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Randomness & Quarriors

Let's look at randomness in the context of the tabletop game Quarriors and other deck-builders.

You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

Quarriors is a tabletop game that I’ve only played a half-dozen times, but it’s really sunk its teeth into me. Not in the sense that I love playing it, but because it tickles a certain part of my designer brain. For the large number of you that I’m sure haven’t heard of it, the game is basically a deck-builder (like Dominion or Ascension), only with dice instead of cards. It’s fairly simple, but brings many interesting design topics to the table.


Game Summary

The goal in Quarriors is to be the first player to earn roughly a dozen victory points. The main way to collect points is by “scoring” creature dice that have survived a full round.

At the start of each player’s turn, he or she pulls 6 dice randomly out of their dice bag, then rolls them. Most dice have a great deal of variance between the results found on each face. A “creature” die might have two sides that actually provide money instead, with the other four divided between a fairly weak and strong versions of the creature.

Everyone begins with 12 dice. 8 of them are basic “money,” only used to buy other dice from the game-wide supply. There are ten types of dice that are available to be purchased in each game. The set is randomly pulled from a much larger library of possible dice. This means each playthrough is different from all others, ensuring the same strategy won’t work every time.

The other dice that players start with are the most basic creature type. When creatures enters play, their collective attack strength is done to the in-play creatures belonging to all other players. The goal here is to kill as many enemy minions as possible and hope your own survive until your next turn, when they score.

Whenever a die is used during a turn or killed by an opponent, it goes to the player’s discard pile. When his or her dice bag becomes empty, the discarded dice are put back into the bag. When a creature scores that player has the option of returning a die from the discard to the game-wide supply. This is  the only time dice are permanently removed from a player’s pool.

As the game progresses, players strengthen their “decks” by buying more powerful dice and culling the weaker ones as creatures score. Eventually someone earns enough points to win. Quarriors is a pretty quick game, and most playthroughs finish in under 30 minutes.



Dice VS Cards

The first quality that stands out about Quarriors (and, indeed, one of its biggest selling points) is the fact that it uses dice. A lot of them. And in all sorts of colors. There’s just a certain visceral pleasure in rolling a bunch of dice.

However, I tend to favor games that use cards over ones that use dice. Why? The amount of randomness. With a deck of cards there are only so many possibilities. Yes, the order can be dramatically different, but you know that in a 52-card deck there will be four aces, four kings, etc. This is even more significant in much smaller decks like those players wield in Dominion.

On the other hand, dice are random. Completely random. You could roll a 1 twenty times in a row. In a card game know that there’s no chance of drawing twenty queens in a row.


Randomness and Strategy

In Dominion I know that if I draw a Gold card and a Silver card, I’ll be able to buy a Market. In Quarriors, almost anything can happen. You might draw a Dragon die out of your bag, only to have it turn up as a small bit of money instead of an invincible behemoth.

Having spent a serious amount of time with Dominion over the past several years, it’s often fairly obvious to me what the best cards are in a pool and the order in which they should be purchased. A brand-new player would be at a major disadvantage, and have little chance of winning unless he or she was very lucky.

Being a dice game, Quarriors is naturally much less predictable than Dominion. I might know all the best dice and how to combo them together, but if I keep rolling the money side on my Dragons then it’s not going to matter. And the odds are often against your desired result. The Dragon die has three sides that provide money and three that act as a creature. Even with the creature sides there’s significant variance, with the weakest of the three forms being “pretty good” and the strongest being “completely unstoppable.”

All of these fluctuations make it difficult to plan ahead. If I don’t know that the Ghost will actually be able to come back after being killed, how can I combo that with another card that provides free money whenever a creature is killed? Strategy in Quarriors often devolves into “buy the strongest, most reliable dice you can.” Interesting decisions aren’t nonexistent, but nor are they a key feature of the game.




In a controlled environment, designers can have complete say in when events can or will happen. In a turn-based strategy game like Civ, if the production rate for all cities is identical then the designer can know for certain that a Warrior will always take 5 turns to build and a Catapult will take 20. This can be a very powerful tool, as poor pacing can derail an otherwise-excellent game. Does training units take too long? Boring. Too quick? The map can become flooded and the player’s army unwieldy – unfun. Hitting that sweet spot in-between is tough.

In Dominion, the best starting hand is five Coppers, each of which is worth 1 “money.” This means a 5-cost card is the most expensive one a player can buy on the first turn. There are several powerful 5-cost cards in the game, but nothing ridiculous. The juggernauts are all 6 and above, and the designer made it that way for a reason.

The pacing in Quarriors is more questionable. A Dragon die costs 8, and if players are very lucky in their first roll they’ll end up with just that. This certainly isn’t common, but when it happens it’s incredibly frustrating to be one of the other players. At that point the only chance you have to win is if the lucky fellow suddenly becomes star-crossed and never rolls one of the creature sides. Which, of course, also happens.


Randomness and Audience

We’ve discussed in previous articles how the more of a role luck plays in a game the more it appeals to casual players. As someone who appreciates strategy more than just about anything else games can offer, Quarriors definitely misses the mark for me.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. Games that are 100% skill-based narrow their audience considerably, possibly even to the point where the ‘critical mass’ of a lively community is never achieved. In the Magic card game, if there was no such thing as getting unlucky with a bad mana hand then the more skilled player would always win. New players would quickly become frustrated, and it’s possible the community shrinks down to only a tiny hardcore group. This is not a place most developers want their games to end up.

There’s a balance to be struck. Quarriors is certainly within the “enjoyable” range of the spectrum, but were I designing a similar game for my own entertainment I’d certainly make some changes. Speaking of which…



What Would I Do Different?

As noted above, one of the coolest features of Quarriors is all the dice. It also makes ‘shuffling’ incredibly easy – you just throw everything into the bag, shake it, and pull out however many you need. This is basically the same concept as what David Sirlin did withPuzzle Strike, only he used gaming chips instead of dice.

But the dice are what really brings chance to the forefront. Replacing the dice for chips would dramatically alter the game to the point where it would be unrecognizable, so we probably don’t want to be that aggressive.

I could see toning down the variance in possible results with a single die though. Instead of the Dragon die having a 50/50 chance of being money or a creature, it could always be a creature, just with varying amounts of strength. This isn’t as loose as Quarriors is now, nor as strict as the single-use cards in Dominion.

I would take a similar approach with modifying the starting “money” dice. At present, five of the sides provide 1 money and the sixth provides 2. On occasion this gives the feeling of hitting the jackpot, but doubling your money is a big deal, even if the numbers are small. Just a few lucky rolls and you’ll build a huge advantage over your opponents.

To fix this, we could normalize the range a bit. The die could have four sides that give 2, with the other two giving 3 and 1. Chance still plays a role, but the extremes have been toned back considerably. This will also help with the pacing issues I outlined above. Changes of this nature to the most fundamental die in the game would obviously require rebalancing the whole economy, but that isn’t a challenge that ought to deter us. “Because it’s hard” should never be the reason why something isn’t good.

Quarriors has a ton of potential and I really want to like it. The core design is sound and it’s unique compared with similar titles. I think a few tweaks could elevate it into the territory where serious strategy gamers would love it.

Quarriors 2, anyone?

- Jon

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