There are many uses for dice in games that extend far beyond the need for one random element. One of the main uses of dice rolling is to have an impartial "third party" mechanic determine the outcome of an action or event. Dice rolling can also be used to choose or select things for us (provide a random pick). They are the cornerstone of many complicated formulas in numerous game mechanics.
While dice might be the most versatile single component in game design, this article will not go deeply into the many ways dice can be rolled in combinations to achieve statistical probabilities or how to use dice to select a narrow range of predictable results. Instead, I would like this to focus more on how they are used to build interesting game mechanics...
The idea of Dice as a "component" of games is, therefore, separate from the way they are used in "mechanics". However, the features of any component are important to our understanding of how they can be used in a game mechanic. So to get us all on the same page.
Dice are components and the way or method used to roll dice is a mechanic.
Here are some physical characteristics of dice to consider:
- Can have any number of faces or sides (up to human capability under the idea of "ease of use")
- Made from many materials (giving differing weight/feel/sound)
- Different sizes and colors
- Sides can be Numbers and/or Symbols or Blank (in any combination)
Here are some ways dice are used:
- Roll to set a number
- Roll & Add
- Roll +Math+ Roll (add/subtract/multiply/divide)
- Roll vs. Roll (Roll the Highest/Lowest or More/Less Than)
- Roll Over/Under Target Number
- Random Selection
- Variable Set Collection
- Random "Usable" Element/Worker/Resource
- Selectable Number/Value (Tracking Counter)
- Thrown/Flicked (Dexterity Component)
Read this for some text notations for dice HERE
Now we can take a look as how these aspects of dice are combined to build mechanics or systems in games.
First, let's give a working definition for how I am using "Mechanic".
A rule or action (or set of rules and actions) that come together to form a method of interaction with game components used by players to play a game.
Roll & Move
The primary use of this mechanic historically is to roll one six-sided die (1d6) and move a player token/pawn that number of spaces on a game board. This mechanic would be defined in the rulebook and in practice uses other game components in addition to the dice (token/pawn/board).
So the dice rolling aspect of this simple mechanic is "Roll to set a number" as the value rolled sets the number of spaces the player can move.
There are many other variations of the Roll & Move mechanic that can incorporate other game components. For the purpose of this article, we will discuss variations that use other aspects of rolling dice, beyond "Roll to set a number".
Some games use several dice and add the values together to establish the move value. This is found most notably in Monopoly with 2d6. While this may on the surface seem to be a small change it adds another layer to the mechanic. Now a rule can be added cover what happens when rolling doubles or a specific set of values. This uses the aspect of dice called "Variable Set Collection".
It is worth noting that this aspect of "Variable Set Collection" has been used as a stand alone mechanic in games and even the basis for the entire game, as in the case of Yahtzee and many other "dice only" games.
Other games give players a base movement value, found on a player card or player board, then use the "Roll & Add" function to determine the movement inside the Roll & Move mechanic.
As we think through how dice have been used in this game mechanic in the past we ask, "is there room to build on this well-established mechanic today?"
The answer is Yes! There are still many other aspects of dice rolling that could find their way into this mechanic. Here are some examples I have not seen used but that might be fun (not that I have seen every game out there).
"Roll vs. Roll" added to "Roll & Move" might give several new ways of doing things with the mechanic.
Example 1: The weather of the game might affect movement. A game event or card might change the in-game weather adding a negative die roll against a player's normal moment. So, if normally a player rolls two white six-sided dice (w-2d6) and adds the values to move. Now because of the "snow storm", they must also roll one red six-sided die (r-1d6) and subtract that value from the move. [2d6 - 1d6]. In design, this mechanic might serve to "enhance" the game's theme or add to the player's game experience (their immersion in the theme).
Example 2: Depending on the theme of the game one player might be activity trying to stop or hinder another player from reaching an objective. Here you might have each player roll a number of colored dice and then based on the results of the "Player #1 Movement Roll" vs. "Player #2 Hinder Roll" move Player #1. The "math" of how to "compare" the rolls can give many different move values. The opposite would also work in a cooperative game, having one player be able to give an "aid die" to the movement roll of another player.
With the right "theme" some mechanics can become full games.
Example 3: In this case, we could make the game "tug-o-war" and the players "Pull" on the rope using dice to "Move" the "marker" that shows where the center of the rope is. The board would be a simple one line track that looks like a rope and the piece being moved would be the tracking marker. Each player would roll a set of dice (roll vs. roll). The marker would move each round of rolling until the marker reached one side or the other. This would make a very simple luck-based game that might only be fun at parties or with small kids... but still a game.
You might even "dress up" the dice with custom feet icons instead of numbers... and with one or two other mechanics added on to remove some of the "random luck", it might even be a workable "lite strategy" party game. Food for thought I hope.
Don't blow off simple ideas! Candy land is very simple and yet: Wikipedia says: "A December 2005 article in Forbes magazine analyzed the most popular American toys by decade, with help from the Toy Industry Association. Candy Land led the list for the 1940–1949 decade. In 2005, the game was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame..."
I hope this brief article and these examples get you thinking about how changing and adding different aspects of how a component can be used can grant you new results that will help you in your own game designs.
This is intended only as "Food for Thought". Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.
Always remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!
Special thanks to "witnessoftruth" for the editing help.