Tobold's Blog
Saturday, November 14, 2020
Game balance and randomness

In the comments of my previous post, Yeebo mentioned he was currently playing Shadows of Brimstone. Shadows of Brimstone is a game where you start in a Wild West frontier town, and from there take a group of heroes to nearby mines to explore and battle monsters. From the basic flow of the game, scenarios being played out on cardboard tiles, co-op PvE gameplay of group against "AI" monsters, it might appear that Shadows of Brimstone is a very similar game to Gloomhaven. But in fact it is a good example of the great "Euro" vs. "Ameritrash" divide. (Sorry, I didn't invent that term.)

Of course, no classification is ever perfect. Shadows of Brimstone has some characteristics of a Euro game, for example it being co-op instead of confrontational. Gloomhaven has some characteristics of an Ameritrash game, for example the miniatures for the heroes. Still, the first thing you see when you open a Shadows of Brimstone box is lots and lots of miniatures which you have to assemble yourself (which is one thing I hate, because I am not good at this), but more importantly for gameplay, lots of dice.

This is where you can really tell that Shadows of Brimstone is more an Ameritrash game, and Gloomhaven more of a Euro game: There is a lot more randomness in Shadows of Brimstone. For example in Shadows of Brimstone the scenario dungeon is created randomly while you play: You move to the edge of one tile, and draw a card to determine the next tile, and roll a dice to determine the exit of that tile. In Gloomhaven, the complete shape of the scenario dungeon, and the number and type of monsters in it, are usually pre-determined in the scenario book. (In fact, I kind of disliked scenario #2 in Gloomhaven, because of boss abilities that could randomly end up overwhelming you with monsters if you were unlucky.)

Even more importantly, movement and combat is a lot more random in Shadows of Brimstone, where you mostly use dice to determine everything. If you roll 1d6 to determine how many spaces you will move this turn, you don't get much control. In Gloomhaven you decide which cards to play this turn, so you have a pretty good idea how many spaces you are going to move. Even the basic combat modifier deck has 16 cards out of 20 that just modify your attack between +1 and -1, which is a lot more reliable and predictable than a d6 roll. In Gloomhaven you plan how you want your move to go, and there is a significant chance that it works as planned, and a smaller chance that it works out somewhat differently, because a monster drew a very fast initiative card, or you drew a rare "attack failed" card.

I like games to have a bit of randomness, like Gloomhaven, but not to be too random. I like Gloomhaven combat, because it makes me think, and allows me to plan ahead. Player skill has a bigger role in Gloomhaven because of that, rather than luck. Over the past decades, a lot of genres of games have moved away from too much randomness. Even Dungeons & Dragons in 5th edition is a lot less random than previous editions, due to the game design concept known as bounded accuracy. Deckbuilding in games like Magic the Gathering are all about reducing randomness. In Gloomhaven, a part of character advancement is changing the attack modification deck to make it more reliable. I don't want to take it too far, and play a game like chess in which there is no randomness at all. But too much randomness makes planning obsolete, and thus makes player skill obsolete.

From what you write, the combat system of Gloomhaven reminds me of one which I saw in a small indie game some years ago. I cannot remember the name, but it was just a gladiator combat in an arena. Instead of dice, you use a deck of cards, and all cards can be used to perform actions. There are "strong" cards which feature fast move / strong attack / etc. and there are "weak cards". All cards can be used to perform any action, you just get a more/less effective result. The deck is very small and the discard pile is public, so you know which cards your opponent has already played and which cards he may have in his hand.
This makes a huge difference from the typical combat figures games where all the attack/defense/move capabilities are decided with the roll of a die, making the game more planning/bluffing than hoping for a 6.

I was thinking about this randomness/balance thing recently, after having bought Slay the Spire, which I expected to be a good card game but instead turned out to be a mediocre deckbuilding game....
What they call 'bounded accuracy' seems more like modulating the combat system so that being able to hurt a monster is less 'either-or' based on character level.

Are you playing Gloomhaven solo? If so I guess you manage to bypass the bit where you're only allowed to communicate in broad terms of what you plan on doing with your allies.

This potentially results in some fun turns when your big attack cards are wasted since the monsters have either moved or are dead thanks to your allies, and for us it makes it even more interesting because we always want to pick a card combo where we can use the alternate top/bottom in case something goes screwy.

What I don't like is traversing, because somehow without enemies walking across a room is so... tiring? :P

Anyway, the Gloomhaven system (or whatever is used in JotL) is great and encourages so much thinking! I love as you level up you also get perks to modify your attack deck (which vary per character). For my hatchet I can make him more reliable by removing some -1 cards and +0 cards OR make him incredibly swingy by adding more big + cards but leave the terrible negative ones in.
I'm playing both solo and with my wife. That is less a problem of the rules telling me that I can only communicate in broad terms, and more of a problem of finding the right balance between teaching her the game and letting her make her own mistakes.
I think of Gloomhaven, Shadows of Brimstone, Descent, and the older Games Workshop game Warhammer Quest as all members of the co-op dungeon crawler genre (with Gloomhaven being probably the best of the current crop, or at least the most polished and innovative).

I mean I guess you could argue that Gloomhaven is a more European take on the co-op dungeon crawler genre, and SoB is a more American take. However, any categorization scheme that lumps Shadows of Brimstone in with Star Wars: X-Wing and Gloomhaven in with Settlers of Catan is well beyond useless. The two games have a lot more in common than either of them does with settlers or X-wing.

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