricola feels random to me.
I have a design (working name “DropZone”) that is almost entirely deterministic. The only chance action in the game is a single card draw at the start of the turn (one card drawn and revealed). Everything else is done as player actions. And yet I’ve gotten the comment that the game is too random. When I dug into why the playtester felt that way it turned out that he couldn’t understand why his opponents were attacking him. To that player their actions, their decisions were random. It didn’t matter what he did, he didn’t have enough meaningful decisions because he couldn’t figure out why his opponents did what they did.
And that’s the key point. You need to have meaningful decisions or the game will feel random.
If you don’t understand what your opponents are doing then you won’t be able to make meaningful decisions. It will feel as if it doesn’t matter what you do, the game plays on towards an incomprehensible conclusion. And the game will feel random.
But if you do understand then you can have any amount of chance and the game still won’t feel random.
That’s where ASL shines. It’s got tons of random but the theme and mechanics are woven so tightly together, and we understand the theme so well, that anyone can see what is going to happen. Yes, you can bet on that half-squad charging the tank, and you can calculate the chances of success, and you can roll the dice, but in the end it all comes back to “boys, you’re going to knock out that tank or die trying because if you don’t we’re all toast”.
And there isn’t much random in that decision.