Anatomy of a Genre: Dice Games, Part Three — Mini-Reviews

Over the last few month, I’ve been talking about dice games: how they work, why they’re fun, and how their mechanics have evolved over time. In case you missed them, please check out Mechanical Evolution (part one) and Just the Stats, Ma’am (part two).

This week I’m going to put a capstone on my dice game series by offering some mini-reviews of all the games I’ve played in the genre. Within you’ll find discussions of Airships, Can’t Stop, the Catan Dice Game, Dancing Dice, Easy Come Easy Go, Kingsburg, Liar’s Dice, Pickomino, Stone Age, To Court the King, Wicked Witches Way, and Yahtzee.

The Mini-Reviews

Airships (2007). By Andreas Seyfarth. Roll dice to get dice-rolling powers and/or victory points. Airships is a pretty pure dicefest, but at the same time one that I think misses some of the joy of the genre. On a turn you select a target for aquisition, then roll the dice and try and achieve the target’s number. Because of this target selection you never go too far beyond what you’d naturally expect to roll, and thus you’re robbed of a lot of the joy of a truly lucky roll.

Mechanically, Airships falls into a category of play that I call “power collection”, wherein you collect tokens that make your dice rolling more effective. This is what I think makes the game the most fun, because you’re building up a dice engine. Along the way you’re choosing what you’re going to be good at in ways that are beyond the fairly static options of the leader in the sub-genre, To Court the King. [ Rating: B ]

Can’t Stop (1980). By Sid Sackson. Roll dice to match previously rolled dice and gain majorities in various values. This is the first of several dice-rolling games with great mechanics, but held back on the modern market by their lack of theme. Nonetheless, it’s a very enjoyable game.

Generally, Sackson did some clever things with dice here. On your turn, you roll four dice, then divide them into pairs and in the process hopefully hit at least one of your three target numbers. The result is a very exciting game that’s as much about taking risks as random results — and I think taking risks is one of the elements that can make a dice game great.

I’ve never actually played this game in person, but Roll or Don’t is a well done (if simple) computer adaptation. [ Rating: B+ ]

Catan Dice Game (2007). By Klaus Teuber. Roll dice to collect resources and build stuff. This is pretty much Catan where resource-generation is done by resource-generation dice, and I don’t feel like it stands out in any way. The dice-rolling is very staid, but I feel like the element that keeps it from shining the most is that it’s more solitaire than just about any other game I’ve played. [ Rating: C | Full Review ]

Dancing Dice (2004). By Silvano Sorrentino. Roll dice to match certain patterns, then compete with the other players to see who got the best. This is a Mayfair/daVinci game from a few years ago that you’ve probably never seen. It’s a nice variant of Yahtzee that has a bit less strategy but offers up a whole new social/competitive element thanks to the fact that you secretly divide your dice up before revealing them to the other players. In restrospective, it doesn’t stand up to the more recent dice games which have done a lot more with theme, but as a pure dice-rolling exercise, it’s quite good. [ Rating: B | Full Review ]

Easy Come, Easy Go (2004). By Reiner Knizia. Roll dice to match patterns, possibly stealing victory tiles from other players. Knizia’s game is competitive Yahtzee, much as Dancing Dice is, but the competitive element is a bit different. Whereas you make a blind bid in Dancing Dice, here you can just steal things from other players after they’ve been won. Though more strategic than Dancing Dice, Easy Come, Easy Go‘s social element isn’t quite as interesting. In fact, tiles going back and forth as different people win them can get a bit old. However, it’s another good alternative to Yahtzee if you require that your game be more social. [ Rating: B- | Full Review ]

Kingsburg (2007). By Andrea Chiarvesio & Luca Iennaco. Roll dice to see what powers you can use each round, but make clever decisions about when to keep your dice together and when to break them up. This game is by a couple of designers who I’ve never heard of before and published by brand-new company Elfinwerks, who still doesn’t have a web site, and whose only claim to fame is that it was created by ex-Mayfair CEO Will Niebling. I offer that all as prelude because I had no expectations for this game, and I was very pleasantly surprised by it.

This isn’t exactly a dice game. The gameplay centers around resource management, and the dice are just your path to get there.  With that said, the game plays great. There are constant hard decisions about which dice to use to get which advantages. The resource management offers sufficient depth to be interesting, but not so much as to be overwhelming. Finally, though the dice are the medium of play, not the core mechanic, the dice rolling is still a lot of fun because a lucky roll (“17!”) can really benefit you.

I’ve actually played this game a lot more in the computer version, which is a very pleasant 5- to 10-minute game. A real game, of course, takes a bit longer. [ Rating: A ]

Liar’s Dice (1987). By Richard Borg. Secretly roll dice, then lie about the results until someone calls you on it. This is one of a couple of games on this list where the dice are just a randomizing element to get things started. I’m sure that fans of the game will yell when I say that I don’t feel like there’s very much game here. The singular choice (call or lie) gets pretty old pretty quick. And, as with the older dice games, there’s not any theme. [ Rating: C ]

Pickomino (2005). By Reiner Knizia.  Roll and reroll dice to earn victory tiles. Knizia has designed several different dice games, and even written a book on the subject, but I think this is his masterpiece. The premise is really simple: you’re trying to roll dice to match certain sums. It’s the mechanic for what you’re allowed to reroll and what you aren’t that makes the game interesting. There’s excitement every time the dice is rolled. There’s also a little bit of back and forth, like in Easy Come, Easy Go, but it’s set up to occur a lot less often, and thus is a much more balanced mechanic.

Though this game is one of the lightest mentioned here, for that depth of play it’s also one of the best. My only complaints are component related: very stupid theme and bits that are nicely done but not particularly beautiful. [ Rating: A- ]

Stone Age (2008). By Bernd Brunnhofer. Use pawns to claim various action/powers, including resource production which is determined by dice rolling. Much like Kingsburg, Stone Age is a resource-management game with an important dice-rolling element. Whereas in Kingsburg, dice rolling controls what gets produced, here it measures how much.

This is another game where I don’t really think the dice-rolling adds a whole lot of excitement to the game. You can overperform or underperform by about 1 quantity, and you can make pretty simple decisions about how to maximum your chances, but generally the dice just keep you on your toes a bit. There are a couple of different elements that interrelate in interesting ways, but beyond that it’s just a fair game. But then I thought the same of St. Petersburg. [ Rating: B ]

To Court the King (2006). By Thomas Lehmann. Roll dice to earn dice-rolling powers — and eventually victory. Though other readers point to Pickomino, this game is the one that I think really got the modern trend of dice games started.  The dice rolling is exciting and definitely the core of the game.

I’ve frequently heard this game called Yahtzee: The Gathering, and that’s not a bad title. It was the first major “power collection” dice game where you rolled dice to get the ability to roll dice better. As in later game Airships the result is evocative, but here I found it a little overdone. At the end of the game, play drags a little as you’ve got so many options that you need to sort through. Still, it’s fun and shortish. [ Rating: B+ ]

Wicked Witches Way (2006). By Bruno Cathala & Serge Laget. Remember the results of dice rolls as fast as you can. This is probably the least dicey game of all the dice games I mention here, because the dice are merely the mechanism by which a bunch of icons are randomized (much as the dice just get things started in Liar’s Dice). You need to memorize those icons as fast as you can, which creates the true gameplay. I think the gameplay is really great with lots of risk-tasking and excitement, but very little of it comes from the dice themselves. Thus, though I rate it a good game, it’s not really a good dice game. [ Rating: B+ | Full Review ]

Yahtzee (1956). By Edwin Lowe. Roll dice and decide how to categorize them. A classic of the genre. I think this game is largely underrated and that it can stand up against the best. That’s because it’s not just a game of rolling dice, but also deciding which ways to categorize them. You can put a mediocre roll in a good category — and may do so if it looks like you’ll have better options in the future. The dice rolling itself is also very exciting, as you try to match hard-to-meet combinations, and enjoy your victory if you do. Its biggest problem? No theme, a recurring problem that we’ve seen in older games. [ Rating: B+ ]

Around the Corner

Based on my mini-reviews, I’d say Kingsburg and Pickomino are the two best dice games out there, with Can’t Stop, To Court the King, Wicked Witches Way, and Yahtzee running not far behind. Of course I’m sure there are many great games that I haven’t played. Alhambra Dice Game is the one game from my chart in the first article that I haven’t even seen, which the Ra Dice Game is another up-and-comer that I have high hopes for. Cosmic Wimpout, Railroad Dice, and Risk Express are other highly rated games that I could have included here. And perhaps Winner’s Circle and Ysphan are enough like dice games that they really belong here too.

Before I finish up my discussion of dice games, I’ll note that one of the games listed herein — Stone Age — wasn’t yet published in the United States when I wrote my first article on this topic. As I said, it’s the Year of the Dice Game.

Over at RPGnet, I’ve recently reviewed Mad Scientist University and the Memoir ‘44 Campaign Bag.

And I’ll see you back here in two weeks for … whatever my next article is on. I just need to remember all those topics I was thinking of whilst working on this three-part extravaganza.

Author’s Note: I think this article makes it very obvious how much dice games were still evolving in 2008, just a few years after they’d proliferated in the eurofield for the first time. I would be unlikely to play any of these games nowadays. Most of them are too shallow and too abstract, while the real winners in this set, Kingsburg and To Court the King, overdid things in the opposite direction, becoming too complex or too long (or both).

Meanwhile, more recent games have really shown off what you can do with a well-designed dice game. Las Vegas (2012) is an excellent abstract that easily could have been designed in this period, but Alea Iacta Est (2009), Ra: The Dice Game (2009), and Roll for the Galaxy (2014) are all the next step up the evolutionary rung — and unlike these games from 2008 and earlier, they still get regular play at my table. 

I’ll have to collect these (and future) dice game reviews into a big Gamopedia some day! —SA, 12/14/15.

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