The roguelike is a genre that is about developing skills to compete with randomness. While a basic core set of rules make-up the gameplay, the things that you will be encountering will always be presented randomly. There will be a different set of items for you to find, a different way that you’ll progress through the world, and the player must rely on their judgment and skill to progress. For many players in competitive games, the goal is to find as many ways as possible to reduce the effects of randomness so that they can always win. Greg Costikyan notes in an excellent post about randomness in games that “if we feel that we just got lucky — or, worse, that someone else won even though we were obviously the smarter player, because they just got lucky — we’re likely to think less of the game”. Yet creating a balanced game design where the randomness keeps players on their toes without seeming unfair is hard to do. One of the best examples of balanced randomness is the indie classic Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. Playing like a cross between Solitaire and Star Control 2, it offers an interesting take on games that randomly create their worlds because many sessions do boil down to pure luck. It still stays engaging precisely because the strategy of the game is learning to work with what you’ve got.
At the start of each session, you’re asked if you want to operate as a scientist, pirate, or military vessel. Ship type will decide which scoring system will apply to that session: military awards points for signing treaties and defeating enemies while science awards points for collecting artifacts and animals. The size of the galaxy that you’re in adjusts how long the play session will be, enemy strength can be adjusted for those wanting to rev up the combat, and nebula mass can be changed to make navigating the map more difficult. Less nebulae means that the galaxy can be travelled around much faster. Playing as the science vessel is a fairly calm experience, you don’t have enough weapons to do much combat. You move around the galaxy collecting artifacts and trying to find ways to get various aliens to talk to you. The military version, on the other hand, is a tough grind as you search for stronger weapons then start taking on anyone that you think you’ve got an edge on. Piracy is a bit more random as you snatch anything that you can find. The scientist mission usually ends peacefully because you never bother with fighting while military missions typically end violently with you biting off more than you can chew.
In the post mentioned above, Costikyan explains the various effects of randomness in games. He points out that most games have some amount of randomness in them such as an FPS using a multiplier to decide hit damage to change things up. An example of low randomness is betting on horse races, you can study the stats and minimize the effect of randomness by knowing which horse does well on what track. There is always the chance of an accident, but that’s an understood risk in betting that can be overcome because most of the time it works out the way that you expect. A game with a much higher random factor is poker, where an unskilled player might still beat a more experienced opponent because of a lucky hand. Learning to read tells, calculate the odds of what everyone has in their hands, and knowing when to fold is how you undermine that possibility. On a long enough timeline, the skilled poker player will win more than the beginner. Losing occasionally to the inferior player is just a part of the equation. Applying the principle to war games, Costikyan justifies random variables that break away from the pure skill of chess because no general can claim to know the outcome of a battle. He writes, “As in Poker, military command is a matter of minimizing risks and making the best bets that you can, but as in Poker, you cannot be sure of the outcome”.
What Weird Worlds does is offer an enormous deck of variables, what aliens you meet and what gear you find, and shuffles them up every game. All aliens are hostile unless you find an item that they want or you defeat them in battle. If you find the crystal fish relatively early in the game, for example, you’ll be able to strike an alliance with the almost impossible to defeat Tchorak aliens. Occasionally you’ll be able to rescue a crashed alien ship and strike an alliance through this act of good will. Getting access to the planets that these aliens are guarding is essential because there is only one of each advanced artifact per map. There is only one cloaking device for example. So if you’re taking the military route, you need to get a hold of strong shields, weapons, and hopefully the cloaking device if you plan to dominate the game by fighting. The challenge is being able to find all that gear in one session. The science or pirate route is easier because you just need to collect stuff but scoring well means getting past the aliens somehow. The scientists are going to need a special coat that makes most aliens want to ally with you while the pirates inevitably need to find the fold space drive to move across the galaxy fast enough. A skilled player can tell within five to ten minutes of play how the level is going to work out. If you haven’t found the aliens who like to trade equipment at about the five minute marker, a military player will have to get creative with tactics. If a scientist ship hasn’t found an engine that will let them get through nebula mass by the half-way point, they won’t be able to get near several key planets. Like poker, Weird Worlds is randomness that you develop a tactical relationship with instead of just winning or losing as a result of that randomness.
The pleasure of the game comes from constantly experimenting and pushing your luck in brief play sessions of five to ten minutes. Getting blown up happens a lot, but it is never much of a problem because you’ve only been playing for a few minutes anyways. When you do finally have the super shields, the best engines, and all the super weapons, the pleasure of plowing through fleet after fleet has that rare form of satisfaction that can only come from true scarcity. Fleshing out this basic item hunt are dozens of different random events. If a play session is going particularly well, a super alien ship will randomly arrive and start systematically blowing up planets. You will sometimes find a giant warship that has more weapons and equipment than any other ship in the game. Sometimes saboteurs wreck your ship, you’ll be able to strike quick alliances if two aliens are warring with one another, and derelict ships always hold new promises. Costikyan writes, “The point at which strategy begins to dominate over randomness depends on how much effect strategy has — in a game where random elements are small and strategy vital, strategy dominates with even a handful of random tests, while if strategy is a relatively modest dictator of outcomes, then many random tests are required before strategy dominates”. After years of playing the game as a quick break, I still can’t guarantee that I’m always going to win. Like all good randomly generated games, what makes Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space engaging is striking that balance between strategy and randomness. It’s all just a matter of what cards you’re dealt.