Whether or How

I frequently rail against games where winning or losing mostly comes down to a roll of the dice, on the basis that a game is taking away players’ agency if randomness is more powerful than their decisions. But I just had a game where I enthusiastically embraced randomness and had a great time, and I may want to elaborate on an old distinction between variability and uncontrolled randomness in play. Or as I am thinking of it this morning, randomness determines how you win, not whether you win.

The classic example from that link would be games with variable powers. You get a random character, faction, whatever at the start of the game, and you plan around it. Maybe this time you are the warrior king or the kobold mercenaries, with their different playstyles or win conditions. You get variation in the field of play, and your decisions build upon it.

I played yet another round of Slay the Spire this morning, still loving it. In Slay the Spire, I usually enjoy power-centric decks, where powers are the cards that give you upgrades for the length of a fight. This run, the first card I got was Infinite Blades, a power that gives you a Shiv each round. Okay, I am building a Shiv deck, one of the three main builds for The Silent (rogue archetype). For those who do not play, a Shiv is a very weak attack card that “exhausts” (deletes) itself after use. They cost 0 energy to play, so the goal of a Shiv deck is to gets lots of Shivs (four different cards provide them), buff them, and/or get bonuses for using many attacks per round. One free Shiv per round is not much, but it is a start to build upon.

This game, I got great access to cards that provided Shivs, but none of the boosters. I found no Accuracy, which boosts the damage of Shivs. I found no strength boosters, which affect all attacks, nor any of the relics that give bonuses for multiple attacks. I once had the option to buy Panache, the power that does massive damage if you use 5 cards per round, but I could not afford it. But I did find the Dead Branch.

Dead Branch is an amazing relic for the Ironclad playing an exhaust deck. It is usually a lousy relic for the Silent. In deckbuilding games, adding random cards to your deck is usually a horrible idea, and Dead Branch gives you a random card every time you exhaust a card. Remember that Shivs are exhausted every time you use one, so a Dead Branch in a Shiv deck bloats your deck massively, and increasingly as time goes on.

But if you can generate multiple Shivs per round, and therefore multiple random cards per round, the randomness cancels itself out. I may not get to pick which cards go in my hand, but I now get so many cards that I will almost always have something interesting to pick from. Deck bloat does not matter much if I can just keep bloating it more; the less useful cards in my discard pile may never come back, since you are not going to get through 100 cards in most fights. One roll of the dice is a guaranteed way to lose in the long run, but fives rolls of the dice, pick the best one or two results, is a fun option that combines variability with player choice.

So some bigger fights I ended up chaining together cheap attacks. Others got more defense, so I stacked defense with some “whittle away” abilities. Some fights I kept getting more powers, so I kept stacking those. I was sad to see one of the fights end because I was up to five layers of After Image: every card provided a bonus five block, and I was churning through free Shivs each round.

Providing more and variable options is a good way to use randomness to keep a game fun and fresh. Have the dice provide lots of good options, not winners and losers. Let the players decide how to use those options.

: Zubon