Anatomy of a Genre: Dice Games, Part One — Mechanical Evolution

I’m going to be the first one to officially call it: 2008 is the Year of the Dice (at least in the slightly delayed American market).  I think To Court the King (2006) really got the current trend going, but since its release we’ve seen several notables including Kingsburg (2007), Airships (2007), and The Catan Dice Game (2007).  Going by other publications like Alhambra: The Dice Game (2006) and the forthcoming Ra: The Dice Game (2008?) I’m starting to think that every board game is going to have a dice game too.

Thus, I’ve decided to start a multi-part look at dice games. This week I’m going to concentrate on the mechanics by looking at how dice games have been played over the last several decades and how those general mechanics have evolved over time. Then in future articles I’m going to look at how to control the randomness of dice and I’m going to review several of the most notable games.

As a final tease for this week’s article, let me say that if you keep on reading, there’s a neat diagram toward the end.

Evolving Dice Mechanics

Broadly, dice could be part of any game.  They act as a randomizing element in any number of war games and randomly affect production in German-classic The Settlers of Catan. I’m sure a hungred other games use them in a hungred other ways. However when looking at dice mechanics this week I want to move beyond those games where dice are a part of the design to those games where dice are the core of the game. Granted, the game could still have other emphasis. Liars Dice is really a bluffing game, Kingsburg is broadly a resource-management game, and Wicked Witches Way is actually a memory game. Still, the dice are a critically important element in each.

For these dice-centric games, I believe there are four major mechanics: number matching, number maxing, pattern matching, and set creation — each of which I intend to give some attention in this article. As part of this evolutionary discussion I’ve identified some of the most notable games that feature these mechanics below. They may not always be the first games that showed them off, but they’re the games that I believe helped to keep the mechanics in the public eye and thus in the designer’s toolbox.

Number Matching is, I suspect, the oldest pure dice mechanic. It looks to me like it evolved from other games that used dice as an element. Consider a game of Backgammon, where rolling a “6” or an “8” might land you on enemy pieces, but rolling a “7” could put you in a vulnerable position. Abstract out that mechanic and remove the board, and you have Craps — a game that may date back to the Crusades.

Of course just rolling dice to hit certain target numbers isn’t that interesting (nor does it allow for any skill), and thus it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of sub-mechanics have been introduced specifically to make number matching games more interesting.

Can’t Stop is a pretty innovative game in the genre. For one thing, it introduced the idea of multiple dice combos: you roll four dice, then make two sets of two, thus producing a larger set of possible numbers that you could match. Recent release Kingsburg offers an interesting variant of this mechanic: you roll three dice, then can use them in any combination: three singletons, a singleton and a pair, or a triplet.

Can’t Stop also introduced the can’t stop sub-mechanic, a mechanism that really highlights the very visceral enjoyment that you can derive from dice play. It allows you to keep rolling, but if you don’t come up with the right numbers, you lose everything! Pickomino is another recent release that uses this same idea.

Pickomino itself highlighted another innovation to the number matching genre: bigger is better. It suggests the general principal that if you roll higher values your result is more valuable, thus pushing the number matching mechanic toward a variant that I call number maxing.

Number Maxing generally suggests that rather than going for a specific value you’re instead shooting for a specific value or higher. It’s been pretty widely used in roleplaying games since at least the 1980s. There it tends to be called a “dice + skill” system or a “target number” system. However it’s much rarer in strategy games, and I think that’s primarily because it’s even more limited than number matching: there just isn’t a lot of strategy in rolling high.

One of the few strategy games that uses the mechanic is the brand-new Airships. You’ll note that it doesn’t make the number maxing the core of its game: instead managing cards and correctly measuring your risk are the heart of game play.

Pattern Matching is a much more common dicing mechanic, and perhaps the one that people think of most when they think of dice games. It’s what I tend to think of as the Yahtzee mechanism. You roll dice and you try and fill in certain patterns that are defined by the game system.

There’s been a flurry of these games over the last few years, among them To Court the King, Easy Come, Easy Go, and the Catan Dice Game. The core mechanic is strong enough that you don’t have to expand upon it in the way that you have to in the number matching genre. Nonetheless, a few of the newer pattern matching games do include some complementary mechanics that go beyond dice, which I’ll get to shortly.

Set Creation is my last major category of dice games. Just as number maxing was a somewhat varied subset of number matching, set creation is a somewhat varied subset of pattern matching. Instead of trying to match many sorts of patterns, you’re instead creating very specific patterns: large sets of a certain die face. This is more or less the core mechanic of Liar’s Dice, but that game is more about bluffing than dice. It’s easier to see in the Alhambra Dice Game where you’re trying to collect majorities of the various building types through dice rolls.

Like number maxing, I think it’s pretty hard to build an entire game around set creation and have it be very interesting, which is probably why the two examples I list have a heavy basis in non-dicing mechanics.

Evolving Non-Dice Mechanics

I’ve mentioned non-dicing mechanics a few times, so let me clarify that a bit with a definition: I’m talking about mechanics within a dice game that aren’t about the dice and how you roll them. More broadly they’re the sorts of mechanics that you could find in games of any sort. Thus of our two set creation games, Liar’s Dice has strong bluffing mechanics and Alhambra Dice Game has strong majority-control mechanics.

Among the games I’ve been talking about in this article, two other non-dicing mechanics are more common place.

Theft shows up in both Easy Come, Easy Go and Pickomino (which are both Reiner Knizia games as it happens). You can win something with dice rolls, then lose it to something else. Shared mechanics among Knizia games really aren’t that much of a surprise (though it makes me wonder if the two games were developed around the same time). However, perhaps theft is just a good mechanic for dice games generally.

Meanwhile a mechanic that I call roles or actions shows up in three of the recent dice games, To Court the King, Kingsburg, and Airships. In each of these games you can win special powers with your dice rolls, then use those powers to advance yourself in the game. In To Court the King and Airships your special powers let you roll better, while in Kingsburg it’s the entry point to the resource-management system. Role-based action systems have become very (very!) common in board games in the last few years (and I wonder if To Court the King was a more direct influence on Airships).

And that pretty much finishes my look at the core mechanics of dice games. As promised, here’s a chart to finish things off. It graphically depicts the families of games that I’ve been discussing, along with listings of notable dice mechanics and non-dice mechanics.

Dice Mechanic Evolution

(And as a final note: thanks to Eric V. who suggested this topic a few weeks ago when Airships hit the table for the first time.)

Around the Corner

Last week I returned to my Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities column with an article on Collective Choice: Ratings Inputs and Outputs, which is a bit further removed from gaming than most of my online writing, but which is of some interest, since it talks about how people come together to make choices.

I’ve also recently written reviews of Chopstick Dexterity Megachallenge 3000 and the Catan Dice Game.

I’ll be back in two weeks to talk more about the mechanics of dice games.

Author’s Notes: Dice games are a weird thing. They seem to rise up in prominence every few years, with a handful of new games comin out, then the subgenre dying out again. I guess that means that dice have just generally become an accepted part of the gaming field.—SA, 10/18/15

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