Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Touch of Fate

“Dice are a thing now”, said one of my friends a few days ago, while examining my copy of Dice Brewing. I did not disagree out of fear of being disproven faster than paper disproving Spock. It would inevitably happen since Pandemic: The Cure and Nations: The Dice Game were conveniently sitting on top of my Essen haul pile, which I still failed to fully redistribute around my ever-so-packed gaming shelves. I didn't disagree, but I probably should have, as there is one thing he actually got wrong: the timing. Honestly, I am hard pressed to find a time when dice games were not a thing.

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It seems that dice games have been there always, either existing in the shadow of games they were merely the dice versions of (like Catan: Dice Game, Ra: The Dice Game, Alhambra: The Dice Game and dozens of others, including but not limited to – and I kid you not – Strip Poker Dice Game), or created from the start as titles that would use dice as the gameplay basis and stand on their own (like Kingsburg, Alea Iacta Est, the terribly overpunned Quarriors, the elusive Dice Masters series or the truly ingenious Alien Frontiers), without another property serving as a crutch.

But why are dice games so popular? Maybe it’s because the dice versions of other games are usually faster, simpler and lighter than their “bigger” cousins, so they may appeal to those of us who wish a similar experience, only in a shorter time frame? Then again, the same can quite often be said about “The Card Game” genre, which tries to distil full-blown board games into a smaller, more manageable, card-based experiences.

While the time and simplicity factor may be important, it is not truly distinguishing, and I believe it’s safe to say that the most important building block of dice games are (obviously) the dice themselves. And not only as a physical component, but as an unexpected randomizer that creates a specific dynamic to any game fully either dice based, or just using dice rolling as one of its cornerstone mechanisms.

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Although nobody would probably say that Castles of Burgundy, Troyes or Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia are “just” dice games, what makes those games what they truly are is the dice rolling and randomness management. The fact is that without dice none of these games would be what it is, and although we may argue over whether they would be better or worse, the dice based randomization is an element essential to each of them.

Whether the game revolves around pushing one’s luck or around careful dice manipulation, one thing stays the same: a player might be aided or hampered by what their dice come up with. And although the general consensus seems to imply that a good dice (or dice based) game allows low-rolling players to compete and even win, randomness always plays its part for better or for worse.

Modern board gaming is about smart designs that allow us to jog our brains and have fun while we’re at it, but it is not fully detached from the culture we live in. And that culture promotes the seemingly weaker, but determined individuals who fight against odds and win in the end thanks to their conviction, skill and a little bit of luck. Simply put: we like to see the underdog win, and sometimes, we are the underdogs.

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Although not exclusive to dice games, the randomness that levels the playing field is openly signalled by the use of dice rolling as a mechanism. For those, who like to play a decent turn despite a weak roll or to come back at the last moment thanks to a spectacular one, gaming is exactly the underdog fighting to the end – and sometimes even winning.

By no stretch of imagination am I trying to say that more randomness means better game. For some a luck based swing will be unacceptable, but for others chance helping them catch up after some botched turns is exactly what they need to feel invested in a game from the start right to the end. And it is still a win gained by wits and strategy, even if aided but a subtle touch of fate.

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