Evolution of Dice in Games
That dreaded moment in the game of Sorry, you are trying to role a two, exactly, so you can end up finally ending the game, and you roll and fail, again, and again, and again.
Or Monopoly when you’re five away from the spot you want to land, and you get a four on the two dice, and now you have to hope no one else lands on it before you get around again, even though you’ll probably not land on it yet again.
In Clue, when you need to get into a new room to find out some information, and the room is six spots away, but it takes you three turns to get into there, so you’re way behind on information as compared to every one else.
Your troops are poised in Risk to take out the single troop, and you have five, but you end up rolling every single time below what the other person rolls and you lose your troops until you’re down to one, and now you’re wide open for the next person’s turn, even though you should have been able to beat the other person on one of those dice rolls.
Those are the classic frustrations that came with dice in board games that people grew up on. Maybe not teens now, but when I was a kid, those were the games we had and man, it sucked. A game that could have been fun, ended up being ruined by a bad roll of the dice. But, there are still dice in games now, how are those games not ruined by the randomness of dice, and are dice always bad in a game?
There are some games that still use what is called the classic roll and move. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s when you’re rolling a die or two to see how far you move. So it might mean, if you’re rolling two six sided dice, and this is especially noticeable in Clue, you roll and you can go two spaces while someone else rolls and they can move twelve. This is generally still considered a really bad thing in a game. Because someone with a bit more luck with the dice might be able to run away with the game.
So what are dice doing in games now that is good?
The first thing that games are doing is making the dice mean something beyond movement, or maybe they can be movement, but they can be other things as well. When dice are used as movement or in a lot of games now, they are rolled in what is known as a dice pool. A great example of this is Dead of Winter where you have a die for each survivor plus one that you roll at the start of the turn. You can then use those dice to perform certain actions. Each character has a search level and killing zombie level that if they can match or beat higher on the dice, means that they can do that action. But what if you roll below? If you roll below that number or even if you don’t need to search or kill a zombie, you have other actions that require a die. So you could use a die to barricade against zombies or clean trash out of your base. But you’re always able to do something useful, but maybe not as useful or not exactly what you had hoped. There are a number of games that do this or something similar, and that keeps you always able to do something.
Dice are still very common in the genre of game known as Roll and Write games. Yahtzee is an example of this where dice are rolled a specific number of times and you’re hoping to get what you need to score the most points. While the point thing is still huge in a lot of these games, a number of done away with the dice mitigation of rolling multiple times that Yahtzee has, we’ll get back to this mechanic in a bit. Instead of looking for something very specific, they pretty often look for where you place a certain number. And depending on where a number is in conjunction to other numbers or things printed on the board it is worth points. These games are generally a bit tricky to explain abstractly without the game being in front of you, but the rules are generally simple. The dice randomness makes the game play differently every time as well.
But let’s hop back to the Yahtzee mechanic, the roll dice, take some dice, roll again, take some more, and roll one final time. This works in two types of situations, one where the game is fairly silly and the other where the game is more serious, but the dice are always useful. Kind of like Dead of Winter, in the last of the two options for the Yahtzee mechanic, it sets you up so that you can do stuff, but you might not be able to do everything you wanted. The Reckoners is a game like this, but along with that, they also tend to give you a large number of dice to roll, so that you can always do something that is very good just by sheer number of dice faces you’ll see. However, silly games are probably more common, and even in those cases you can generally use most of your dice. King of Tokyo is the prime example of this. Monsters fighting in Tokyo, trying to punch each other, get energy to buy more powers, heal up, get points, you are doing a ton of things with dice. Because of this, it keeps the game moving well and generally as compared to a roll and move game the game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.
Now, there are a number more things that dice are still used for. And a lot of custom dice that come with some of those things. Dice are still used in combat, but now, instead of the Risk mindset of roll and whatever you roll is what you get, you can use cards to boost results, to change results, or to roll again. A game like Star Wars: Rebellion actually adds in some more with that by having different troops roll different dice, which isn’t unique to that game, but it makes there be even more strategy with what troops you are bringing into the battle. This bit of added strategy makes the game feel much less random in combat than Risk does. The larger force of troops should generally win.
Dice are also used to simulate things that are difficult to do. And this is generally tied into your characters ability to do something. Fantasy Flight has a number of great examples of this with their Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness games. In these games you have different skills like strength, agility, observation, will, and more that you will be tested with at times. Instead of just rolling a die to see if you get it, if you’re a strong character, you’re going to roll more dice on a strength test, but if that character also has a weak will, you are going to roll less dice for a will test. So while you still might not be able to do this impressive strength test because of a poor roll, you’re going to succeed with that more often than you will with a will test. And when you get a tough will test, it feels like you’ve really accomplished something. With this, they also do away with some of the pass or fail die rolling that people expect. A good will test might not stop all the horror from coming through, but you’ll be able to stop some of it. This is pretty common in combat dice as well, where a die roll might give you defense to stop some damage but not all of the damage.
This is getting to be a pretty long post, but you can see some of the ways that dice are being used now that is different than your standards from Sorry, Monopoly, Risk, and Clue. And I hope that while I was negative with dice in those games, you can understand that dice are great in some games when used correctly. It’s when dice are used too simply that they can become an issue. There are a lot more examples of how dice are used well such as in games like Sagrada where they are being drafted or how dice can change throughout the game, such as in Dice Forge.
What games do you think use dice well or how in modern board games do you think dice are used best?
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