Article: Dice in Games

In this guest article, spurred by two recent Spiel purchases, Eurogamer Paul Grogan talks about his evolving love/hate relationship with dice as a mechanic in games.

 

If you want to put games into named categories, then I’m a Eurogamer and proud of it. There are many different types of games out there and one person’s “Best Game Ever” is another’s “I will never play this again even if you pay me”.   What follows is completely my own opinion, and I know many will disagree – each to their own.

I’ve been heavily into boardgaming now for over 15 years, I’ve been to Essen for the last 13 years and always get excited about new stuff, even if some of it may not be that ‘new’. There is a growing number of people who are saying “Meh, this year was rubbish”. Personally, every year is great – Gaming is my hobby, my passion, and very recently becoming my job.

Anyway, on with the subject… For many years when I started gaming, dice were bad. Dice provided a win or lose randomness to games which didn’t sit well with me. I like games to be more about the choices I make in the game and not solely determined by dice rolls.

Eurogamer comic strip by Brian Barling
Artwork by Brian Barling.
Image Courtesy of Board Game Geek.
© All Rights Reserved

Brian Barling used to do a series of cartoons for BGG which were great, and this one summed me up perfectly (and all my friends new it)

Over the years, things started to change, and games started to be created which used dice in clever ways. People thought I would instantly hate them, but they were wrong!   That isn’t to say that my opinions on dice in games have changed – they’ve just been refined.

After a discussion with friends whilst waiting at Manchester airport, I started to think about the games that I dislike because of the dice, and games that I do like which have dice – and the reasons why.

In my younger days, I played a number of the old-school games like Axis & Allies, where there is an extraordinary amount of dice rolling. However, there is so much of it, that it should average out. Notice the emphasis on the word ‘should’, as it never seems to.   However, having played the game a lot, strategy and tactics still play a big role in the game (assuming you are not playing with the ‘completely random and totally stupid technology of the old editions’).

However, games of A&A often hinge on very small key battles with only a few units, and at that point, you are only rolling a few dice and it can make a huge difference. Now, if it all balances out, then it is ok. The Axis manage to control Africa with a series of lucky rolls, and then the Japanese fleet is completely wiped out with no losses to the Americans – the game changes, and it carries on.   But when one side wins two or three of these small but very important battles due to lucky rolling, that can impact on my enjoyment of the game.

Skip ahead many years to Eclipse. I think Eclipse is a great game. Solid euro mechanics, almost faultless production quality and just really nice to play… Except for the dice… I’ve played enough games now where one player built up 2 cruisers at the start and attacked an ancient, with a >95% chance of winning, and got wiped out. And that’s pretty much it. He is now 2 turns behind everyone else, lost all his ships, and it’s hard to recover.

I no longer play Settlers of Catan. However, when I did, I would always want to play with cards instead of dice, so that the numbers roughly came out as they should. Again, I’ve had too many games where the player who won only did so because “4” kept being rolled. Against the odds I know, but it happens.

So, now we know that I’m not a big fan of dice in games, why do I like Alien Frontiers and why am I ALWAYS playing Castles of Burgundy online.   They have dice in them – surely I would hate them just as much?

I never really thought about it that much before. However, the game we played a couple of turns of at Dusseldorf airport was the new Phil Eklund game, Greenland. And then at Manchester airport, we played Doodle City. When I started going on and on (which I do a lot) about how much I disliked Greenland, but I enjoyed Doodle City, a good friend of mine couldn’t understand why, since they both had dice and were both very random.

It made me take an introspective look at why this was, and I’ve come to the simple conclusion.

  • A game where you make a decision and then roll dice to see if it succeeds or fails – I don’t like.
  • A game where you roll dice and then make decisions based on the results of the dice – I do like.
Castles Of Burgundy Box Cover
The Castles of Burgundy, Ravensburger, 2012
Source: BoardGameGeek

Castles of Burgundy is probably the best example, because it’s one of my favourite games, I’m a complete Feld fanboy, and it’s a highly rated game. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve played a LOT of games of CoB, and sometimes (very rarely), a game has come down to me needing to roll ‘anything other than a double 5’ in the last turn to be able to place my final cows for a gazillion points. But, there are so many choices to make in the game, and there are always other things you can do with your dice that they are never really wasted.

I absolutely love the way that dice can be used to buy workers, and workers adjust your dice. So, if you roll “bad” on one turn, it gives you the ability to manipulate your dice on the next turn. Genius. Did I mention I’m a bit of a Feld fanboy?

The length of a game also affects my liking for the dice. If you invest a lot of time into a game to have the result determined by a few lucky dice rolls, that’s not enjoyable for me. If it’s a quick game however, I don’t mind it (as long as the game is good).

So let’s go back to the two games which sparked the airport discussion. Greenland.   Please bear in mind that we only played a couple of rounds, it was our first game, and we may have even got some rules wrong, but from what I saw, that was enough for me not to want to play it again.   I also have a natural aversion to anything Phil Eklund does. Some people love them, and if they enjoy them, that’s great – and I know Greenland has been getting some positive comments.

Greenland Box Cover Art
Greenland, Sierra Madre Games, 2014
Source: Board Game Geek

Putting aside the fact that the games he makes seem to be more of a simulation and the art and graphic design looks like something from 30 years ago, I went into the game understanding that this was just really going to be a simulation of what happened at that time in history – I wasn’t attempting to really play it as a game. But when I placed my cubes on a card and then rolled dice to see whether I succeeded or not, I just thought ‘uh-oh’, here we go again.

Now, I’m sure the people who love the game will tell me I’m wrong, and that there is far more to it than that. And yes, there is. You have a big cube, which you can say always rolls a 1. So if there is one card which needs you to roll two 1’s or 2’s, you can send your big cube and 3 more, and then you just need to roll a 1 or 2 on 3 dice. And yes, you may have an ability that allows you to re-roll 3’s. But all of this is just probabilities, and increasing the number of cubes just increases the probability of it happening. But if you don’t roll the right things, you get nothing.   And yes, you can also place all of your cubes on one card, which means you get lots of dice and a much higher chance of getting it.

Now, to be fair, Phil Eklund’s games seem very detailed and historically accurate – you have to respect the amount of effort and research that has gone into the theme and the gameplay.

Doodle City Box Cover
Doodle City, Aporta Games, 2014
Source: Board Game Geek

And now move onto Doodle City, which on paper (literally) is a game which people who know me think I would hate. I like heavy, meaty euro games with low randomness and hundreds of components. Doodle City is none of them. It’s a 15 minute filler, very light and suitable for families.   And…. It has dice.   But wait…. You roll the dice and THEN make a decision. And it’s light, and it’s quick.   And believe it or not, there is strategy in it!   It isn’t Castles of Burgundy, and sometimes you do roll something that isn’t very useful for you, but the dice rolling rules work well.

In the turn, the start player rolls 1 blue dice, and then X+1 white dice (where X is the number of players). Then, in turn, each player picks one of the white dice. The blue dice tells you the column you use on your sheet, and the white dice shows the row.   This is infinitely better than each player rolling their own dice at the start of each turn, because that would be too random. With the rules in the game, if you roll a “6” on the blue dice (wild), everyone benefits.   Simple, and great.   So, during the game, I felt like I was given choices, and those choices mattered.   Yes, there were a couple of times when the dice were not good, and I had to cross off something I didn’t want to, but since you don’t fill up all of your board anyway, I ended up crossing things off that didn’t matter to me.

Now…. If Doodle City was a game where each player on their turn rolled dice to see where they could build, it would be awful and I wouldn’t play it.

Other games with dice are worth a mention here.   Macao – The dice are rolled but everyone chooses from the same dice pool and it isn’t a simple case of ‘high is better’. Panamax – where the white dice are all rolled, but this just determines the actions available for all players. I also love Perudo, and that has a LOT of dice rolling.

Anyway, to bring things to a conclusion, I’ve warmed to dice in games, as long as it is done in a way that feels right.

Paul Grogan
Gaming Rules!
www.youtube.com/user/gamingrulesvideos

 

Paul Grogan has been involved in gaming for over 30 years. For the last few years, he has helped out a number of companies with playtesting, development and rulebook editing (mainly Czech Games Edition), but in 2014 he started up his own Gaming Rules! youtube channel which produces digital overview videos to help people learn how to play or just to see if the game is something they would be interested in. He also does game development, playtesting, and demoing at various UK conventions.

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