The Dice Rollers of Catan

Settlers of CatanThe Settlers of Catan (1995) is what I like to think of as a primordial eurogame. You can see some of the clean abstractions of eurogaming — like the resource-to-building engine — and Settlers pretty much invented modern ideas of clear iconography and rulebook-less play. However, Settlers has something that you wouldn’t expect to find a modern German-produced eurogame: a pretty big heaping dollop of randomness. I’m not talking about the development cards — which are more in line with the level of randomness you’d expect from a (somewhat random) eurogame. I’m talking about the production rolls at the heart of Settlers, where every turn players only earn the resources specified by an entirely random dice roll.

The dice rolling of Settlers reminds me more of the design of a French eurogame — which tend to have more theme and more luck. As a German game, it’s quite unusual … and some people hate that!

I should note that I’m not one of them. I’m perfectly happy to enjoy Settlers for what it is. However, I’m aware that not everyone agrees, so this week I wanted to spend some time on one of Germany’s top games, and investigate how its production could be made less random.

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Anatomy of a Genre: Card Games & Randomness

Recently my Thursday night gaming group has had the opportunity to play some top quality card games, among them Tichu and the German Doppelkopf. Comparing and talking about these games led to interesting discussions of the the element of randomness in card games, which I offer up here for additional thoughts and comments.

The Heart of Randomness

Our conversation got started with one of players saying that Doppelkopf was too random.

The thing is … almost any card game is random. It’s a necessary and implicit part of the process. You take 52 cards (or whatever) and divide them up among the players. For a standard 4-player game that represents 635,013,559,600 different possibilities. In other words, sometimes you’re going to get a really bad hand and sometimes you’re going to get a really good one.

That’s life. Or at least a card game.

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The Problem with Blind Bidding

“1 …”

I had two, perhaps three seconds left to make a decision, and it would decide the entire game.

“2 …”

We’d tied at rock last time, and the average person shifts upward, which meant Eric was most likely to go to paper. But Eric was bright, and he probably knew that, which meant he’d stay at rock to crush my scissors when I displayed that to cut his paper if he did shift up as expected, but if …


My gyrating hand came to stuttering stop, stuck on rock because I was frozen in indecision.

And Eric had counted on my indecisiveness, as was evidenced by by his wide spread hand.

“Paper smothers rock!”

To be honest, I’ve never understood why paper beats rock in the first place.

Stupid game. Continue reading

A Theory of Board Game Design: Definitions of Terms

In early 2003 I wrote a series of what would eventually become 20 or so articles on the topic of strategic game design. They appeared in my Skotos column,Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities, and I later reprinted them as a group in my RPGnet column, Thinking Virtually.

It’s now been almost three years since I finished up the core of the series, and I haven’t quite decided what to do with it. I’ve learned a lot about board game design since, so I could revise them quite a bit for posting here, but on the other hand there’s enough material for a book if I could find someone to publish it.

So, I’m leaving those articles in stasis for now, but at the same time I do want to talk about some of the ideas I originated there. Thus, I’ve decided to write up this article, which is a summary of some of my design ideas, and a general outline of how I analyze board game design, part-by-part. Consider it a definition of terms. (And if you prefer to go read the entire original and somewhat out-of-date series, it’s available at Skotos.)

Broadly I think a game can be defined using the following elements: componentsactivitydecisionsluck, and victory.
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The Problem with Luck II

Last year I wrote about luck in board games, with attention to the fact that most well-designed luck in games actually asks you to balance risk versus reward.

Last week I played two luck-filled board games, Parthenon and The Settlers of Zarahemla, and in each case I lost due to some “bad luck”. But, I was entirely happy with the results because the losses were ultimately the result of me risking and losing — and that’s exactly how I think it should be in a game with a random factor. Thus, I’d like to use these two game sessions as case studies, to show what good, controllable luck looks like, and how you can risk and lose.
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The Problem with Luck

I am sick to death of people complaining about luck in their board games.

OK, fine, if you can’t stand luck at all, and you spend your life playing Chess in a hermetically sealed bubble, I won’t complain. That’s your call.

But this article is for the rest of you, who happily draw cards, pick tiles, and maybe even (heaven forbid) roll dice in your favorite games — who do all these things, but then complain about the newest BeowulfSettlers, or Louis XIV, because it’s trendy to do so, and all the cool kids are. I’m sick to death of people complaining about luck in their board games because, simply enough, most people don’t understand how randomness actually works and don’t understand how moderating luck is an important game skill.

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