No one can stop me from writing articles that no one is going to read! I had a lot of fun writing the CCG thread, but I felt like there was a point where it got to be a chore. I don’t like chores. But I do like Game Design, and I wanted to use this place as an outlet for expressing that since converting that into An Actual Living is pretty hard. So here, I’m going to write articles irregularly whenever I feel like it (probably once a month or so) about Game Design. Each article will focus on one aspect of games or game design and give a short overview of that topic, common variations and uses of the mechanic, the function of the topic in games and game design, some “advanced topics” for more complicated versions of the topic or for extended weird thought I have that I make you read. And also some self-congratulatory examples of the topic at hand in game design. Did that make sense? Probably not!
Here we go!
Dice are among the oldest gaming elements – they predate recorded history and archaeological finds recognizable as dice have been dated as far back as 2000 BCE. It is not surprising, then, that cultures around the world have numerous traditional dice games and that, as many dice games are also gambling games, they have been mentioned and condemned by many religious texts and doctrines. On the other hand, some historians believe dice and dice games to have developed from spiritual practices, such as fortune telling by throwing the bones of an animal.
Most commonly, dice (plural of the singular “die” though I would be remiss as a proponent for descriptivism in language over prescriptivism if I didn’t note that many people use “dice” as a singular) come in the shape of a six-sided cube. These sides are generally numbered 1-6, traditionally with small dotted “pips”, though arabic numerals aren’t uncommon in modern dice, especially as part of polyhedral sets. Polyhedral dice come in a variety of sizes, including 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, and 20-sided dice, many of which correspond to the traditional “Platonic solids”. Dice in other sizes can also be found, usually as novelties, such as 100-sided or larger dice , but any number of faces greater than two is theoretically possible (and two is usually represented by a coin) by using spindle-shaped dice – regular prisms with pinched ends. Sets of dice in these shapes gained popularity with the wargaming and miniatures games of the mid-twentieth century, later becoming similarly associated with role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons in the 70s and 80s.
Due to their ubiquity in games, dice are often a child’s earliest encounter with probability. Though it may be years until they understand what a “normal distribution” is, they are usually quick to understand the chances involved in rolling a pair of dice, an approximation of a normal distribution that approaches such a distribution more closely as more dice are rolled. Players who use dice often will internalize such probabilistic calculations, as EV (expected value) is key to being able to strategize around the randomness of dice.
In the common public consciousness, dice are synonymous with gambling. Craps is the most common in western society, but other games occasionally show up. Suffice it to say: if you see dice on TV, chances are good that money is changing hands, and not the colorfully fake kind. When people think about dice in contexts outside of gambling, it is usually a 6-sided die (though not always – here’s your Community notification) and it will generally fall into two categories: Roll & Move or Roll & Write (with a subcategory of Roll & Reroll).
Roll & Move
This is the core mechanic that people will think of when thinking about dice in board games. You roll the dice, you count the number, and you move that many thingies forwards. It works for Snakes & Ladders, it works for Monopoly, and it works for that dumb game about the circulatory system or the history of the civil war or whichever assigned reading where they made you “Make a Board Game” as a school project. While this is good for children’s games where you don’t want to over-complicate things, most modern games eschew this type of mechanic, because it tends to lead to a lack of interesting/strategic choices, sometimes to the point where human involvement almost seems vestigial. Putting so much focus on whether you can move and how much you can move can put the things that you actually get to do into the background, as players take as many meaningless turns just blindly advancing without doing anything of substance.
Roll & Write
Like Roll & Move, Roll & Write forms the core/only mechanic in numerous games. Yacht, Generala, Kniffle and other classic and traditional games tend to be the most famous and popular, but even some modern games will take cues from this mechanic, though often with a twist – Roll Through the Ages (among many others) has negative results that affect how you can roll and Welcome To… Your Perfect Home bills itself as “a roll and write game without dice”. The general idea is that players will roll a set of dice, then write down the result on paper according to certain scoring guidelines, often becoming more and more limiting as the game progresses. Games of this sort tend to be in the “multiplayer solitaire” genre, but many modern games will add either passive-aggressive interaction where there is a shared resource to vaguely interact with, or full interaction where there may be some more unique mechanics at play. The other main mechanic that games of this sort use is:
Roll & Reroll
As with the other two basic dice mechanics, this should be familiar to most people who have touched dice at some point in their lives. You roll a handful of dice, set some of them aside, then reroll the rest. Usually you will have a limited number of times you can do this. This mechanic has been around forever and is still seen in many board games to this day – Tiny Epic Galaxy, Pandemic: the Cure, and King of Tokyo being favorites in my gaming circle. It’s lasted this long with this much prominence because… wait for it… It’s a really really good mechanic! It’s intuitive, it’s as versatile as dice are, and it has a built-in “press-your-luck” mechanic, where there are interesting decisions to be made throughout the process as players will need to calculate whether the possible greater or even much greater rewards are worth the risk of breaking up a sure-thing.
In this section, I want to go over some of the most common ways that games diverge from standard dice and some examples of games that make good use of those variants:
With different colored dice, you can separate dice into distinguishable groups, either to make simultaneous rolling easier (as with the Offence/Defense Dice in Risk) or the colors can serve a particular in-game purpose – different colors of dice in Pandemic: the Cure represent different strains of disease, with each die representing one outbreak. A game that really makes good use of color is Sagrada. In Sagrada, many translucent dice of five different colors are rolled at once, then drafted by players to use as elements of a stained glass window that they are creating, using both color and number to place them according to a set of restrictions.
While I’m sure there is a game where one giant monster die faces off against tinier dice, the size I am referring to here is the number of faces on the die. While rolling a single die is always going to have equal probabilities for its results, changing the number and range of those results can be an interesting tool. Obviously Dungeons & Dragons (especially in older editions) uses numerous sizes of dice, but there are also games that use an 8 or 10 sided die just to make use of the extra options that they provide. A game that I like utilizing many sizes of dice is Unearth. Players are archeological teams sending workers (represented by dice) to work on different ruin sites. When they go to work, you roll the die and place it on the site, and when enough dice have been placed on the site to give a total above a certain limit, whoever has the highest value of dice wins that site. There are two factors that make this compellingly interesting – first that each player has a set of one 4-sided die, three 6-sided dice and one 8-sided die, and second that rolling a 1, 2, or 3 on any die will get you a small bonus. This push-and-pull between rolling dice that might give higher numbers and dice with a better chance of earning bonus stones leads to interesting decisions and also serves to make “disappointing” rolls still have meaning.
Bam! Pow! Dice Aren’t Just for Numbers Anymore! It turns out that you can print pretty much anything on little cubes. Changing the faces around means that designers aren’t restricted to games of scale. You could make faces into letters, like in Boggle, or colors, like certain versions of Candyland (or Ghost Stories if you don’t want to cause fights over whether the C-Game is actually a game). Or you can use normal number pips, but change around the distribution, like the 0/1/2 Betrayal at House on the Hill dice. But a particularly good use of custom faces is King of Tokyo. In King of Tokyo, the dice can either be Claws, Energy, Health, or Points (1, 2, or 3). Claws, Energy, and Health each have uses on their own, but points need to be in matched groups of 3 or more. It has that push-your-luck element that Yacht-like games have, but makes each face more distinct and more useful and creates interesting tension since there are so many different ways for your roll to be valuable. Maybe you need Health, so you roll for that, but rolling Claws might suddenly make you into a target when you desperately need to stay out of the fray. Or maybe you have a card or power that wants you to roll one of each face to get a big jackpot, but if you don’t get it, you have a pretty lackluster roll. The symbols are very evocative and add a lot of excitement to a well-trodden dice mechanic.
What does it mean when you see dice in a game design?
Dice function as an agent of chaos in games – they bring unpredictability from game-to-game so that each time you sit down to play a game, it’s going to be a different experience. As I covered in my CCGs thread, Variance and Skill are not two ends of a single axis. Rather, they are two separate axes that can be modified separately (The theoretical game Rando-chess and the real game Killer Bunnies being examples of increasing variance without decreasing skill). While they are not the only way to add variance, they are a relatively “known-quantity”. When you roll a six-sided die, it’s random, but you know what to expect. Similarly, most people have played enough games with dice to basically know the kind of results you’ll see. Or when you have an absolute shit-ton of dice, you’re probably playing some kind of miniatures game, where the sheer number of dice smoothes out the probability distribution to counterintuitively decrease the variance from event to event. With less common arrangements of dice, it’s less well-known, but similar enough to be an intuitive and “comfortable” way to add variance to your game in a lightweight way that doesn’t distract from the rest of the game’s design.
In the same way that people generally know “how” dice roll, they also have an iconic, archetypal idea of “what” dice are for. Dice are a symbol for games as much as they are an element. With that icon, dice can be a dividing line between the “game” world and the “real” world. Whatever you may be doing with your day to this point, when you pick up dice, habitually your mind shifts to a “playing” mentality.
As with most forms of variance, dice can lead to exciting “make-or-break” situations where the result of a small-scale or large-scale competition has come down to a single roll of the dice. These moments are tense and exciting – they stand out in your mind, and can make the moment more memorable. People are excited or dismayed at double-sixes or snake-eyes almost by reflex. Natural twenties and critical fails make role-playing moments that inspire entire YouTube videos. Putting dice in a game in a way that makes these exciting moments mean something makes the whole game that memorable and exciting.
In addition to all the commonly understood ways that dice can be used, many games go even further, exploring all sorts of innovative dice mechanics:
- “Exploding” Dice – When you roll a high enough number on one die, it “explodes” and you roll an extra die – which could explode as well! A number of Tabletop RPGs use this, as well as some board games, including the Firefly board game adaptation.
- Dicebuilders – Like Cards, But Dice Instead
- Quarriors takes the deckbuilder mechanic of building up a pool of cards that feed back into getting you more and more cards, and instead uses a bag of dice to add that visceral dice-throwing action.
- Or there’s Dungeon Dice Monsters which is just like….. Just like…. Uhhhh…. Something… It’s right on the tip of my tongue…
- Dice with “Personality” – Assymetrical games (which I plan on doing a future article on) can use different dice faces or sets of dice to distinguish its different characters.
- Sailor Moon Crystal: Dice Challenge is a surprisingly unique dice game in which each different character is assigned a set of four dice, which can range from Queen Serenity’s 20-sided dice reminiscent of the eponymous crystal to 2-sided dice for characters like Luna and Artemis, helpfully represented by an included cardboard “coin”
- Dice Throne only uses six-sided dice, but has a bunch of different characters who use those dice differently. The faces on those dice are all customized to suit their character types, from moons to flames to guns, and the way that you use them to fuel your special abilities gives each character its own interesting personality.
- Dice-maker – Dice Forge gives players a pair of special dice with removable faces. Over the course of the game, players will buy or earn new, better faces for their dice that can replace the common “starter” faces, hopefully building a pair of dice that will help them ascend to godhood.
- Nontransitive Dice – More of a mathematical curiosity than a game mechanic, Nontransitive Dice are a set of numbered dice where the probabilities of one die beating another die are nontransitive – that a die consistently beating another die doesn’t mean that the first die will beat a die that the second die beats. I can’t offhand think of a game that uses dice with this property, but it could be out there – even if it’s just some sort of Rock-Paper-Scissors novelty dice.
Game Design Corner
In this section, I’ll show off a game prototype that I’m thinking about that uses the topic at hand. This time, I want to show you Dice War, alternately titled Idiot’s Dice. As the name might suggest, it takes inspiration from the card game War and the bluffing game Liar’s Dice. It came about while I was thinking about how some gamers will end up with a dice bag overflowing with all different kinds of assorted dice, and how one might be able to make use of such a heterogenous mass of dice. Also I just like the idea of rolling a ton of dice at once.
I will probably never have playtested any of these.
Dice War/Idiot’s Dice (2 players)
Take a bunch of assorted dice
One player calls “high” or “low”
Other player rolls ALL OF THE DICE
Caller gets the dice that are higher/lower than the median of their faces (e.g. on a 6-sided die, 1-2-3 is low and 4-5-6 is high) (if weird dice are involved, dice that fall exactly on the middle number get discarded). Roller gets all remaining dice. Alternately each player just gets a bunch of dice, do whatever you want, I’m not the boss of you.
Round of Play
Whoever looks like they have the least dice gets to be first bidder. Or choose a first bidder randomly if you want. How will you ever figure out a way to determine that?
Each player chooses a secret number of dice. The total number that they contribute is their “hand”
Each player secretly rolls their hand of dice under a cup.
Players bid back and forth on how many total dice there are between the two players’ hands.
If the winner of the bid guessed higher than the actual number of dice, the other player gets to take the difference between the bid and the actual number of dice from the bidder’s bid dice.
If the winner bid equal or lower, they can exchange dice from their hand with dice from the other player’s hand equal to the difference between the sizes of the two hands, then both players roll their dice.
The winning bidder can use each of their dice to “capture” one of the opponent’s dice that shows a lower value. (Each die can only capture one die per round)
If a player ever has no dice, they lose.
Finally, the loser of the bid picks any one of their dice and rolls it. If the number rolled is less than the number of rounds played, the game ends. Then each player rolls ALL OF THEIR DICE and the highest total wins.
Otherwise, start another round of bidding.