For Want of a Shoe a Horse Was Lost

I’m still working on the next installment of the AAR “Distant Thunder.” It’s a bit time consuming so my progress has been measured. Having to jot down notes and take screenshots at the same time is a process that borders on the tedious no matter how fun the game is.

Playing the game though got me to thinking about the role of probability in games. A game like chess is a champion of Newton’s deterministic clockwork universe. When a pawn goes to capture another pawn there is no chance that it will be eliminated instead. Many players prefer this type of approach. Euro games are famous for a X – Y = Z resolution mechanic. Once X and Y are determined finding Z is just a matter of applying the algorithm. There is never a jitter in X or Y. If the Field Marshall spills hot coffee in his lap or the sergeant misreads the map it matters not. If a level 7 Knight goes up against a level 4 Spearman then the guy with the pointy stick must be defeated and the damage is always 3. The feeling is that introducing an element of chance “ruins” the feat of skill that manuevered the piece to its target.

Most war games however because they are trying to simulate “war” incorporate some type of random element into the conflict resolution. Clausewitz called it “friction.” No plan survives contact with the enemy is an axiom of military strategy. The side with the better “Go to Hell” plan has the advantage.

On the other end of the spectrum, a game like Risk of course is aptly all about the dice. You can try and manage your “risk” by using strategy but in the end the gods of probability will have their way. You can roll snake eyes 100 times in a row. It’s just not very likely. Although quantum mechanics tell us that even the smallest probability is enough to make for some wacky outcomes. Quantum tunneling is a good example. So is winning the Mega millions lottery or getting eaten by a Great White shark.

There are good arguments for designing games with either approach or some combination of the two. Armageddon Empires is a strategy game that is heavy on the probability approach. Which brings me really to the point of this whole entry. If you are going to go with the probability approach i.e. dice, random cards, roulette wheels etc. then you need to ensure two key things for good gameplay:

1. Make sure that the players have concrete ways to manage the the risk. One way is to let them prod it here or there. Tactics cards and fate points let them do this in Armageddon Empires.

2. Try and build a stable yet dynamic system. Probability can really help with the dynamic part. What do I mean by this? Well there is a whole field of study centered around “systems.” Negative feedback, positive feedback, bounded, unbounded, discrete, continuous….. I’m not going to pass myself off as a systems theory or systems engineering expert but I know enough to be dangerous…or at least to avoid the dangerous systems. A game designer should build the game system so that catastophic failure isn’t the difference between rolling a 1 or a 6 on a single throw of the dice. Or is this really such a bad thing?

Can small changes in input that yield huge changes in output still provide a fun and challenging experience? The game shouldn’t end because your killer stack built around your monster cyclops got it’s eye poked out. Or should it? I would say there is a huge difference between crafting a sensible risk/reward system and enforcing outcomes versus crafting a system where every game results in the same well trodden path to a forgone conclusion. So the real catastophic failure I’m talking about isn’t the butterfly effect as much as it is the system always pinging to 11 via the same path no matter what risks the player does or does not take. In systems engineering terms if the victory condition is the steady state then you want to make sure that the path to steady state isn’t too short, too long or too predictable.

I’m going to split this post up ala George R. R. Martin. I can’t promise that Tyrion will appear in the next post but I can say that it will be titled: Adventures in Counterfactual History: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Speculating

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