Like most people in my generation of gamers, I love rolling dice; big handfuls of them when possible. Unfortunately, this clashes with a lot of other elements of my taste in games, and there are very few dice games that I love as much as I love rolling dice. While I don’t think I have all the answers for what makes a brilliant dice game, I do have some thoughts; principles, if you will.
I choose the word principles advisedly. Principles should be followed but, unlike laws or rules, they are provided with the expectation that they will be broken *when there is sufficient justification*. I’m not sure how much the designers of the recent spate of dice games (To Court the King, Kingsburg, Pickomino, Roll Through the Ages, &c.) considered these problems, but all of them, as far as I know, break one or more of these principles, and I don’t think they have sufficient compensation for it.
1. Downtime is the Enemy
The most important thing in keeping a dice game fun is a quick pace. Rolling dice is fun, but watching other people roll dice tends to be boring, especially after you understand the game’s tactics well. If you can manage an average time of fifteen seconds per player turn, you’re in luck. If you go over 45 seconds, consider whether your game is interesting enough to watch to justify the downtime with more than two or three players. If it is interesting to watch what the other players are doing there shouldn’t be a problem. One good solution is to make other players’ actions affect your position. Better yet, give players problems that they can ponder and strategies they can plan during the downtime.
2. No More Than One Roll Per Turn
A corollary of the last principle. The new wave of dice games suffer horribly from boring downtime, and the single greatest cause of that downtime is that many of the games have players roll the dice three or more times each turn. Typically, this takes the form of Roll, Keep, Roll Remainder, Keep More, Roll and Pray. The idea, it seems, is to mitigate the effect of luck by letting players reroll dice they’re unhappy with, and this has a larger effect the worse you roll. Unfortunately, it makes turns go on too long (sometimes almost a minute) and there is nothing worse in a dice game than watching another player consider which dice to keep and which to reroll, since there is nothing going on, and nothing to consider about your own position.
The height of this is To Court the King, which allows players to reroll over and over again, provided they keep at least one die from each roll. Since players have half a dozen dice or more toward the end of the game, and there are special powers to consider as well, turns can take a minute and a half or more and no one but the active player has anything to do.
At the other end of the spectrum is the classic Liar’s Dice, where players generally roll *less* than once per turn and everyone rolls at the same time. Turns normally take less than fifteen seconds, and when a player has to consider his bid carefully, the rest of the table can feel the tension.
3. Give Players a Chance to React to the Dice
While this principle leads to the evil of multiple dice rolls in a turn, it doesn’t have to. It is also the best way available to minimize the role of luck in a dice game without stripping out (most of) the fun. If players have meaningful ways of reacting to what they roll, they can make choices that minimize the impact of their bad rolls.
One course is to allow players to manipulate the dice after they have been rolled. To Court the King, aside from letting players roll over and over again on their turn, also allows its players to apply special powers they have earned to the results of their dice rolls (although some powers focus on adding dice to their pool).
In Macao, players choose two dice out of a pool of six, and they receive resources based on their choices. While it’s possible to end up with no attractive options (especially toward the end of the game), this choice does reduce the impact of luck.
In Liar’s Dice, the players keep the results of their rolls private, and then make bids. While their rolls should have some impact on what bids they make, players still have the option of bluffing (thus the game’s name). There are still good rolls and bad rolls in Liar’s Dice, but bidding and bluffing do a lot to mitigate their effect.
4. Low Rolls Should Not Suck, High Rolls Should Not Rule
Self-explanatory, I hope.
Kingsburg falls for this disturbing trap. If you roll a bunch of ones and twos you won’t get to choose as attractive options as you will if you roll fives and sixes. I believe the theory is that the Central Limit Theorem will even things out in the end, but there are a couple problems with this. The Central Limit Theorem is not a guarantee that things will even out, or even come close enough for skill to make up the idfference. Also, Kinsburg is a sort of engine game, so good rolls early are worth more than good rolls late. Stone Age also suffers from similar problems.
Macao undercuts this problem in two ways: all of the players work with the same dice rolls, choosing two dice from the same pool of results and players get to take the rewards of low rolls sooner than the results of high rolls, playing the investment advantage against high returns from the dice.
Again, bidding and bluffing help Liar’s Dice to avoid this problem, although bidding lower numbers does give the next bidder more flexibility than bidding higher numbers does, since they can raise by increasing the face value of the bid without increasing the number of the bid.
Roll Through the Ages largely sidesteps this issue by using custom dice based on symbols instead of cardinal numbers. The contrast between Urns and Disasters and Food or Workers and the flexible Food/Workers face are still a lesser version.