Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here: https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/58777/index
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Fixed vs Random Hands

Greg
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Context: 3DTotal

Over in the 404 variants section, Dan Bigmore made a suggestion about retaining action cards. This lead to a conversation about the merits of different types of hand and hand management from a game design perspective. I'd like to elaborate on these for today's game design post, which will be all about different types of hands.



Your typical "Old as card gaming itself" approach is the random hand. Each player draws their hand from a deck that's large enough to give a very wide spread of possible hands. General predictions about a hand are possible (e.g. It's likely to have at least one card about an eight) but even these are uncertain and over the course of a game you'd expect to see the predictions fail once or twice.

The diametric opposite of this is a "Fixed hand" approach. This describes an approach in which a player is guaranteed access to a particular set of cards, rather than obtaining them randomly.
The most typical example of this would be something like Magnates in which each player has access to the same set of cards each turn, but will have to choose where to play each one with an eye to anticipating and outbidding their opponents.
A slightly less typical example would be the generals in Game of Thrones, which abides a "fixed hand" philosophy, but gives each player different cards - creating asymmetry based upon their house (essentially their starting position).
A completely atypical example would be Mage Wars, in which players draw from a large deck, but choose which cards to draw, again guaranteeing their desired hand.
These approaches are all quite different to each other, but for the purposes of this post I'm interested in comparing fixed and random hands so while there's plenty of interesting design decisions embedded in the differences between them I'm lumping them together for now.

Finally a hybrid approach is possible, in which players draw randomly form a small fixed deck. This results in a mix of uncertainty and absolutely deterministic behaviour. The approach taken in The Haunted House in which players will draw the first half of their cards randomly in the first phase and then are guaranteed to see the remainder in the second phase. Most game design decisions allow for some sort of hybrid approach, though it can be tough to find something which offers the advantages of both approaches individually rather than beings some sort of unholy chimera.



The advantages and disadvantages of a random versus fixed hand will vary depending on the game they're being applied to, but there are some patterns which are broadly true:

The main advantage of a random hand is that it produces greater variance. If the system created by your game allows for a wide variety of outcomes and possible situations, truly random hands allow your player to experience a much greater region of that probability space. They're also well suited to environments that enable unconventional solutions, as players will more often be required to change their plan on the fly, in response to not receiving an option that was critical to their original strategy.

Conversely a fixed hand offers greater consistency. This is an advantage for developing a more focused experience, in which the possible ways that a hand could be played and how that interacts with how the opposing hand is played creates an interesting play space. It's also beneficial for situations in which you would like counterplay to be a major part of your game. "I thought that you would X so I did Y" is more likely to be attempted and more likely to be ultimately rewarding when you know what your opponent's options are. You are also dramatically more likely to generate second degree (and deeper) counterplay in which players are thinking thoughts like "They think I will do X so will do Y to counter so I should do Z". This can lead to intensely rewarding strategic gameplay - if the environment your game creates is capable of supporting it.

404 was my first published game and I don't mind admitting that I made mistakes in the development. I was very focused on emergent properties and while I feel justified in that (a lot of reviewers mentioned it in an extremely positive light) if I were to do it again I wouldn't have let that dominate the hand consistency decision. It's nice that if you can't get fuel for the engines you can use a rocket instead (as long as you don't mind them needing repairs afterwards) and in theory random hands encourage such improvisation (by making whatever was your plan A inaccessible). However in practice, because your objectives will almost always require getting to a particular room (even with the wrong item) then having a turn where you don't have "move left" just feels like the game screws you, rather than an opportunity to improvise some epic solution. The decision that felt like it supported the core of the game (emergent properties) I now feel was the wrong one for this particular part of the game. The devil's in the details.



There were other solutions to the problem and ways in which I might've improved that aspect of the game, while retaining random hands, but I use the story to illustrate that while there are general advantages to the different approaches it's important to consider in detail how the advantages will apply not just to "this game, specifically" but "this aspect of this game, specifically".

It's also a parable about the dangers of defaults. Making a game involves a lot of decisions about a huge host of different aspects. It's easy to make a decision without noticing it - taking the default decision as it were. I think that a lot of game designers prefer a fixed or random hand and will include it in their game without thinking about it or considering the alternatives. While the difference seems stark in a blog post entitled "Fixed versus Random hands" it's easy to get caught up on things like "What should the distribution of cards be?" or "How should this action work?" or "How many cards should a person play in a turn?" and want to test the impact of those decisions without putting enough thought into the stages needed to get to the point that they're relevant.

So I guess what I wanted to bring up today was firstly the consideration of how fixed and random hands affect a game, but also to remind everyone to consider the impact of their decisions. Perhaps it's worth explicitly dedicating some time to thinking about the decisions that have been made in developing a game automatically and whether varying any of them could produce a superior outcome. I'll bet that anyone, no matter how experienced they get, will be able to look back at their work and realise that they've made at least one decision without having consciously thought about it.
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