Design Diaries Table Top

Board Game Design Diary – Cards vs Dice

A debate as old as time, what do you go with in a game, cards or dice. Are dice more random, or less customizable? Which is the preferred method for combat for determining how well you do at something? That’s what I’m looking at and debating in my game design today.

The Premise

The Characters

The Bosses

The Guilds

The Levels

The Boards

Cards vs Dice

Now, this one is going to be a little bit less about how they’ll work in the game, instead I’m going to be talking about why I am considering both in the game.


I think the biggest advantage to cards is that cards remember. It’s an interesting concept that was brought up in Oathsworn Kickstarter campaign that I hadn’t thought about it, but cards remember what you’ve drawn before. You have a discard pile, so say you want it to be like a six sided die, you roll the die, you could get a one six times in a row. But if you use six cards to match that and you have a discard pile, drawing from it six times will always get you the one and always get you the six, in fact always get you every number. So you know that you’ll do average sometimes, but if you get the one and two out of the way with your first two draws, you know that you’ll have only good and average draws left.


On the flip side of this, dice don’t have that memory. In my example above, I say that you could roll a one six times in a row. Well, you could roll a six six times in a row as well, which is something that the cards can’t do if you have six cards. So while the dice might be unlucky, they can also be lucky and give you options to push for something better with knowing that you always have a shot at a six, not that a six is already sitting in the discard pile.

Now, a game like Oathsworn actually has both. And you can do a blend of both of them, if you are “rolling six dice” you could roll three dice and draw three cards. So if you know that the deck is just going to be average, you could get your few successes that way, and then push for some critical successes while risking more the other way.

So what is going to work the best for my game, is it dice, cards, a hybrid, what is it?

I’m thinking of doing a hybrid, but probably not like you’d think. I’m not going to pull straight from Oathsworn and copy that people can pick one way or another. I’m going to keep the dice and cards separate but I’m thinking that I’ll use them for different things.

In the boss battles, I want to use combat modifiers like they have in Gloomhaven. But I want to build upon that. In boss battles, which I’ll talk about soon, I want to build up this massive pool of damage and have people work and attack at the same time. On their (all players) turn, each player, separately of the others decides what move/skill they’ll use. They all move and do their thing, and you flip X number of modifier cards based off of your skill. But you can build up in your deck modifier cards that can trigger more cards to be drawn by other players if they are using a certain type of attack or skill.

The other option would be to use dice for combat modification. You’d still use your skills and get some damage and successes based off of that, but there’d be a symbol on the dice, so let’s say you’d have a 3+ on one side of the die. The 3 would be your modifier and you’d give an extra die to another player for their modification of their attack. This would be simpler to implement, I think, but I like the idea that you can customize your modifier deck more than you can customize the dice that you can roll, at least at a reasonable cost.

Instead, I want to use dice for the level events and for the players using their skills to complete the level part of the game. If player X goes on a quest and they have to face a challenge, they look at their stat and get their base number, they look at their skills and use any keywords on those skills, and that builds their die pool and you roll that to determine how well you do on that quest. Or you might be talking with an NPC or another PC and have to persuade them of something.

But, I actually am now moving away from this idea as I put it down on paper because, I want there to feel like there’s more tension in what you’re doing and I also want to reward buffing up stats and having a weak stat. My plan has been to limit the number of events on a floor, let’s say that’s seven, and you can stay for ten rounds, but no new events will come up, before you have to fight the boss, I want to do something different. I want to, now that I’m thinking about it, have players draw a hand of modifier cards, seven in fact, to spend throughout their time on the floor. You will still get your base stat total, and you will get bonuses of +1 per keyword based on the skills your character has, but you can, if you choose to, modify it with a card from your hand. However, those cards you spend will not be in your modifier deck when it comes to the boss battle. And sometimes you’ll know the number that you have to beat, farming for XP by killing monsters, you’ll know your target number, of maybe you have an agility of 8 plus a piercing bow and silver arrows that give you +2, and you can kill the werewolf with a 7, so you don’t need to spend a modifier card, but if you have a -2 in your hand, you’d spend it, reduce your success to a 8, which is greater than 7 and now you don’t have that negative. But maybe you want to get the fabled Sword of the Unending Flame as you know that’ll help boost your damage and you need to get a 14, so you spend a two +2’s to get there, now those are out of your deck for this floor, but now you have a sword that might do 2 more base damage than your previous sword in fire damage for the rest of the game, so it might have been worth it to spend those two +2’s.

The reason for moving away from the dice there is that while dice build tension of a good roll versus a bad roll, you need some resource or something to mitigate them. I’m looking to build a better tension than just that, I want players to be able to specialize some in what they’ll do on a floor, but I want to keep some of that puzzle feel, resource management that is more interesting than just rolling some dice. It has a whole new tension when knowing that you’re spending a good modifier or maybe even a modifier that can combo for another player to get something done. And I’ve given examples where the player knows their target, talking to an NPC who might have a skill for you, for all that you know, you might not know your target number that you’re shooting for, so you have a 5 in charisma, and you know that lore and silver are the keywords, do you’re at a 7, the person handling the book then tells that you can modify it if you want, what do you do, does it matter that much for you, or are you still looking for something in particular. And you’ll have some idea that with a 9, you’ve seen some really good thing things happen, but you can possibly go down to a 5 and still get a quest, so do you risk it.

I think that by now you’ve noticed a key for what I’m going for when creating this game. I want all the decisions to feel meaningful, I want all of them to have some tension to them. Fighting a rabbit might not have that much tension, but spending a card to beat it, that might. And the decision to go to the forest to fight the rabbit, that means you gave up a chance to do something else.

So, in the end, I guess the answer is cards. Do you like the idea of using the modifier cards are both a draw and flip from the top for a boss combat as well as then a more determined resource from your hand on the level?

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