Game mechanisms I hate: Randomising randomness

three diceI’ve been thinking about ways to vent my frustration on certain board and card games without outright starting to do ‘bad’ reviews. The main reason is because it seems like a lot of effort to go to (my reviews are loooong) just to say – I don’t recommend this.

When thinking about some of the games I really don’t like, it began to dawn on me that they often shared similar characteristics. So in an attempt to water down the process, I’ve decided on the occasional ‘mechanisms I hate’ post.

First out of the pit is randomising randomness. You see, I like random in games – I love card shuffling, dice rolling, even spinner spinning. But while luck adds fun and tension, too much of it can be a bad thing. What I’m talking about here is adding randomness to more randomness until it quashes any chance of strategy, tactics or fun.

Memoir ’44 (Richard Borg)

This is a game I expect to catch flack for criticising, so before going on I’ll say that other opinions are very much available: and I’m certainly not saying Memoir ’44 is a bad game, because it isn’t. I’m simply going to outline why I personally don’t enjoy it (and I’ve played a lot of games online) and don’t want to play it again.

It’s a cleverly designed light war game, in which the logistical struggles of troop movement are abstracted through a card system. The play board has three areas (left, right, centre) and several types of action and unit. You’ll draw cards into your hand, with each showing particular combinations you can do if you choose it; ie, attack with three units on the left.

This card randomness works well; it can be frustrating as you wait for the right card, but in a brilliantly tense way. Finally you work yourself into that awesome position, leaving your opponent with what should be no chance, and roll the dice…

War gamers love that stuff and you need luck in this type of game; but for me Memoir gets it all wrong – ie, one infantry unit vs four of the same unit in adjacent squares roll exactly the same amount of dice vs each other (three), so 4 vs 1 becomes 1 vs 1 on a lucky roll. The online implementation proves it too, with all the damning stats in great detail – I’ve had games with a hit rate below 20%, where my opponent had more than 70%. No chance.

Thunderstone (Mike Elliot)

The first time I sat down to play Thunderstone I was excited. Really excited. I was then loving Dominion and was super excited about a fantasy themed version that added a little bit extra to the deck-building genre. And for the first two plays, I was hooked.

The problems came when you started to get the hang of it a little and started to build something of a strategy. Now I new my deck was being built in a way that should be able to deal with the monsters that would come up in the dungeon – so why was the game feeling just as random as before?

Simple. What Dominion does is pretty dry, but it works on a strategic level. It sets you a kind of puzzle (how can I best achieve success with the mix of cards available to buy?) and adds the random element of shuffling to mean that even if two people go the same way, there is an element of chance and replayability.

Thunderstone took this concept (wholesale) and just added a dungeon – or another level of random. You try to build the best deck you can, shuffle a random selection into your hand, then hope the right monster happens to come up at the right time so that you happen to be able to defeat it with what you happen to have drawn. To me, that’s simply a crapshoot.

Quarriors (Mike Elliot & Eric Lang)

Never before has a game screamed, “not for me!” quite as much as this one. And while I’ve never played it (unless you count the app, which was more than enough), I can say with a very reasonable amount of authority that I would hate it and never will.

Again, it’s a dice game – thumbs up; and it has a deck-building element – thumbs up number two. But if you hadn’t already guessed it, it mixes the two standard random pots into one enormous one. You first pick your dice blindly out of the bag each round, hoping to get the dice you want – and then you roll them, hoping to get the side you want! Ye gods.

But it gets worse – because you can’t really mitigate it either. I won’t sully the word ‘strategy’ by even attempting to shoehorn it in here, but you can wave thoughts of tactics out of the window too; because you roll and have to deal with what you get. This puts it well below Yahtzee on the tactical scale, leaving you with nothing.

Even more depressing is that this system has spawned several other games, including a ‘collectible’ dice gaming system that hits right at the heart of another of my big bugbears – the return of collectible game frenzy in usually sensible people with Marvel Dice Masters. But more on that next time…

NOTE: The quote in the above meme is from an episode of Parks and Recreation, featuring fictional game ‘The Cones of Dunshire’…

AND ANOTHER THING: Designer Mike Elliot seems like a lovely chap every time I hear him interviewed, and I liked his game Fleet Captains. But generally I think it’s fair to say his design style doesn’t really appeal to me (although it does to thousands of other gamers).

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