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The virtues (and sins) of using dice in game designs

In the very oldest traditional board and card games, dice are rarely used. (Backgammon and Parcheesi are the most notable exceptions.) Most of those boardgames have perfect information and the only uncertainty comes from the intentions of the other player, except where dice are used. There are always just two players. Think of checkers, go, chess, tic-tac-toe, Nine Men's Morris, mancala, and so forth.

Dice were used primarily for dice games. Cards were not really invented for game purposes ion the West until post-Medieval times, and cards provide so much uncertainty on their own by hiding information that there evidently wasn't much impetus to add dice to card games. Race and chase games combine dice with boards, but most of these don't have the ancient pedigree of the games I mentioned above.

With the advent of what I call traditional commercial games such as Monopoly, Sorry, the execrable Game of Life, Risk, and others much older, dice became a typical component of boardgames, to the extent that video game design students who are not familiar with today's hobby boardgames simply assume that a non-abstract boardgame must include dice.

When I first give game design students some materials to make games with I do not give them dice, but they often request it and then I give them whatever kinds of dice they need, whether d6s or something more offbeat.

Yet there was a time some years ago when many people playing Eurostyle games declared a great unhappiness with dice. They simply did not want to deal with them, perhaps because dice reminded them of non-intellectual American family games. And as someone who in early adulthood said "I hate dice games" I can sympathize with that. Yet there's a place for dice in games, depending on the target market and many other factors, and that's what I want to talk about, more the virtues of dice than the sins though I'll also mention the sins.

Randomization
Obviously, dice are a randomizer. Spinners are an alternative, as is a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 6. (Note that an unshuffled deck of cards is not entirely random if players can memorize what numbers have already come out of the deck.) Unlike dice, spinners can have a great variety of weights to different choices, whereas with dice each number ought to come up with the same frequency. We can use dice with more or less than six sides, and combinations of results (such as, if you roll a 5 or a 6 something happens). It's also easy to roll several dice at once whether you add the results or not. Using the sum of two dice is common, giving probabilities from 1 to 6 out of 36. It's also possible to use pictures on the dice instead of numerals, and of course you can do the same thing with cards and spinners.

Randomization serves many purposes, and many things in life are random. If you're one of those people who says "everything happens for a reason" you might disagree.

An extreme example of randomization is the people who roll dice to decide what choice they're going to make within a game; this is especially popular amongst RPGers.

Replayability and Variety
I have a few multisided game prototypes where I have tried both deterministic combat methods and methods involving dice. In some games the deterministic method seems to be acceptable and in others a dice method seems to work better. This may be related to the "natural variety" of the game: a game with more natural variety can have a deterministic combat method, while a game with less natural variety needs the variety from the dice.

Now what do I mean by "natural variety", which is a term I made up just this minute? Imagine chess played on a board 16 squares wide instead of eight and with twice as many pieces on the side. This has more natural variety than standard chess because there are more places for pieces to be and more pieces to move. Then imagine chess with a 5 by 5 square board, or even 4 by 4, and proportional reduction in pieces. That has less natural variety.

To compare my two prototypes, in a game with only 30 locations and one type of unit (armies) there is much less natural variety than in a game with 45 locations, technological advances, and event cards, even though it too has only one type of unit. The latter game uses deterministic combat while the former game works better with a form of dice combat that is fairly predictable and has a small standard deviation.

Excitement and Surprise
"Decks are fair, dice are exciting." (Sean Givan)

Dice provide moments of excitement that rarely come from cards, even more rarely from any other kind of activity. If you are at a convention or other well-attended game meeting, and hear a big cheer from a table, it probably involves a dice roll. Many kinds of games are meant to be intellectual (chess again) rather than exciting, but the exciting ones frequently involve dice. (Is there a connection to a fascination with gambling? I don't know. As I said, I used to say "I hate dice", and I have absolutely no fascination with gambling, which to me is a sort of tax on people who cannot do math.)

Dice also inject surprise into games, especially those that are otherwise perfect information. And if you think about it, surprise is one of the main reasons why people play games. It's really difficult to create new ways to surprise, but dice help do so, at least until people get used to the possibilities and probabilities in the game.

Ego-involvement
"Chance is skill when you win. (Skill is chance when you lose)." (Jonathon Walsh)

Dice contribute to replayability not only because randomization creates a greater variety of situations. Rolling dice means you're not putting your evaluation of your self into the game as much, not risking your ego. How many times have you heard people blame the dice for their loss in a game? Some people even profess to be convinced that they have consistently bad dice luck, which is of course ridiculous. Though it's certainly possible to have bad luck in a single game, as I remember one 2-player Risk game where I rolled one "6" during the entire game. Simply put, diceless games make you take more responsibility for the result than games with dice do. And people who feel they're responsible for a loss may be less likely to try again. Put it another way, if a player can convince himself that dice were his downfall, he's more likely to say "let's try that again."

Puzzles
One reason why people dislike dice is that randomization dilutes the "purity of the puzzle." Many modern games, both board and video, are essentially puzzles because they can be solved - played in a way that is always successful. When you introduce random factors then no solution will always work because luck won't always go your way. The "speed runs" that are popular in video games, where someone shows how fast he or she can go all the way through a video game that they've played before, often with astonishingly quick times, are much less possible if there is much randomization in the game. The speed running player cannot depend entirely on everything working exactly the way he's familiar with.

Having said that, hobby boardgame players are often much happier with cards as a randomizer than with dice. That may be because they feel they can manage a hand of cards whereas they can't manage dice rolls, or don't feel they can.

Using knowledge of probability to manage dice rolls is something I would expect hobby game players to be able to do, but I suspect relatively few can. For example, in Settlers of Catan two dice are rolled to determine which hexes produce raw materials. Experienced game players generally know the chances of rolling particular numbers and know that a "7" is six times as likely to be rolled as a "2". Yet the American edition of Settlers of Catan includes a table that shows those chances, so my suspicion is that a lot of people playing Catan don't know those dice odds.

In other words it's easier for some people to manage the cards they can see clearly in their hand than it is to manage probabilities that they can only see in your head - if they can work them out.

"Sins"
Then a "sin" of dice is that you need to understand probability to fully manage dice.

Another "sin" of dice is that they have the smell or odor of gambling, and gambling is very unattractive to a lot of people, though very attractive to many others. So much so that some religions ban dice games.

A minor sin of dice is that rambunctious (or merely clumsy) players sometimes disarray the game board while rolling dice all over the place!

But the biggest sin of dice, in the minds of many, is that they're random. Those who dislike randomness in games, dislike dice.

Randomness has a place in games, and strongly I recommend Greg Costikyan's brilliant and detailed exposition available at http://playthisthing.com/randomness-blight-or-bane, "Randomness blight or bane".

I'll close with some "six word stories". I occasionally ask blog readers to say six words about various topics, and here are some of the responses about "chance/randomness in games". The quotes above are also responses to this question.

First are some of mine:
Chance provides a form of surprise.
Cards are more manageable than dice.
Egos are not involved, with dice.
No chance/randomness, two players: mostly puzzle.

And contributions from others:
Need some randomness, JUST NOT DICE! ( BMinNY)
Randomness, for interesting situations; not outcomes (Matthew Rodgers)
Cards 'feel' less random than dice (davidestall)
A spoonful of chaos is fun (davidestall)
Randomness keeps you on your toes (davidestall)
One. One. One. One. One. Impossible! (John Mitchell) [No, just improbable]
Used well, best game ingredient ever (Guido Gloor)
Life has randomness; why not games? (Wendell)
A good servant, a bad master (Anthony Simons)
Mastering chance is the true mastery (Ien Cheng)
Do we reflect, or master, life? (Brian Leet)
Say a prayer, pass the ammunition (Patrick Carroll)
Controlled chance: good; complete chaos: not (David Brain)
Randomness is merely just another tool (Russ Williams)
Randomness does not magically improve games (Russ Williams)
The skilled make their own luck (Steven Stadnicki)
Intelligently used, balances risk with reward (Eversor)

Comments

Ego-involvement

I enjoyed this very much. I am not a fan of dice games. I enjoy VARIANCE in games, but randomness is not enjoyable to me. I disagree with your statement about wanting to replay a game based on idea that the dice caused the player to lose. If I lose in a dice game (or if I win for that matter), I end up thinking "well, I had no involvement in the winning or losing of this game. I might as well sit my cat Leroy in this seat and make myself a hot pocket next game". Games with variables on the other hand, can be adapted to and thought through. If I lose a game at my own fault I end up thinking "Well, I had better pay attention to all of my decisions this next game. Leroy, make me a hot pocket!".

The Equalizer

Hi lewpuls,

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts in this article.

Dice, or randomizers in general, can also help to balance players of differeing skill levels. I would expect players with exceptional skills to want to avoid randomness, whereas new, or inexperienced players, may view the random element as a chance to make up for their lack of skill.

For example, I have little trouble beating my nephew in chess, however when a ramdom element is introduced, he can beat me often enough that he enjoys playing and re-matching.

lewpuls wrote:
If you are at a convention or other well-attended game meeting, and hear a big cheer from a table, it probably involves a dice roll.

True words; and there is no feeling quite like the sensation of unloading 8d6 for some fire damage or hitting that natural 20. As a new house rule, a natural 20 will now cause critical damage AND absolve the player dice related sins...

lewpuls wrote:
A minor sin of dice is that rambunctious (or merely clumsy) players sometimes disarray the game board while rolling dice all over the place!

Major, potentially game ending, sin :)

I will certainly be considering your thoughts on dice on my next game design ~ thanks again!

tailor made

Thanks for the seguay, Lew!

There have been a number of collectible dice games [none of which have I played], and many others where dice drive the play - but not many games where the dice themselves not only drive the game, but are the only pieces the game is played with once rolled.

I had a burr in my saddle to create such a game and had a ton of fun creating COMBAT LINES. I was struck at how many aspects of CL could have been bullet points in this article - almost creepy to tell the truth. But, a lot of it tracks my creative thinking process as I went through the hoops of putting the whole thing together.

My point is - I would suggest to all of you that there is much here that can lead to awesome game designs! The chaos created by the dice early on can be harnessed by strategy later on - which is the whole point of COMBAT LINES.

Don't fear the chaos - harness its power and exciting times can be had!

mtg123 wrote:I enjoyed this

mtg123 wrote:
I enjoyed this very much. I am not a fan of dice games. I enjoy VARIANCE in games, but randomness is not enjoyable to me. I disagree with your statement about wanting to replay a game based on idea that the dice caused the player to lose. If I lose in a dice game (or if I win for that matter), I end up thinking "well, I had no involvement in the winning or losing of this game. I might as well sit my cat Leroy in this seat and make myself a hot pocket next game". Games with variables on the other hand, can be adapted to and thought through. If I lose a game at my own fault I end up thinking "Well, I had better pay attention to all of my decisions this next game. Leroy, make me a hot pocket!".

As I may have said, I used to say "I hate dice games", but that was in my highly competitive days long ago. And then I met Dungeons & Dragons, my favorite game. Lots of dice, but it's like a microcosm of life, you do what you can to avoid having to get lucky to succeed, but sooner or later something's going to nail you.

Your reaction to dice in a game reminds me of my reaction to puzzles. If I solve one, that's what I should have done (meh), if I don't, I feel stupid. So there's no reason for me to mess with puzzles!

Backgammon

Backgammon is a dice-based classic. And, it uses dice in a way that combines luck and skill quite nicely. I'll beat a novice opponent 9 times out of 10, but the closer you are in skill, individual games will be ruled largely by luck...

Completely different uses of dice

Hi - I wanted to add two games that I think use dice extremely well. You definitely lose that cheering moment in these, but I've really enjoyed playing them and seeing the different ways that dice can be used in a game.

Macao - One player rolls the dice, and every player gets to choose two of them as their resources (if you choose a green 3, you get 3 green cubes 3 turns from now, if a red 2, you get 2 red cubes 2 turns from now). While I enjoy it immensely, it still ends up being pretty chance driven, because most cards (goals) require more than one color, and if the two colors never get a number rolled that puts them both on the same turn, you're out of luck. However, it does add a fair bit of strategy to the picking of the cards and the picking of the dice, so it reduces randomness somewhat.

Yspahan - One player rolls the dice, and they are arranged on a board, lowest to highest. All the lowest dice (whether a 1 or 2 or 5) on the bottom space, then all the next number up on the next space, and so on, but all of the highest dice are always placed on the top space. Spaces 1 and 6 are resources, while spaces 2-5 are "scorers" (the higher the better). Each player gets the quantity of dice of the thing (not the number on the die) or a choice of a bonus card instead. Roller chooses his set of dice first, then the next player chooses his set, around the table. A very nice mechanic. I suppose it could also be implemented so that the most of a number goes on space 1 (say 6 threes are rolled, they go on space 1), and then the next most (say 4 sixes are rolled, they go on space 2)...

I also wonder about my Knot Dice, and whether they would truly be considered dice for this conversation, or rather 6-sided random tile generators. :)

The most striking thing about

The most striking thing about games fandom is its diversity. This is reflected in the surprises I get from reactions to this blog, which is often posted in four places (and occasionally a fifth). This particular piece has surprised me in the strength of positive response, I have hit some kind of important vein without expecting to. Fascinating. Thanks for the comments, as always.

Knot Dice: In some games the

Knot Dice: In some games the "picture dice" indicate what you can do or not do (War of the Ring). In some games you roll dice and refer to tables that tell you all kinds of different things. So why wouldn't dice that generate tiles be regarded as dice? Wouldn't they be if they were numbered and referred the player to a table of tiles?

Someone with a very wide experience of playing games could probably put together quite a long list of how dice are used, other than strictly to generate numbers. Or subject for a BGG GeekList?

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