Three types of bad randomness, and one good one

A few years ago, I wrote an article about randomness in games. It was far from my first time taking a stab at the subject, but it is the most recent big, singular effort at describing the relationship between randomness and game design, as I see it. In this article, I'm going to talk a bit about randomness in games—ways to describe it, why it's important, how to use it, and how not to use it. There are four types of randomness, three that are bad and common, and one that is good and rare.  

Types of randomness

The basic points I would make about randomness are these:
  • Good strategy games require randomness to avoid being just calculation, or a "look-ahead contest". So randomness can not only be good, but it's crucially important!
  • Not all randomness is equal, however. Some kinds of randomness (actually, most kinds that are used, in practice) are damaging.
  • Randomness has to be used very carefully. But instead, it tends to be used frivolously and without much consideration/knowledge of the costs.
In short, while randomness is basically a requirement for good game design in my mind, I have a real problem with the way that we use randomness in games today. Mostly, we are using randomness as a cheap and easy way to get shallow systems to produce variant outcomes. (more…)

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Jon Shafer on pushing the 4X genre forward

Today I have an interview with Civilization V designer, Jon Shafer. Jon's an experienced 4X strategy game player and creator, and I wanted to talk to him about the design issues these kinds of games tend to face. Here's a few subjects we talk about:

  • Diplomacy systems
  • Lack of dynamics in the late (and often mid) game
  • How combat should be resolved, if it exists at all
  • Match length
  • Victory conditions
... just to name a few. Jon is currently working on the successfully Kickstarted At the Gates, which you can play an early access version of here. Note: Jon's audio is a little bit spotty in the first 10 minutes of the interview, but it clears up! Enjoy!   Thanks for listening! If you enjoyed the show, please consider supporting my work at Special thanks to Jean-Marc Neilly, and a big thank you to all my patrons for making this show possible.

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Designing Strategy: Rushdown, Economy, and Defense

Hey everyone! Today I have a good-old-fashioned formalist-ish game design article. It's been a little while since I've really done one of those, unless it was attached to Push the Lane. This article is also a little bit different than a lot of my other work because I usually talk about rulesets: what the actual rules are. I tend to talk less about, within a set of rules, what players can do. Today, I'm talking about designing strategy space, and a specific way to think about the strategies that players can pursue in your game.

"The triangle"

If you're into strategy games, you probably at least loosely know the basic idea behind "rushdown" (or "rush"), "economy" (or "econ"), and "defense". A lot of us first heard these terms in RTS games like StarCraft, wherein the "zergling rush" was a very common and easy-to-understand manifestation of a "rush strategy". Terrans building a ton of bunkers and missile turrets and siege tanks was a pretty clear example of "defense", and expanding (getting another base with another source of minerals) was an "economy" play. In some games, it can be seen as a triangle, or rock-paper-scissors relationship, with rush beating econ, econ beating defense, and defense beating rush. It's worth noting that "rushdown" is not, itself, a strategy, but rather a family or style of strategies in a given game. There may be many different rushdown strategies. Also, it's spectral. You may pursue a strategy that's like 60% rush-y, or 80% rush-y, etc. (more…)

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Brett Lowey’s Game Design Commandments

[caption id="attachment_2327" align="aligncenter" width="840"] Grab Minos Strategos when you can.[/caption] Today, in Episode 36* of the Clockwork Game Design Podcast, I had a great conversation with BrainGoodGames' Brett Lowey. If you don't already know BrainGoodGames, they make some of the best single-player strategy games out there. All four of Brett's games—Militia, Axes & Acres, Skyboats, as well as his latest, Minos Strategos—are available on Steam. But making great games isn't necessarily enough for me to want to have a conversation with someone. What made me interested was "BrainGoodGames' Design Commandments" which he posted on his site recently. The conversation was great and went to a bunch of interesting places. We covered his commandments, of course, but discussed his origins and what he considers to be the successes and failures of his games. I should mention also that Brett is one of the editors over at, the new site I recently launched that highlights current game design bloggers and media producers. Enjoy the episode! *PS I think I said it's 35 in the episode itself - ignore me!  

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Solvability In Games

What does it mean to say that one game is "more solvable" than another? Is there a relationship between solvability (of any sort) and the point at which players get bored of games?


I should start out by making it clear that in game design, we are not usually concerned with true or mathematical solvability. We are not really concerned with the same kind of solvability that AI researchers are concerned with while trying to solve larger and larger Go boards. (more…)

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Arcs in Strategy Games

It is common to hear players talk about "tactics" and "strategy" in games. In this case, the colloquial understanding of these terms happens to be pretty useful, in that it maps well to something that actually goes on in playing strategy games. With that said, it's worth taking a moment to clarify these terms: "Tactics" usually refers to "short-term decision-making". Questions like "should I move this character two steps forward, or three steps forward" are questions of tactics. Tactics are micro-level decisions in strategy game play. "Strategy" usually refers to "longer-term decision-making". Questions like "should I be aggressive early, or be defensive now and attack later on" are longer-scale choices about a game that players make. Strategies are macro-level decisions in strategy game play. In both cases, we are talking about a grouping of gamestate information over time and how it changes. I refer to this grouping as an "arc". (more…)

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