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Plundering the Seas of Probability

January 22, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[Age Of Empires DS designer Tyler Sigman returns to Gamasutra with an entertaining article in his 'probability for game designers' series, discussing how dice-based board game probability teaches us key lessons about design.]


Be warned: this feature is long and contains a lot of things that are suspiciously and unsettlingly math-like. Go check up on BRITNEY SPEARS or PARIS HILTON or AMY WINEHOUSE if you have a shorter attention span. (Take that, Search Engines!)

Provisioning for the Voyage

I'm currently shopping around a board game prototype called Longship: Viking Raiders. That's certainly not Gamasutra feature-worthy by any means. However, I am long overdue with writing more entries in the critically-acclaimed* Probability for Game Designers series.


- Statistically Speaking, It's Probably a Good Game, Part 1: Probability for Game Designers

- Statistically Speaking, It's Probably a Good Game, Part 2: Statistics for Game Designers

*this is pure speculation on my part

So it occurred to me that Longship had some good examples of applied probability theory in game design. So I've decided to share the design process I used for some of the game mechanics, in hopes that it will be passably interesting -- or at least a temporary diversion from whatever milestone you're crunching towards.

Longship: Viking Raiders Prototype #3 (Board Art by Jeff Simpson)

Longship: A Quick History

Longship is a game set at the dawn of Viking raids on the British Isles (circa 800 AD). Each player takes the part of a Viking chieftain bent on plundering the most valuable assortment of treasure possible. Players earn Victory Points (VP) by amassing majorities and sets in any of the six different treasure types (coins, relics, metals, furs, goods, lumber) and also by completing Title Cards, which are individual goals -- think "Achievements", such as "Be the first to sail through every sea zone in one move." Longship is a game for 3-5 players and takes 90 minutes.

Cats and Dogs Paper and Digital Living Together

By this point, you might be wondering why a board game design article has wormed its way into a site dedicated to the art and science of digital games. Well, hopefully you see a common word in that sentence that answers your own question. I just look at paper as another platform that sometimes has far better graphics and AI than electronic ones... and sometimes far worse. Many bits of design knowledge obviously transfer across the mediums.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Robert Baxter
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This is a great statistical breakdown, and makes me want to re-evaluate the probability models for games like Doom, Descent, and Mutant Chronicles.

All of the games I mention use probability and custom cut dice combinations to evoke a specific model of probabilities for weapon and ability differentiation.

Do you find that the decision for using custom cut dice was more a matter of making your game unique, or was it to map the probabilities in a more grokkable fashion for the player?

Diego R Pons
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I find it surprising that still needs to be remarked why articles like this are being posted in this site.

Awareness of how game mechanics work at their core is what true game design is all about.

And as a player, even though in a lot of games users are not aware of how probability is involved; there's still a lot of gamers like myself that enjoy clear feedback of probability components and the action of throwing digital dice whatever the shape this takes.

Tyler Sigman
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Thanks for the comments. Robert, re: your question: it was a mix of the reasons you stated.

First, it adds a little more personality to the game. It's a little more fun to check for axes and sea monsters than just a check things like "4 or above on d6". Goes with the theme better.

Second, the symbols are a bit more grokkable, as you've pointed out. I'm hoping the rules are more memorable, and less checking of reference tables will be required. Rolling two dice and checking for sea monsters when passing through a Sea Monster-inhabited sea zone maps well to memory (in theory).

Some of the combos I found I needed to do just made more sense with the symbols, whereas they seemed really clumsy with straight d6s. For example, the raiding rules: checking for axes and taking casualties on sea monsters is sorta simple, whereas "5-6 equals 1 success, 6 = two successes, and a roll of 2-3 is a casualty" is just a little more of a mouthful.

Of course, I'm just using normal d6s to prototype.

I'm not saying that custom dice are categorically better; but I like the theme-ey-ness.