(To all those who commented on the previous two installments of this ongoing series, thanks for reading. I'll try to address the comments down the road, but there's more that I want to get down before it clogs my brain... )
The Mechanics of Chaos
1. Random Actions
I really hate this mechanic. It generally eliminates long-term strategy, and makes it almost impossible to plan your moves on a turn-by-turn basis. Notorious in this regard are El Grande's action cards, and the Westeros Deck of A Game of Thrones. I would guess that the aim of the designer here is to make each game different, which they did succeed in doing; but at what cost? The "problems" caused by this can be fixed by revealing the cards in advance, as was done with our gaming group, and as is now offered by the Clash of Kings Expansion of AGoT. While it can be effective, it is a clunky solution, and can lock a game up in analysis paralysis. To "fix" this, a way should be provided to avoid the randomness, perhaps by paying a price. Again, the Clash of Kings Expansion of AGoT offers this now with the Muster and Supply special one-shot orders, allowing a player to Muster and adjust Supply to a limited extent even without the Westeros deck. You could "fix" El Grande with something similar; say, discard two Power Cards to use any action card in the discard pile? Or voluntarily remove two caballeros for the same effect?
2. Random Resource Generation
The problem of Settlers of Catan. How do you plan a long-term strategy if there is no way that you can control your resources? Trading is not the answer, as there is no guarantee that anyone else will have a particular resource, or that they will trade with you if you did. The ports are an option, but they are so inefficient so as to make them very poor substitutes. If I had any hankering to play Catan (I don't) a "fix" could be that each player gets two resources of his choice in addition to his die roll on his turn. That would solve the resource problem, and allow you to play the game and have a chance to win even without trading. As another example, a pretty good game, Age of Steam, suffers a bit from using the mechanism. The goods on cities are a major part of game scoring, but they are randomly placed. This is one reason why AoS is merely a good game, and not a great game. It could be fixed if players had a way to control what goods get placed in their cities, and when they are placed.
3. Random Card/Tile Draw
Can't help this one; if you use a bag of tiles or a deck of cards the luck of the draw will come into play. You can mitigate this with a draft mechanism, a la Princes of Florence. Draw X, keep Y, return Z to the bag or top/bottom of deck. For perfect elimination, make X=whole deck. This might create analysis paralysis issues, so that needs to be balanced out. Another way to reduce the randomness here is to offer a way to change the hand, usually by discarding and then redrawing. E&T offers this. Up Front also offers this as an expression of "flexibility" on the part of the nationalities, a wrinkle that I like a lot.
4. Random Resolution
Aka "Wargamer's Delight", as the most common form of this random element is rolling dice in combat. It's not as bad as the preceding mechanisms, as players usually have a choice in the matter - how much resources to commit, using tactics to improve odds of a victory (via modifiers or playing "power cards"), when to retreat if overmatched. This mechanism, however, can be vulnerable to the "pivotal battle", the stage in the game where a single battle determines the game's outcome, and everything hinges on a single die roll. The only salve to that wound is that you have played X hours to get to that point, and hopefully have enjoyed the journey such that losing that one die roll won't sting so much. In lighter games with this mechanism (Pirate's Cove, Zombies!!!, the Star Wars games and their ilk), you're not taking the game seriously anyway, so a few bad die rolls can be laughed off.
5. Random Items for Purchase
The good news here is that players have a choice of what to purchase. The bad news is that they have no control over what's available. The simplest example here is Alhambra. Ignoring the random resources (money) for the moment, you can see that what you can buy randomly comes up. If the person to your left (going clockwise) turns up a Turm, then the person after him buys it, then you didn't have a chance at it at all. Isn't there anything wrong with that picture? For game balance, everyone should have a chance at everything, which brings us to...
6. Random Auction
The best of the bunch; the random mechanism that I like and prefer. Auctions with random items are self-correcting in that the values ascribed to items coming into play are regulated by what's already in play, and how the game is going. Many of the best games around use this mechanism, such as Power Grid, Goa, Amun-Re and High Society. This mechanism puts the game in the hands of the players - bid now on stuff that's up, or hoard resources towards winning stuff that comes up later. If it never comes, then you'd better change your plans. How long can you hold out? Good stuff.
7. Compound Randomness
Now, a game might survive one of the "weaker" random mechanisms. Taj Mahal is a great game, even with the random card draw, mitigated by a card draft. San Juan is a pretty good filler despite the pure card draw. Acquire is a classic despite the random tile draw, mitigated by the five-tile hand. A Game of Thrones is not bad despite the Westeros Deck, because of its deterministic combat; with A Clash of Kings it is recognizing that randomness can be bad. But games that use more than one of the "weak" random elements deny players control, leading to luckfests that can be frustrating. Case in point: Battle Cry/Memoir '44, using the Command and Colors system. This system not only give a player random available actions courtesy of a random card draw, it also has random resoution. This gives a feeling of lack of control. How about Settlers? Random resources, then just as a player accumulates enough, he spends it on a random card draw and can get something he doesn't need. Frustrating! How about Ticket to Ride? Random objectives (route tickets), then random resources (train cards). Attika has a random building tile draw, random land tile draw, and random resource card draw; is there anything you can control here? How about Alhambra? Random resources, and then random purchase items? Yikes!
It doesn't need to be this way. Check out Wings of War. Random damage, but that's it. Everything else, you control. Puerto Rico's plantation tile draw is a small game component, but even that is very effectively and elegantly balanced out by the Settler role - take it now and choose first; otherwise, choose from what's left; if the choices suck, you'll get a doubloon or two for your troubles later. Elegant. Amun-Re's Power Card draw is much-maligned, but it answers to a greater mechanism - the more you buy, the better your chances of drawing something you can use. To do that, you need to win provinces with more Power Card symbols. You can even ignore Power Cards all together, if you want to, and just spend money on farmers, pyramids, and sacrifice. If you're a camel trader, spend money on pyramids and cards, since you don't care about farmers and will steal from the sacrifice anyway. If you have cards you don't want, you can sell them off. Closed loop. Elegant.
Just wanted to say that this has been a great series of pieces. I'm also interested in how chaos is injected into games, and I've been finding these articles very interesting. Will you also be writing about non-random forms of chaos as well?
I'm also curious about whether you are collecting your thoughts on this because you dabble in game design, or is it just about analysis and assessment of published games for you?
It's the Voices I tell you
You know Linnaeus, while I've been thinking about game and how they work for a long time, I've never been able to fully articulate why I like a game or not. I know I don't like random games since I like a measure of skill in them, even in fillers. But I've been ripping on games like El Grande, Attika, Settlers and Carc without fully being able to say why.
Let's say that this is a precursor to that - understanding and organizing thoughts, the INTP way. I hope that when all this is down and "on paper", I can start pointing out what I like and don't like more effectively, and can make game decisions based on that.
As for game design, I think that most Geeks wouldn't mind taking a stab at that at some point.
And the Voices tell me that the flipside to these (perhaps inaccurately-named) Chaos Theory articles may be in the works, since I now know what I don't like, I should be able to say what I DO like.
Or something like that.
The overtext below is true.
The overtext above is false.
Regarding mitigation of random elements... in duplicate bridge tournaments, each table gets the same set of hands, and competes against other people who were using identical cards. In dominoes tournaments, I'm told the dominoes are arranged in a line. Player 1 draws from one side, player two draws from the other side, and they meet somewhere inthe middle. Again, players compete against other people with the same tile draw.
Finally, for emergent chaos, I commend to you the game Totem http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/471 which is feels like more of an exercise in feedback loops than a game!
I have to disagree
While I don't like too much luck in a game some of this is extreme. First I must defend "random actions". El Grande allows you to see all 5 of them before you bid for which order you take cards. This means everyone is working with the same actions and can influence with power cards which one they take. Also every card allows you to put blocks on the board irregardless of the action.
AGoT Westeros Phase adds a nice unpredictable factor, yet most do not shift the dynamics of the game too much. The problem here is that the game can stall waiting for a certain card to come up.
The other thing that I disagree with is your comments on random items to purchase. While I am not really a fan of Alhambra, I think the system works fine. You get many turns and you see 4 of the monies, so it averages out. I also see other people taking what you want as a very valid game mechanism, if not the quintessential one.
I believe random elements in a game are another challenge to overcome. You don't see poker players up in arms over a game where they really have no control over what they draw.