Tuesday, 18 September 2007

When Dice Attack!

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


the*mad*gamer said...

I tend to agree with you Matt on your comments about the CRT. Although, the new Worthington release, "Cowboys" does make use of a rather simple CRT.

This week Steve has been:

Reading: The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'

Watching: Mission Impossible(Season 2) Good Morning Mr. Phelps

Drinking: Jack Daniels

Playing: Cowboys, Family Business and on the Wii Metroid and Streets of Rage 2

justme said...

> 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.

Yet not to the extent that drawing cards or tiles does this, which I've recently come to appreciate more. Especially if most of the cards/tiles will be drawn within a game.

Luck and analysis may clash uncomfortably in a Euro, but it is at the heart of wargames, generally.

Ken B. said...

Here's something I've never been able to figure out...personally, I have rotten luck with dice. Just terrible. If only a 1 will be a miss on a d20, that's what I'll roll.

Yet...this doesn't bother me. I'll grit my teeth and bemoan my luck, but it just doesn't gnaw at my soul and cause me to proclaim eternal hatred for dice. In fact, quite the opposite.

Never understood how having rotten luck has a different effect for others; most likely it's due to randomization interfering in the eternal quest to manipulate ambiguity.

Jack Hill said...

One of the forgotten good dice-based games is....Careers.

If you've not played it in years, there is actually a decent little game there. A big part is that you get experience cards that allow you to forgo die rolls in return for a set number of spaces. This is crucial for trying to hit some high-value spaces.

CRT's aren't usually so bad. As long as you aren't buried in other tables as well. In fact, I've seen a couple of games that could have BENEFITTED from a CRT. (Remember Nin-Gonost which had like 20 differently colored dice each representing a column in a CRT?)

Pat H said...

Squad Leader CRT + 2 six siders = gold.

Sean said...

Championship Manager! Awesome. I love that game with a love that is pure and true.

ubarose said...

My love affair with dice began in the Grotto of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart... shooting craps. The nuns thought all us girls were on our knees praying during lunch...until we got caught. As punishment, we all had join the bridge club. I hate bridge.

This week, I have been:
Reading: World War Z
Watching: Dr. Who
Drinking: Coffee and Red Bull
Playing: Struggle of Empires (and getting my ass kicked repeatedly)

Michael Barnes said...

Man, I gotta read that World War Z book...sounds awesome.

CRTs are good when done right- they can provide some really detailed results AND...for the statistically inclined...you can even figure out odds and probabilities of success at a glace. I never had a problem with them, but like Jack says when you're having to manage a couple of them at a time it's trouble. The Richard Berg game MEN OF IRON is a good example...it's a really cool game, everything BATTLELORE really should have been actually...but it has these nested CRTs that are a pain in the ass to manage.

Then there's CIRCUS MAXIMUS...which is almost entirely driven by CRTs...and it's a great game.

Here's my profile for the week since it seems to be the done thing:

Reading: IMMORAL TALES: EUROPEAN SEX AND HORROR FILMS 1950-1990. Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill. I've read it like four times, it's absolutely indispensible if you want to learn about folks like Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Paul Naschy, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and so on.

Watching: New MGM Vincent Price box set- a _must have_ if only for the DR. PHIBES films and WITCHFINDER GENERAL...also season 1 of LOST since I never watched it before...

Drinking: 4 shot Biens down at Chocolatte, the occasional Cafe Rumania, some green apple flavored energy drink they've got down at the Shell station...

Playing: LAST NIGHT ON EARTH, TANNHAUSER...reviews forthcoming on Gameshark...RESIDENT EVIL 4 on Wii...

Listening: "Wrath of Gaia" by Wolven Ancestry. They bill themselves as "Epic Canadian Black Metal". 'Nuff said. Also the new Peste Noire record "Folkfuck Folie", amazing punk/thrash/deathy black metal from France. Oh, and a little Arcade Fire here and there.

Dan Daly said...

Hey Mike, it's interesting that you mention Men of Iron since it's my current "it" game that I'm thinking about picking up. If you'd like to expand on your thoughts about the game please feel free by all means.

Dan Daly said...

Oh ok,

This week I've been:

Reading: Esau by Philip Kerr (neat novel about Yetis) and The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

Watching: The Illusionist (eh, it was ok. The Prestige was MUCH better)

Drinking: Root beer floats

Playing: Twilight Struggle, Wings of War.

Michael Barnes said...

Yeah, THE PRESTIGE was _WAY_ better than THE ILLUSIONIST...

MEN OF IRON...it's a very simple war game (I think there's like 10 pages of rules and they're pretty brief) but since it's a Richard Berg game, there's plenty of chrome. Yet it doesn't get bogged down like many of his other titles. It's pretty direct. I really like the flavor of the battles and the little historical touches (like how the mounted men-at-arms don't give a rat's ass about the low-class archers and have compunction about retreating straight through them) and the combat system is interesting. It works on a few different factors, the chief thing being a weapons system matrix that compares the types of weapons each unit is using. The scenarios are interesting (even the wildly unbalanced ones)and you can easily play a couple in an evening. I think it's a really nice little wargame about a fascinating subject and it really captures some of the finer points of medieval warfare.

KingPut said...

Matt, good luck with the new job. I hope you'll find time to write more great stuff soon. Here's a couple of my thoughts.

Personally, I like rolling 2 - 3 dice more than 5 or more. Part of that is the feel of dices in my hand (ie. rolling craps) and part of it the ability to figure out what happened quickly. Games that I'm rolling 8 dice at I time take to much time to figure out. That's what was so brilliant about the simple Risk combat system. 1 die roll CRT sucks because there is isn't a bell / normal curve so it seems like there is too much luck involved. I hated that aspect of some early war-game where everything came down to whether you rolled a 1-2 vs. 4-6. Personally, I like CRT that rely on a 2-12 roll. I think Evo and Perikles both use a 2-12 table.

Personally, I like dice rolling better than cards driven games for making game more fair for new players. Everyone knows the odds. Some card driven games give a big advantage for the more experienced player who knows the deck. I hate playing a card driven game for the first time with an experienced player and having them say "how come you did that with only 3 cards in the deck you were screwed attacking my city". "Well exxxcuuuuuse me for not memorizing the deck!”

A agree with you that dice for movement in many games does not make sense. There is variability in the time it takes me to drive to work or the time it took Wellington to get Waterloo but in life and in games it makes more sense to have movement be more predictable (a car goes faster than a horse, a horse goes faster than a man walking, etc).

Finally, I’ve been forced to play Yspahan about 8 times this year (7 times to many). The best part of the game is rolling the dices and playing with the camels (putting camels in compromising positions while waiting for my turn).

Drinking: Magic Hat #9
Reading: Enders Shadow
Watching: Football
Playing: Cash n' Guns with a bunch of 9 - 12 years

Clarissimus said...

One of the forgotten good dice-based games is....Careers.

I haven't played this since I was a child, but I can't imagine I would enjoy it much today. The theme just doesn't appeal to me as an adult.

I enjoyed it in its time. Formulating your own victory conditions was a nice touch.

I like dice rolling better than cards driven games for making game more fair for new players. Everyone knows the odds. Some card driven games give a big advantage for the more experienced player who knows the deck.

When we play RISK 2210 we include a sheet listing what all the cards are so the newbies know what's in those decks. But for some games this is just not practical. When I play Carcassonne with all the expansions I'm often left wondering if a tile I need even exists.

Dan Daly said...

I'm not a CRT fanatic, but you can easily have a bell curve with a CRT and a single die roll:

1: Exchange
2: D Elim
3: D Elim
4: D Elim
5: D back 2
6: D back 2

The CRT creates the curve, not the dice. So in this case you have a 50% chance of D Elim, 1/3 chance of D back 2, and 1/6 chance of an exchange. I don't think I've ever seen a CRT where all the results of a die roll were equally as likely.

Shellhead said...

Justme has a great point about the advantage of cards/tiles. The game designer can control the amount of luck in the game by carefully designing the deck.

Kingput has an equally valid point that the card/tile game may give an unfair advantage to the player who is more familiar with that deck.

I'm pondering both of these points because I'm currently working on two games. The short game just uses a deck of cards, but the long game uses dice, tiles, and a deck of cards.

READING: The Cuckoo's Egg, by Clifford Stohl. (And TV Guide; it's that time of year)

WATCHING: Texhnolyze, a bleak and stylishly violent cyberpunk anime series.

DRINKING: Turkish coffee. "Hot as hell, black as death, and sweet as a lover's kiss."

PLAYING: Fallout and a nameless AT filler prototype that might get published in 2009.

LISTENING: Una Volta, by DeVotchKa and Ghost Tigers Rise, by Tiger Army.

KingPut said...

I like Clarissimus idea about listing the cards in the deck if you have a smaller deck size (less than 35 cards). The advantage to the experience player is less with larger decks (50+ cards) because it becomes difficult to remmember what has been played and what is left in the deck.

Fritz said...

Interesting observation, very true the more dice thrown = better results.

mtlawson said...

There's an episode of the Point 2 Point podcast where they interview the creator of The Napoleonic Wars, Mark McLauglin. (Episode 12, I believe. Give the podcast a try if you're into wargames, www.point2pointsource.com.) One of the complaints by some corners of the wargaming community is the bucket o' dice that Mark designed into TNW. Mark defended it by saying in effect that if you don't play with a bucket o' dice and use a CRT instead, you effectively eliminate the possiblity of a Thermoplyae.

Dice do have that ability to confound those of us who use the bell curve in the extreme, rendering victory from certain defeat.

--Mike L.

Anonymous said...

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