Hearthstone is still massively popular today, almost two and a half years after its release. It has created a resurgence of the digital card game genre on its own. However, it has received many significant criticisms, the most common of which is of its dependence on RNG, or random number generation. Many matches are essentially decided by a coin flip or an incredibly lucky effect. The randomness has caused many people to skeptical of the game’s competitive potential, as player skill is sometimes outweighed by bad luck. While Blizzard’s design philosophy about RNG has changed over time, random effects are still very prevalent. Yogg-Saron, a card from the newest set, is possibly the most random card in the entire game, reading “Battlecry: Cast a random spell for each spell you’ve cast this game (targets chosen randomly).”
Some argue that those who dislike RNG should play a game of complete information like chess. The most common way to make a card game feel different from game to game is to have unpredictable elements that are out of the player’s control. RNG is the easiest way to do that; it keeps the game from getting stale, because each match is different from the last. Even the most basic mechanic of most card games, shuffling the deck, is a form of RNG because it randomizes the order of the cards.
The only way to have a card game with no true RNG is if the player does not have a deck to draw from, or if the deck’s card order is predetermined. Astral Towers is a great example of a deck-less card game. Rather than starting at the beginning of a game, it throws you into the middle of a scenario in every stage. Instead of playing out an entire match from the start, it just gives you the most interesting part. This turns it into a puzzle game with a specific solution put in by the designers. The player has all the information about the stage from the start, so it doesn’t have anything unpredictable about it.
To remove randomness completely, the game has to be complex enough to still be interesting. Later Astral Towers levels are quite complicated from the start, whereas most card games start out with a simple board and become gradually more complex as the game progresses. If all the information is available to the player at the start, there has to be enough to still make an interesting level. If some information is not available to the player, such as the order of cards in their deck, it usually means that the game has RNG in it.
Puzzles are the perfect example of giving the player all the information they need. In something as simple as a maze, you can see the entire maze from the start. The challenge is to figure out how to use that information to solve the maze. A game like Hitman Go lets you see the whole map and every guard from the beginning, so the interesting part is navigating the area correctly. Turning a card game into a puzzle is a great way to remove randomness.
Of course, not all RNG in card games is bad. In fact, a lot of it is very healthy for certain games. RNG is definitely a huge reason why games like Hearthstone and poker have remained so popular. It makes them unpredictable and exciting. Especially with the influx of card games recently, though, it would be interesting to see more card games with less randomness, and to watch developers attempt to accomplish that.