Designing a dice game is incredibly easy, so easy in fact, that I’ll do it here, now, in the blog post header. Ready? Roll off 57 times between any number of players, each of them rolling the same die (six sided would be the best and easiest to obtain). Roll off on each draw. The player with the highest number of wins is the winner of the game. Roll off in case of tie. Done.
Yes, I can already image your smirk as you’re smiling at my silly little game, and I know what you are thinking. But, honestly, I am too young to have had seen the prototype of Talisman over thirty years ago, and too smart to actually push for publishing a game which is won by the person able to roll the highest number of sixes. There are simply too many such games on the market already.
Here’s the downside of working for a company that publishes board games: you can’t always write about stuff that frustrates you in gaming, simply because you’d have to point fingers at products made by your competitors. And that would make you look like a jerk. So, I decided that – if I am to proceed – I will use a very limited number of negative examples, and I will use only games I really enjoy, so that at least those who know anything about my gaming habits know that there is no ill will or bad blood here.
Now, the essential problem of a not-so-good dice game (or of a game that relies heavily on dice), is the correlation between winning and rolling high (or, to put it in a more universal term, rolling within a specific range the game mechanisms tend to favor). If rolling a six always gives you more power, more resources, more options of using such a die, then it means that the game has a potential of being driven by luck more than by player actions.
Let me use an example of a game I love – and a game that for the most part does dice very well. In Alien Frontiers it mostly does not matter whether you roll high or low, because almost any set of dice can be used productively on your turn. However, if you never roll high, you’ll probably never use the action that allows you to place a colony for the price of permanently removing one of your dice (one that came up with a six), and might have a big problem getting any Alien Tech cards (and without them your ability to manipulate scores is virtually nonexistent).
Apart from the above example, Alien Frontiers is a splendid game, definitely one that’s been in my all time top ten since the first time I played it. It’s a game that will allow a better player (or a more experienced one) to win most of the times, but if two players of equal skill face off, the game will probably be won the player who rolls more fives and/or sixes, as only one location favours low scores, while the others either favor high, or use sets with any numbers.
I’ve used Alien Frontiers as an example not to belittle the game (by Jupiter, it would be like belittling a good friend!), but to show that even the greatest of the dice genre are not completely free of the high roller problem. As far as I can tell, the only game that completely does away with favoring specific scores is Castles of Burgundy – and even the great Stefan Feld was not fully able to repeat this, as Bora-Bora seems to slightly favor rolling low.
So, what should all this teach us? Well, that really good dice games should be built in a way that allows the players to use any rolls to their advantage – and that designing them so that they do exactly this is not easy, but we should still try. After all, the slight imperfection of Alien Frontiers does not prevent it from being a magnificent game, and a design many aspiring creators can draw inspiration from.
PS. Does all the above mean that we’re working on a dice game? No. Nooo.