To a gamer of any stripe, the humble dice remains an object of near mythical levels of awe and reverence, a potent symbol of what it means to be a gamer. Proof of this is absurdly easy to come by - however the Eurogame crowd might style themselves as shunning random mechanics even for them the dice remains a staple in shared names and images - witness "the cast are dice", "the dice tower" and the ever-popular images of big piles of dice on BGG.
Those of us who are happy to enjoy our Ameritrash and Wargame classics need not worry about being proud of this particular piece of symbolism because our games are rife with dice and we know well how much drama, excitement and variety they can bring to a game. But we've been there before and we know there's a suprising variety of mechanics you can employ to make good use of dice to add to a game.
However, it would be foolish to proclaim that "dice are good" without qualification because there's a whole host of dice-based games that aren't worth the plastic it takes to make the little universal hexidirectional randomising cubes including in the box. Snakes and Ladders for an obvious example, and much as it pains me to say this, an uncomfortably large swathe of instantly forgettable AT games from the eighties. In the brave new world of the Euro there are also designers who've gone back to the beloved dice without shame with mixed success.
The first and most obvious thing you need to know about dice is that throwing lots of them evens out the luck over the course of a game. Spreading out fate in this way is a good thing because it means you get all the joy of chucking dice across the board but you can still retain a satisfying level of strategic play in your game. Most game designers seem to have got this point now - there are few, if any hobby games released in the past ten years that hinge on using small amounts of dice. What doesn't seem to have quite got through yet is that in order to get away with using this old-fashioned but still popular approach to dice, you need to make sure that the game points in which you employ dice don't vary hugely in importance, otherwise you're back down to a long, drawn out luck-fest again.
Consider the recently re-released AT treasure Talisman. A fine game in its day but nowadays I have to join the ranks of the naysayers on this one if for no other reason than the whole theme has been done much better by large number of other games. Talisman makes heavy use of dice - to the detriment of good decision making, but that's another story - for movement, combat and resolving non-combat encounters too. However, the actual impact of a good or bad dice roll in the game can vary enormously - if you're fighting a very powerful creature, or hanging around trying to hit the space which leads from the outer to the middle ring then the outcome of the dice roll is much, much more important than if you're up against something weak or just making an early movement roll to start finding things on the board. That's a bad use of dice - effectively the outcome of the game can be decided by a relatively small number of dice rolls.
I'm going to contrast this with my old favourite, the soon to be re-released Titan. In Titan, combat almost always involves rolling so many dice that combat outcomes which hinge on a small number of dice results are fantastically rare. It can happen - if you've got a round or two of dice rolls to finish off a Titan piece for example - but these occasions a few enough that they simply make memorable gaming experiences rather than a dull game, and making memorable gaming moments is one of the maky cool things that dice can do in a game. The movement mechanic is rather less prone to the standard distribution curve however because only a single dice is thrown each turn and this can make a big difference - you might get a good recruit, a poor recruit or not recruit at all, or you might be able to attack a weak enemy stack or avoid a strong enemy stack. However, the movement and terrain rules in Titan have a much bigger impact on where you can or might want to move than the dice roll - so, again, you're left with a situation in which you've got the excitement potential of a good roll making a big difference but where good decision making is a surer way to win the day.
A more recently fashionable way to utilise dice in game, and a particular favourite of mine, is to employ some sort of mechanic whereby fewer dice are rolled but the distribution curve is built in to the mechanics of the game so things tend to even out over the long run. Apart from anything else this is good because it reduces the chances of some ham-fisted idiot like me rolling dice across the board and knocking all the pieces over. And yes, I know about dice towers but following the little buggers across the room and then having big arguments about whether a given dice is "cocked" or not, or whether it counts if it's been retrieved from under the sofa is part of the charm.
The obvious game in the distribution curve category is, of course, Settlers of Catan. The dice in Settlers work well for a number of reasons - the dice get thrown a lot, the outcome affects all the players and there's an inherent balancing mechanism for a slew of bad luck known as "trading", although you'd never know this from the number of social rejects who chime in and complain that negotiation is Settlers is all a matter of dry mathematical odds and the dice impact is far too random to make it a game worth playing. However, the nice thing about Settlers is that it embraces a large number of play elements - negotiation, analysis, positional play and luck - and balances them well so that no one aspect is allowed to dominate. So if you do get screwed by the dice it's really doesn't rankle too much.
Another recent title to jump on this particular bandwagon is Yspahan. Yspahan has a slightly crazy way of utilising that distribution curve which is very clever and in no way as obvious or intuative as that employed by Settlers. It's kind of hard to explain if you've not played in the game but in effect it makes more common rolls less useful, and less common rolls more desirable. It also throws in a tantilising little mechanic whereby the player rolling can up his chances of getting what he needs by buying more dice that no-one else can use. So far, so good. Now Yspahan isn't a bad game but it's no favourite of mine either because beyond the dice (and cards) the bulk of the game is cold, hard analysis. And this leads to a problem encountered by far too many Eurogames that have attempted to cash in on the average gamers love for dice - building random mechanics into a largely analytical game makes the two aspects of play clash badly. If you've been working hard playing a game with requires you to crunch the numbers to get an edge, being cursed by the Random Number God is utterly infurating. If the game you're playing has a balance of elements (like Settlers and many AT games) or is unashamedly based on randomness or gambling then you're much more inclined to take it in your stride and just relax and enjoy the ride.
Another factor which deserves mention is the small number of Eurogames which offer the player a choice as to how much they want dice to influence the game. A good example is Traders of Genoa. While this is primarily a negotiation game - and thus has one of those built-in balancing factors for bad luck - it also makes cards which allow a player to forgo the dice roll and pick a space instead easily available. So if you're fond of riding with lady luck you can try that, or if you prefer to impose your will on the game then you can do that too. Each has their place and each is a valid path to victory in Traders - because if you're picking up special powers cards then you're not picking up goods, messages or contracts.
Finally I have to make mention of the humble Combat Resolution Table so beloved of the Wargamer. the CRT is a fantastic idea because building in odds to the equation is an easy, satisying way to ensure that you get all the fun benefits of random dice rolls without allowing luck to dominate or the need to throw buckets of dice. What I find startling about the CRT is that with the exception of a few old fantasy and sci-fi wargames it's a mechanic which has been shamefully ignored by AT designers. I even know of one Euro which has a (admittedly absurdly simple) CRT - the dinosaur evolution game Evo. So get your thumbs out, AT designers, and let's see if you can borrow and improve on some old favourite wargame mechanics in the same way you've brilliantly improved and integrated some Euro favourites into modern AT games. Diversity is our strength!
It is with some regret that I have to announce this is going to be my last column for a while. I'm about to start a new job and until I've settled in to the extent where I can be comfortable surreptitiously typing out blog posts in Word and then pasting them and posting them at home there will be no more posts. I do mean to return, sooner rather than later and hopefully I can use the break to come up with some interesting ideas for discussion and debate. So, see you when I see you!
This week, Matt has been:
Reading: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Watching: The Cider House Rules
Drinking: Gilles Bouton 2004 St Aubin "En Creot"
Playing: Citadels, Ra and (on the PC) Championship Manager 4
This is a copy of an article originally published on the old F:AT blog. Read original comments.