The CCG Thread – Let’s Talk About Variance

Welcome to the CCG/*CG thread, where we talk all manner of Card Games – Collectible, Trading, Living, and otherwise!

Randomness (which I will use interchangeably with “variance”, a term that in this context comes from poker) is inherent to CCGs. The core mechanic IS variance, in the form of a deck that you draw cards from. There are variants and outliers that work to reduce this inherent variance, but it’s so core to how card games work, that it’s basically just built in. Some games go further, especially in digital, where it’s easy to implement much more seamless variance than in physical, where you have to roll dice or flip coins or similar to get random effects. Not to speak of the macro-variance in opening booster packs or loot boxes or whatever (and yes, I know LCGs exist).

Contrary to common belief, Variance is not antithetical with Skill. Richard Garfield has an example demonstrating this: Suppose you have the imaginary game Rando-Chess, where you play a game of chess and then roll a die. If you roll 1-5, the game ends as normal. If you roll a 6, the winner and loser of the chess game are reversed – the loser of Chess wins the game of Rando-Chess. There isn’t any less skill involved in the game than in basic Chess, but there is more randomness. Variance, or Randomness, is simply another axis of the game, perpendicular to Skill.

Indeed, with more complicated instances of variance, a more skilled player may be able to understand the potential outcomes better and give themselves the best chance of success, where a lesser player may not even realize that they are missing something.

Within a certain range, variance is good for games. It’s what keeps players coming back and plays into the “one more game” addiction – there’s a reason why Variable Schedules work so well in operant conditioning. Outside of that range, it can be very frustrating (though arguably, is still healthy for the game as long as it doesn’t happen too often. It certainly can make for some really good stories.)

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Pictured here: Variance

Variance, well applied, gives the weaker player a chance to beat someone better than them. And that’s good, because a game where the better player always wins is inherently frustrating and boring for less experienced players and is a serious barrier to entry. Variance keeps you invested when you’re behind because maybe all you need is that one perfect draw next turn. It also lets people sweep their failures under the rug. Every player has their “Bad Beat” story where they would have won but such and such happened and they stole the game from me and isn’t it a crime and so on and so forth. When you lose a game to variance, it’s frustrating, but arguably less so than when you lose and you know that it’s because you did things wrong.

It’s not all roses though – I’m sure I’ll get into it more when I talk about resource systems, but in Magic, Mana Screw/Flood is a demon that really does make people want to just throw their decks across the room. When variance results in states that it feels like there was nothing you could have done and the game was hopeless, it’s incredibly frustrating and you feel like you didn’t even get to play the game. Other games have implemented resources differently with less variance (constant resource growth, or being able to turn cards into resources, for example) but in my opinion, these are nearly all flawed by reducing variance too much and making games too similar.

It’s a delicate balance for sure, and I would hold that no game has yet perfected it.

Talk amongst yourself – What have you been playing lately? Open anything good lately?
Or answer our discussion question this week: Talk about a time when you experienced variance, good or bad. Bad Beats? Sick Mise? Discuss!