Failing Dice

Let me tell you a story you will most probably not believe. It’s a story of randomness and anguish, of fate that would show us its ruthlessly consistent face, and of perseverance and ingenuity that allowed us to triumph at the end. Oh yes, and there’s going to be some general board gaming stuff at the end.

I’m hardly a spiritual man, and within NSKN Games, I still consider myself the person most likely to work on a gut feeling, than on solid data received or researched. Being a man of no faith in the supernatural, I felt puzzled to no end, when two of the most rational minds I’ve ever come to contact with told me that our own Agnieszka could not roll decently on a set of any dice to save her life.

Initially perplexed, I gave the whole thing little thought. After all, some cognitive biases are very difficult to uproot even when one’s fully aware of their existence, so I should not be surprised that even the smartest people would not be totally free from them. And I guess I would have forgotten the whole thing, if it wasn’t for Defenders of the Realm.

DotR_01If you’re not in the know, Defenders is (using quite a broad brush here) a re-skin of Pandemic, that switches out diseases for four evil generals. Each of them leads an army of minions into an unnamed fantasy realm created using the iconic (albeit quite cheesy) art of Larry Elmore, and graphic design lovingly crafted by somebody’s nine year old kid on a school night. But most of all, it’s a cooperative game in which you have to roll handfuls of six sided dice, and each time hoping for as many high rolls, as humanly possible.

So, we sat down to play Defenders of the Realm, a game I used to enjoy on a very regular basis, and – with my wife – used to win quite often (at least on normal difficulty and against base game generals). And yet, this time we fail miserably – and proceed to fail twice in a row on the same game night, and once again on another. I also watch in disbelief, as every single time combat starts, even when Agnieszka manages to generate seven or eight dice for her to roll, she fails to land a hit. Her dice simply come up with ones and twos almost all the time.

Four defeats in, completely dismayed by what I’d just seen, I propose that during the next game, Agnieszka should consistently flip all of her dice after rolling. So, no matter what, a one becomes a six, a three becomes a four, and so on. We agree to follow through, and a little over an hour later the last of the generals – the insidious undead Varkolak – lies at our feat.

Snake_EyesAgnieszka’s dice failures have since become legendary, and it is common knowledge around here, that she rolls incredibly poorly. And yet, we still like to play dice games – or games that are heavily dice based. Although evidence in the matter of her legendary bad luck is purely anecdotal, this whole weird issue brings us to a much more tangible topic, and something many designers and publishers should probably take into serious consideration.

I’ve written this a few times already, both on this blog and elsewhere: make dice games in a way that allows players to make use of different scores. With a cooperative experience, it’s not really a probem, as all of the players are short-changed, but if you construct a competitive game that will always be won by a person who rolls exceptionally high against an opponent with exceptionally low rolls, there might be a flaw in your design, and perhaps you should annihilate the flaw. Because if you don’t, you’re making Agnieszka automatically lose at your game. And that is not cool, yo.

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