Author Topic: A in Depth Analysis of Random Elements in Design Using Armello as a Case Study  (Read 910 times)

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Chariot Rider

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Armello Randomness

The other day I was talking to a friend and I mentioned Armello and told him to look it up.  Letter that day he texted me and said it looked interesting but he felt it was too random.  Later I talked with him to try convince him otherwise, and I felt like posting my thoughts here because I feel this might make for an interesting discussion.  Also disclaimer I am not a game developer (at least not yet), but I have been throwing together some prototypes and I generally like to think I know at least slightly what I am talking about.  Anyway without further ado let's get into this.

Map Layout
Map layout in any game is one of the most important parts in any game, so getting it right is important but before I jump in with Armello's map I want to ask a question.  If a developer could make a symmetrical map to ensure balance, why would you give that up?  I believe there are many reasons why but the reason I believe Armello went down this path was to create a reliance on knowing the mechanics, as opposed to memorizing layouts. 

In a game like Overwatch the maps will always be the same.  Because of this players can analyze and pinpoint strategic locations that might be well defended by one character or well attacked by another.  There is no improvisation here.  Players develop a plan and know what to expect before the game even starts, however this is not true in games with random elements, such as Armello.  In Armello the random layout ensures that instead of studying a predetermined layout, players instead use their knowledge of the games mechanics tied to the board to make educated decisions about what your optimal should be.  In essence it is putting improvisation over planning.  And this isn't to say that planning games are bad.  Some of my favorite games are games were the maps are predetermined.  Mario, Zelda, Overwatch, Portal, and many other games all use predetermined level design.  In fact most games do.  As far as I am aware a majority of games with random maps are either sandbox games, or Rogue likes.

So in short because Armello is a randomly generated board players need to figure the relationship between the tiles, and the tiles design lends themselves well to this.  There are many tiles that make themselves an annoyance to the player.  Mountains will sap you of AP, marshes hurt you, many tiles have perils, and dungeons might spawn a bane on top of you.  These tiles force you to make decisions and weigh the risks on the board.  Is it worth it for you to finish your quest this turn and go over the marshes leaving you vulnerable to an attack from the player next to the tile.  Other tiles have positive effects that will also make you want to spend your AP and go off your planned path and make even more decisions.  You might want to waste some AP healing at a stone circle, claiming a settlement, or milling around for treasure in a dungeon.  The way the tiles are set up requires players to make tough choices about the optimal play for a given scenario and a random setup can allow the game to constantly be giving you fresh boards to mull over.

However the board is not fully random.  You will never have a board were all of the marshes are on one side of the board, and all the stone circles on the other.  While having no control over the end result of the board, you need to set parameters to refine your results to ensure that the board is not wildly out of order.  With a bit of care a random board can add variability to a game, hopefully making it more interesting in the long run.

Cardplay
One of the major sources of randomness is drawing cards.  In any game with cards developers need to deal with the fact that not every card in a players deck is going to be useful to them, fortunately there are lots of card management options available to developers.  Of all the hand management mechanics I have seen Armello has some of the most interesting solutions to address the fact that you don't know what you are going to get from the deck.  The first of which is the fact that they literally have a hero that can avoid this entirely and always know what they are going to get.  But even if you aren't playing Sargon there are still other mechanics Armello that deal with deck randomness. 

One of the methods they employ is the 3 draw decks.  Depending on their board positions, playstyle, and character certain card types will be more appealing than others.  Because the deck is split into 3 parts a player searching for an item doesn't need to wade through a sea of treacheries and magic cards that are useless to them.  They might not get exactly the item they need but they might still be able to use it.  This also adds more depth to the game.  Now you need to choose what kind of card will be the most useful to you. 

On top of this mechanic players also have another mechanic to deal with random card draws.  Burning.  Even if the effect of the card is useless to you you can still find a use for the card.  Using a bad draw to defeat an opponent or escape a peril is a great design decision to keep cards cycling through your hand so the game can remain fluid. 

Of course there is the mechanic of hand size.  Armello doesn't use the typical card drawing mechanic of drawing one card a turn, instead opting for a system were you fill your hand with cards at the start of every turn, the number of cards you can hold is reliant on your wits.  This encourages players to play as many cards as possible, and to burn the cards they cannot play. 

With the combination of burning and hand filling the developers can minimize the effects of luck on card drawing by allowing good players to dump cards as fast as possible, and then quickly dump them if they are not useful to them.  Because the players overall will be drawing more cards and therefore allowing the players more chances for useful cards.

Dungeons
In my opinion one of the most fascinating tiles is the dungeon and I believe most people would agree.  Why is it so interesting?  Because it uses a random element, but there is a bit more to it than that.  Because of the design of the dungeon a majority of the results will be positive.  Players will usually get a little gold or magic, if they are lucky they will find an item or follower.  However as you know the dungeons are not all good for the player.  Banes or the stranger have a chance of spawning meaning that there is some risk involved with the dungeon.  This is where the genius is.  Because the majority of the time players will be receiving good things from the dungeon they are going to be more likely to enter them.  Most players will not waste action points trying to avoid a dungeon and most of the time they will be rewarded for it.  But every now and then it will not pay off and the player will find themselves in a exciting and interesting position.  Imagine if it was reversed.  If most of the time players received nasty things from dungeons, but they had a small chance to get a treasure or follower I do not think players would use the dungeons at all, unless they are going for a rot victory and want to die to banes. 

So in short the developers made the tiles have more good than bad in order to encourage the player to take risks.  Because the risk doesn't pay off every time the player is caught in unexpected scenarios and once again is forced to improvise or plan around the new presented difficulty.

Combat
This is the big one.  This is where people will point when they talk about the randomness in Armello.  Let's start by breaking down the dice and expand from there.  The way Armello dice are set up is quite interesting.   There are swords that are always going to be attacks and shields that will always count as defense.  The sun and moons will either be an attack or not be useful at all.  But the most controversial face will either be the wyld or rot face, depending on whether you are corrupt.  The exploding faces will either miss or be an attack AND give you another dice.  With all of these factors in place we can see that in Armello 50% of the time an attack will be rolled and only a 16% chance  a defense will be rolled, and a 33% chance a miss will be rolled.  So why does this matter?  This makes Armello a much more aggressive game.  Players cannot just huddle up and hope to roll enough shields to survive an attack, but also an attacker must be careful as well.  The same odds are on the defense dice so they will also be dealing massive amounts of damage to the attacker.  With this being said let's talk about the exploding dice.  What does this add to the game?  Because of the exploding dice players usually cannot determine the outcome of a battle completely before they attack.  Even if a player gets 6 defense from items they can still lose.  If dice didn't explode players with less than 6 dice couldn't ever hope to deal damage to the massive tank coming their way, but with exploding dice there will always be a chance that they will still be able to damage their opponent no matter how bad their gear is, and no matter how few dice they have.  This raises tension and makes every battle much riskier, more tense, and more exciting.

But that is only half of Armello's combat system.  If this was all the combat system had to offer I probably wouldn't be here talking about how great it is.  The real strength of Armello's combat system lies in the deterministic mechanics the developers have made.  Let's start with items.  A majority of Armello's items will give the players 100% reliable benefits that will always be able to be used.  Players will be able to build a strategy around their equipment.  They need to choose what items will be better for them, how, and why.  This is truly what makes random elements in games work.  You do not want pure randomness, instead you need mechanics that let you work around the randomness.  It doesn't need to be deterministic, it just needs to be some way to shape the odds in their favor.  Obviously some systems are better than other.  For instance in Risk, you can improve your odds somewhat.  By having more people on a space you can handle more bad luck but you cannot actually change the odds themselves, and in my opinion that is not as fun as actually changing the odds of a victory. 

Of course equipment is not the only mechanic available to players to control the outcome of a fight.  Burning cards can also gives you guaranteed dice results.  If you really need to you can ditch your shield cards to make sure you survive.  However burning has a few other interesting parts to it that make it work.  Burning doesn't give you a free dice, instead it just flips one of your dice to the face burned.  I believe the reasoning behind it is this.  Burning cards doesn't make you more powerful like items do, instead they let you shape the odds to fit your current position. 

The last aspect of the combat equation is the fight stat.  The stat system also gives the player more control over the random elements.  As a player you can improve your fight to get more dice, and more dice means more chances to get the results you need. 

Of course there is one other aspect I need to address.  That is rot.  Once again rot is another way you can control randomness and the odds.  If you have more rot than your opponent with rot you get their dice.  This is one more mechanics that gives you another way to control your odds. 

So in short, for combat, stats, rot, and items increase your power while burning allows you to guarantee results and channel your power.

Of course this is only part of the discussion.  We can also look at what happens when things do not go your way in a battle.  Either 1 of 2 things happen.  You will lose the fight but not die in which case you are pushed back, you might lose a settlement or be pushed away from a quest which can be highly annoying but not a death sentence by any means.  The other result will be your death.  And honestly the consequences of dying are not super brutal compared to other games. Yes you lose your position and need to return to your clan ground and you lose a prestige and your opponent gains prestige but a good player will be able to get right back into the action.  Granted it is not good being killed but you can live with it.  My point is that because the game is based on random elements the punishments for losing are not harsh.  If the game had super harsh punishments for dying then the game would feel much more unfair, however I feel the developers have hit the sweet spot between mild and crushing punishments that still makes death a setback, but not a game breaker.  So if you are designing a game with random elements maybe consider not making punishments for a bad roll so bad.

Conclusion
So in short what have we learned here?  Random elements in games can raise stakes of moves, make tough decisions, or allow any play to in theory pull a victory from defeat.  However if you include a random element you need to also include mechanics that allow players to change the odds and to control the odds.  The more mechanics the players have to tilt the odds, the better.  In fact almost every mechanic in Armello is giving the player control over random effects.  Cards effects, burning, tile effects, rot, prestige, various paths to victory, items, character abilities.  All of these are giving the player more control over the wild and chaotic world around them. 

In the end I think I have a fairly good way to judge if a game uses randomness well or not.  If a good player is faced against a bad player, can the good player win a majority of their games.  If yes then the game has mechanics to control luck making the game a strategic battle of wits instead of simply chucking dice.

Also no super brutal punishments for bad luck.

I believe that about sums it up.  There are some other things I could talk about like the 4 victory paths or character abilities but I think I will leave it for now since I have been writing this for a few days and I want to publish it.  Again, I am not a game developer, just a person who thinks about game design a bit so if I am wrong feel free to point out errors in my logic.
Some people think chivalry is dead but I think it just has a really bad cold

Kletian999

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Interesting points.  I don't have a lot to add, but one bit of feedback:

the phrase "you need to set parameters" for map generation.  Most of the article is addressed to player, so this sentence, talking to the devs, is out of place.  Furthermore, they already have parameters. 

Chariot Rider

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Interesting points.  I don't have a lot to add, but one bit of feedback:

the phrase "you need to set parameters" for map generation.  Most of the article is addressed to player, so this sentence, talking to the devs, is out of place.  Furthermore, they already have parameters.

Yah, the line you mentioned was referring to devs, however not necessarily to the devs of Armello.  Mostly I said that because if you are designing a game with a random board it is probably a good idea to control the layout.
Some people think chivalry is dead but I think it just has a really bad cold