Meditations on Strategy #3: Randomness

Despite this being “meditations on strategy”, I sure find myself wanting to talk about shooters a lot.

And so I’ll open this blog entry by briefly discussing critical hits in Team Fortress 2. In this game, critical hits have a 2-12% chance of occurring with most weapons and cause the weapon to deal three times its base damage. Critical damage also won’t gradually decrease with the distance the shot travels as normal damage does. The most notorious criticals come from the Soldier’s rocket launcher, which deals enough damage to instantly kill almost anyone, with a long range and wide splash damage radius.

A significant portion of TF2 players don’t like random critical hits. They believe it adds luck to a game that should be a hundred percent skill based. Servers with critical hits disabled are common, although this upsets weapon balance slightly, since many of the alternate weapons receive some bonus with the tradeoff being that they don’t score random critical hits.

Anyway, the point of bringing this up is to illustrate a random factor in games that many people agree replaces skill with luck. It’s not always as readily apparent, but this phenomenon applies to randomness in strategy games as well—and the amount of randomness in some strategy games dwarfs its influence in TF2.

Let’s take the game I’ve had nothing but praise for in the past entries, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Despite the opportunity it gives experts to demonstrate their strategic acumen, for the average player XCOM is as much a game about testing one’s luck as it is about strategy. Is a soldier out in the open and fully exposed, inches from a powerful enemy? Even though one of the commandments of XCOM is “always stay in cover,” exposing oneself to a single enemy may just be part of the plan if that soldier gets lucky enough to score a critical and kill the enemy in a single shot. On the flip side, a supposedly well-protected soldier in full cover will occasionally receive a lethal blow regardless, if you push your luck and aren’t expedient in finishing off enemies before they have a chance to shoot back.

Randomness interacts in interesting ways with strategy. In one sense, it can add another dimension to strategy since minimizing the chance of a detrimental outcome (or maximizing it when you’re at a disadvantage and need luck to be on your side) can become a form of strategy on its own. There’s a multitude of things you can do to increase and decrease hit chance in XCOM, and even if whether the hit actually lands is ultimately random, plenty of strategy exists. However, randomness can also cheapen strategic accomplishment when the best-laid plans fail because of a random factor, or when an error that should have had consequences fails to be punished because of sheer luck.

The clumsiest use of randomness in otherwise strategic games, in my opinion, is present in Paradox titles like Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4. Certain actions, such as assassination and fabricating claims in CK2, have a chance of success as random as XCOM’s aim mechanic—but this adds no strategic dimension to the game because there are few things you can do to enhance your likelihood of success, and few alternatives to simply testing your luck when you really need someone to die. Events (like the infamous ‘comet sighted’ in EU, lowering your country’s political stability) frequently fire at random which can be helpful or disastrous- but there’s little way to anticipate these; they can only be reacted to, not strategized around.

So why is randomness so prevalent in otherwise well-crafted strategy games if it does them no apparent favors? One reason is that’s an easy way to model complex systems with a modicum of realism. For instance, it would be impossible to actually simulate all the myriad factors that could cause an assassination to succeed or fail, so reducing it to a dice roll influenced by the factors a game does choose to simulate is a reasonable way to go about it. Another reason is that luck can work to the benefit of players who aren’t strategically inclined- even the most tactically inept XCOM player may have a mission once in a while where everything just goes right, and all enemies spotted die during the player turn without a chance to return fire. Even for those who are strategically inclined, a bit of luck once in a while doesn’t always feel unwelcome.

Lastly, in slow-paced games like Paradox’s, randomness allows the world to evolve in unexpected ways and things to actually happen on a regular basis. Without random events or gameplay elements, they would be ponderous and predictable, with nations favored by less random factors like geography destined to win over their rivals and a sufficiently strategic player destined to rule the world without any major missteps.

In the end, I’m unsure what to think about randomness. I wish it was less prevalent, and if I ever design my own games may experiment with removing it, but I wouldn’t wish it gone entirely from strategy games. It can be interesting mechanic when used in moderation—the problem is that many games fail to respect the ‘in moderation’ part.

Thus ends, in a slightly anticlimactic fashion, this series of blog posts unless I have any more insights. Expect some creative writing to fill the void.

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