I’ve bitched and moaned about the roll and move mechanism extensively in my previous posts and, although I generally consider it lazy design, it’s not always as bad as I make it out to be. Randomness can be engaging. Randomness can be an important part of a good game. Randomness, in short, can work.
Then there’s Snakes and Bloody Ladders. I believe that was the original title. Snakes and Bloody Ladders is not a good game. Really, Snakes and Bloody Ladders is not a game at all. A game, you see, allows the player to make decisions which will have a meaningful impact on the outcome. Snakes and Bloody Ladders gives the player nothing to do but roll a dice over and over again, Really, the entire game can be automated with a random number generator, rendering the players unnecessary and freeing them up to do something more interesting. The only reason I can think of playing this game with a child is as part of an elaborate and soul crushing lesson on the futility of life. As a teacher, this does hold some appeal.
Even talking about this ‘game’ is making me sad in my heart. Let’s have a look at some more uplifting alternative that embrace randomness but also include decision making and dynamic gameplay.
King of Tokyo is a dice game by Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering. The game sees 3 to 6 players taking on the role of giant monsters (kaiju) fighting over the city of Tokyo. The goal is to either be the first monster to reach twenty points or be the last player standing. Points and health are tracked through a small card with two turning dials to track each of these numbers. This makes keeping score very easy without dealing with chits, score sheets or a communal board.
As a dice game, King of Tokyo involves you rolling a lot of dice. Each turn, a player rolls six special dice to see what their monster will do. These dice have the numbers one to three on them, as well as pictures of a lighting bolt, a heart and a claw. If you match three of the same number, you receive that number of points, whilst the pictures have individual effects. Lighting bolts give you energy with which to buy extra abilities for your monster, the heart allows your monster to heal, and claws let your monster attack the other players.
The dice-based gameplay firmly establishes the random elements of the game, but there are decisions to be made. Each turn you may roll each dice three time, keeping the results you want and rerolling the others. This allows you focus on particular tactics or avoid others. Trying to win by points? Reroll your attack to get more matching numbers. Determined to be the last man standing? Reroll your numbers for more attacks. You may also choose how to spend your energy tokens, choosing from rewards such as Stretchy (spend 2 energy to change one of your dice to any result), Regeneration (boost to your healing), or Eater of the Dead (gain points when another monster dies).
In addition to the core game, I’d say that the Power Up! expansion is pretty much mandatory. In King of Tokyo, the monsters have different appearances but are otherwise identical in how they operate. The Power Up! expansion not only gives you a giant panda to add to your roster, but also gives each monster a unique deck of powers to set them apart from one another. Whether you are dumping “Radioactive Waste” with Gigazaur or employing “Fuzzy Logic” with Cyber-Bunny, it makes the game a lot more interesting.
Relic is another game which embraces randomness, yet still gives the player ample opportunity to exercise his or her free will. The game is basically a reskin of an earlier game, Games Workshop’s classic board game, Talisman. Fantasy Flight Games have licensed, developed and published the latest edition of that venerable title and, with it, have published their sci-fi reskin, Relic, based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe. I chose this over Talisman because I simply enjoy it more. If you prefer fantasy to sci-fi, just read “Knights” in place of “Space Marines”, “Wizards” where I have written “Psykers”, and tut meaningfully as you correct my “Orks” to read, “Orcs”.
A typical game of Relic sees players choose a character from a selection of character cards and matching resin busts. Personally, I like to play as the Battle Sister (resistant to the corrupting influence of Chaos), whilst one of my regular game group enjoys playing as the Tech Priest (with a fine selection of extra weapons and equipment). Once a character is selected, players take it in turns to roll a dice and move around the board, taking place in semi-random encounters wherever they land. Yes, this game uses the dreaded roll and move mechanism, but it does add in a certain amount of flexibility. Players can choose the direction they move when they roll, and can veto the roll altogether by playing a power card with a number on it to replace the dice roll. There are further ways to subvert, influence or avoid this mechanism, but ultimately it is an important part of the game. One of the reasons for these choices is that players will attempt to land on the encounters which they are best equipped to deal with. Got a high strength character? You’ll be aiming for reds. Playing as a particularly cunning character? Yellow is your friend. You will use these encounters to level and grow your character before descending into the inner circuits of the board and the more challenging encounters therein.
A player wins by running the gauntlet of the innermost circuit and reaching the middle space. The last leg involves tests of each stat and a player is expected to have either leveled their stats to meet the challenge or obtained wargear and the eponymous relic cards (more powerful varieties of wargear) to shore up their weaker stats.
The game is a good one, but is intrinsically random. Being good at the game, knowing the best path to progression and how to pick and choose the most appropriate events and encounters will give you a significant advantage, but will not guarantee you a win over an opponent favoured by the dice gods.
There are many other games that employ randomness to some degree, and most games employ it to a certain degree, whether this takes the form of a shuffled deck of cards, as with Magic: the Gathering, Dominion, Ticket to Ride or Summoner Wars, or the use of traditional or custom dice, as with Settlers of Catan, Elder Sign, Galaxy Trucker or Super Dungeon Explore. The point is that randomness can work, but the tradional “Family Games” that we all grew up with, like Monopoly, Cluedo, Yahtzee and Snakes and Bloody Ladders use the mechanisms of chance inappropriately, failing to include further mechanisms that allow the player to influence or adjust the outcome of their random rolls and employ an effective strategy to win the game on their own terms rather than as a result of happy coincidence.
Earlier in this article, I made a joking reference to the rather bleak life lessons that one can take from purely random games. This was in jest, of course, but I would like to offer one final thought on this topic. A lot of what happens to us in life is, ultimately, out of our control. We can be struck down or affected by so many things that we neither expect nor invite. I would like to think that we are not defined by these chance happening, but by how we react to them and the decisions we make to deal with them. If we do take life lessons away from games, let’s play those that allow us to react to and influence chance events, rather than those that inflict events upon us with no recourse nor response.