What are your thoughts on randomness as a design element

So I play not only a lot of Hearthstone but also a lot of Magic the Gathering (two fantasy card games the first digital, the second physical.) While I’m not particularly active in the communities surrounding either game, I have some passing familiarity with them. One thing that I have noticed is that the communities have substantially differing opinions about the elements of randomness in their games. Hearthstone fans largely seem to hate randomness, while magic the gathering fans seem to hold, at least certain elements of randomness, in higher regard. I believe that there are two likely reasons for this difference of opinion.

Firstly there is a lot more cards with random effects in Hearthstone, as a percentage of total cards, than in Magic the Gathering. Subsequently this means that a greater potion of those cards with random elements can present an enticing enough offer that they see use in competitive settings. This leads to gameplay moments in which success hinges on something that the player has no direct control over, and when luck doesn’t favor the player they take to community forums and complain about it. In Magic the Gathering however, ‘random’ cards are much less frequent, only one hundred fifty-seven cards out of more than sixteen thousand. As such they see little, if any, competitive play, instead if they are more likely to see action in casual settings where wild swings of fortune generate a shared moment of fun between friends, this leads to my second point.

Magic is a game which is played face to face, often with friends, or at least people with whom you’re familiar. When an element of randomness is introduced, it creates a moment of tension, the players hold their breath to see who well benefit from this new mystery. It is in moments like this that elements of ‘Magic,’ as a social game, shine. You go through something together as people, with real time emotional feedback from the other people you are playing with. It provides an opportunity for one of the little moments that friendships, or rivalrys, or animosities, are built on to occur. Not so with randomness in Hearthstone. All there is there is the dull glow of a computer screen and maybe one of six emotes to let you know there’s someone else on the other side of the game.

All and all I enjoy both games quite a bit. I think Magic has a legacy which, while at times burdensome, comes with more than two decades of design refinement, and I think that Hearthstone has experimented with what it can do as a digital card game, in terms of card design, in a couple of interesting ways. I also think its important to mention that, these are card games, there will always be an element of randomness to them because the decks are shuffled. So if you don’t like any randomness, maybe don’t play these games.

It occurs to me that my original post didn’t really engage with randomness in a general sense but rather as it applied to two specific, and similar instances. I guess my general feelings are a bit more vague than what I wrote above. I think in general I’m pretty open to well or even just okay uses of randomness in games, but there are several case where I don’t like it.
One, I like the amount of damage I do with a given weapon to be a constant, known thing, I’m looking at you 'Knight of the Old Republic (don’t @ me).
Two if there is a mini-game, or a prize game one of the results shouldn’t be nothing. Even if i get a bad prize at least there’s a sense of resolution.

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I generally agree. UNO is such a masterpiece because both the relative lack of randomness (static composition of cards, everybody draws from the same deck, no random card packs) and the inherent social aspect to the game. Being able to see the despair on your opponent’s face as you whip out that +4 card you’ve been saving that whole game for is one of the most thrilling things you can do. Even the Xbox version was good, solely because of the use of the webcam. I’m honestly not sure why there aren’t more online ccgs that use the mic/webcam. All it can do is improve the game.

While Magic The Gathering has few cards with random effects that see much play it features randomization of each player’s resources, through the drawing or not drawing of mana producing cards. Several recent games that clearly draw inspiration from MTG in other ways have replaced random resource draw with a predictable supply of basic resources. I think Hearthstone is one of these. I wonder if the designers found that, even with random order of non-resource cards, games were too predictable with slight differences in player skill having a larger impact than they wanted. Including a fair number of useful cards with random effects could help provide surprising upset victories and perhaps keep people playing longer.

Regarding fixed weapon damages: Until quite recently I would have agreed that fixed damage was the only way to go, but I’ve recently been playing a lot of a turn-based tactics game where an attack against a valid target will always hit but damage is random (within a range based on weapon and exact distance). I’ve found this system much less frustrating than those that guarantee a specific damage number for a hit but allow a chance for a total miss. Sort of the combat damage equivalent of the “always give some reward even if it’s not a great one” idea.

Those seem like reasonable principles. As with most kinds of rules in art, I suppose they could be flouted to deliberately create a sense of uncertainty or unfairness.

Is procedural generation considered a subset of randomness or vice versa? (Either-one or, not pick-one or.)

Randomness can mean so many things in video games. My first thought is as it applies to RPGs, where the ability to increase your chance to hit is one of the trade-offs that you make when developing your character. But I also think of the speedrun community where the “Random Number Generation” (RNG) is learned and often controlled, such as how long it takes for an action to happen after it’s triggered. As a viewer, it’s always tense and exciting to see if they can complete an action to the exact millisecond needed to do something cool.

I think that a little bit of randomization can increase the thrill of winning. I remember hearing about some experiment where half of a group of monkeys were given a little bit of food every time they pushed a button and the other half were sometimes given a lot of food and were sometimes given none. The “gambling” monkeys had a higher rate of serotonin when they received their food. This is what makes gambling addictive. Getting “loot drops” in games can be fun and addictive, and even though I am not a gambler, I love randomness like that thrown into my games, whether they’re RPGs, FPSs, or pretty much anything else.

Mark Rosewater, one of the head designers of Magic: The Gathering, did an article and a podcast episode on randomness: https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/kind-acts-randomness-2009-12-14 http://podbay.fm/show/580709168/e/1371835800

In card games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, the greatest random factor is in the shuffling of the deck at the beginning of the game. One of Mark Rosewater’s points is that players tends to anticipate the good draws, making for good anticipation, and it gives the player a lot of time to react to and adjust to the randomness.

…I was going to write more, but really, the article and podcast says quite a bit already.

The first thing that came to mind at seeing “randomness” for me was roguelikes/lites and procedural generation, but that feels a bit different from what you’re getting at. The randomness there isn’t a social element, but it does add tension with each subsequent run, which is more or less the defining feature of the genre.

The second thing was encounter rates in say Pokémon (or many other JRPGs), where certain pokemon have a 30%/20%/10%/5%/1% chance of spawning in a given encounter in a given location. Again, no social aspect, but it increases the tension as you uncover more of the game and start searching for rarer and rarer pokemon to fill out your party/pokedex. And I usually appreciate the grindiness of it—I knew when I first got Moon that I needed a Rockruff in my life, and that 10% encounter rate at Ten-Carat Hill made finally finding one extremely satisfying.

I think it’s an interesting question with card games, particularly with Hearthstone and Magic. I feel like both have quirks that can be frustrating (I hate the feeling of not drawing lands in Magic; I really get cross at how ridiculous the pay-offs to certain random cards in Hearthstone can be), but, equally, the anticipation of the perfect draw is also enticing. I do feel like the face-to-face element probably adds a lot—my Magic experience is with the digital apps, which is probably the wrong way to try it.

Outside of card games, I, more and more, feel a preference for the games where my actions are sure, or at least surely down to me. Mario + Rabbids’ 0%/50%/100% hit rates make it a way more engaging game than XCOM usually is for me, where I usually get fed up and quit after my 80% shot goes awry. As I’ve said in other threads, I don’t really mind when tactical RPGs massage the numbers in my favour. Missing a shot you were betting on sucks, especially in a game, like XCOM, where you could be losing a quarter (or more) of your potential damage from one missed shot. With the potential for enemy critical hits compounded on top of that, and I feel the randomness can sometimes make for moments that are more frustrating than fun.

I’d also say that I really dislike randomness in the second context that @diglett mentioned. I’m sure it’s part of the game and it would feel worse if it was removed, but ugh getting that Rockruff was a pain and it super overlevelled my party for the next island. Falling on the wrong side of that 10% over-and-over gets real old real fast for me.


Oh yeah, it definitely has the potential to be aggravating. And there’s a valid criticism in that randomness in encounter rates is a way of creating challenge that the player has no control over, and therefore can feel at best arbitrary and at worst like the developer is trying to pad their game’s length. And that differentiates it from things like difficult boss fights or platforming challenges that may take many attempts but are usually within the player’s control.

So it’s totally just a personal-taste-for-repetitiveness thing that I enjoy it.

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I see this as a bit of a copout. Like how it’s always a weak teammate’s fault when you lose an Overwatch or League of Legends match. The player’s control over that moment was exerted when they chose to put a randomized card into their deck. That’s the game they chose to play, and going and complaining about it on a forum after the fact when it didn’t work out is just whining, IMO.

I’ve never played an online game that had a greater level of social interaction than voice chat. However, I have used Chat services that used webcams with… mixed results. People can act like real jerks in voice chat, with the addition of video that gives them new avenues to be cruel through. That said, It’s definitely a feature that I wish people could use without being mean to one another. Maybe in a couple of more years after we’ve gotten more used to the internet and start interacting on it more closely to how we interact off of it.

I tend to agree that the blame lies more on the player for choosing to use existing cards with random elements than on the game designer. However, if one were upset with blizzard electing to dedicate resources towards designing more cards with random elements, as opposed to more linear cards, that I could understand as a more legitimate gripe. It’s a more nuanced opinion, and not one that really gives some the cathartic release they maybe need after a coin flip didn’t go their way.

I take your point about the randomness of access to resources in regards to Magic, and you are correct that hearthstone predictably increases resources. I think its an interesting point that increased numbers of competitive random cards could off set the predictability of linear resource progression, allowing players to gamble on what the most effective play would be for their resources. I am however more in favor of random resource accrual, even if it is one of the most frustrating things about magic the gathering. Random distributions of resources allow for decks that play lower costed cards, and therefore a higher ratio of non-resource cards to resource cards, to remain more viable than in games where resources are guaranteed. This theoretically could lead to a grater diversity of play.

The damage system you describe seems like a great solution to the whole missing from point blank some turn based games suffer from, jeez that’s always infuriating.

In regards to procedural generation, that is a good question, and one that is tangential to what has always thrown me for a loop about randomness. Say we were going to procedural generate the color of a bad guy in our dungeon. Shades of color, like numbers, are infinite, so we cant have everyone in our game or it would crash, (I assume I know nothing about making games). So we choose a finite subset of color for our bad guy to be, but it can be any hue within the subset. Is that random? Is it fair to say that the results of a six sided dice that has been weighted to land on either a 3 or a 6 is random, given that the results are 50/50 even though they could have been 1 out of 6? I don’t know, and that bugs me.

randomness is (unfairly, imo) given a bad rap in competitive games, because a lot of games with randomness often don’t know how to use them in a way that would be beneficial.

a good game with random elements needs to minimize the potential for bad luck determining important outcomes, which is the part that actively goes against having a competition to begin with, and maximize how it forces you to never treat any two scenarios as the exact same, which is the part that makes random elements engaging. failing to do this is why you get some videogames with matches where you know someone else won, i know someone else won, the person who actually won knew someone else won, but the game arbitrarily decided otherwise, so actually the loser wins now.

i know that saying mario kart 8 is a good game isn’t exactly a shocking opinion, but god damn was that game perfect with this concept. any one race could screw you over for no reason, sure, but each race is only around two minutes long, and once you’ve been playing online for an hour, it’s clear which players are objectively better than others. there’s eventually a point, when you’re playing, where you realize that even if that one fucked-up race seemed doomed to you, you could’ve totally bounced back from that bad situation if you knew how to play around with risk management and item play. you wouldn’t have gotten first, no, but you would still be consistently higher-placed than people who can’t, and once you’re a hundred races in, that matters more, so you’d still be the better player

like… you know when a game you love just got a new map or character, and everyone’s in a situation where they know the game, but not that aspect, so they’re all playing a completely different way? good randomness is that feeling, except all the time, regardless of skill level or knowledge, and it rules

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“True” Randomness, like in Hearthstone where cards will spawn random effects/spawn things that are completely out of you or the opponents control, can be fun in small doses. When one game out of a handful can be decided by an exciting random event, that can be fun. When games are consistently being decided by random events that cannot be controlled that becomes less fun. A Hearthstone pro (I cannot remember which) said something to the effect that in the last patch’s meta games were being won by cards that you don’t have in your deck. The random card spawners like Cabalist’s Tome could win games with cards that the player did not build into their deck.

In Rogue/Roguelike games like ADOM or Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup there is still a ton of random effects, but you have a lot of control about the situation that you will be in when they occur. If you have a blue potion that you do know the effect of, you can drink it in combat and hope it helps, or you can drink it when it is safe to find out what it does. If it does something good, you might have wasted it, but if you drink it in combat and it is bad, you can be screwed.

I’ve always found that the best (or worst) example of randomness in Hearthstone, rather than the Cabalist’s Tome or the Yogg-Sarons, is the simple Flame Juggler (which has since rotated out of the standard format).


It’s on-summon effect throws out a single point of damage to a random enemy, which could either mean hitting a minion (a fairly big deal, especially in the early game) or the opponent’s face (which is basically irrelevant). In Hearthstone, a two-mana 2/3 is a ‘fair’ card, useful and strong without being overbearing (because it’s the standard). A two-mana 2/3 that deals one damage to an opponent’s monster is way strong, especially in the early game, where that could mean the difference between killing a 1-health minion or allowing a 3-health minion to be killed by the Flame Juggler.

You can influence this effect (if your opponent has more minions on the board, FJ will hit one of them more often), but only to a limited extent. When FJ was in the meta, pros would complain incessantly about games being decided by which way that initial FJ roll went. This, to me, is where ‘randomness’ really struggles as a design element in card games. It’s part of the game and is a fair design choice, but the feeling that “oh, I lost because my opponent won an early coin toss” is really crummy.