Why Are You Rolling Dice?

Let me start off by stating that I don’t like a lot of luck in games I play. I associate dice very closely with randomness, since there isn’t anything you can inherently do to control or gain more information about the result of a future roll. They also carry a negative connotation established by pop-cultural stereotypes as belonging to the realm of only the most intense gaming nerds. Of course, I’m also sitting here writing an entire article about dice rolling in games, so touché, kettle. My point is that most of the games I enjoy have limited dice rolling if any. (In fact, the game I play with the most dice rolling is Settlers of Catan, which some consider to have way too much dice rolling.) Learning to enjoy games with more dice and figuring out how to incorporate them into my own game designs are real challenges for me. So I want to look at how dice are used in games, and what I can do differently.

I look at games and see two main uses for dice in games. The first use is data storage, in place of memory, tokens, or pencil and paper. The second use is a random number generator. A rare third case is something like the game Blueprints, in which the dice are used as physical components for building, but that extends from their primary nature as a way to randomize the available resources. There are many sub-cases of use, but broadly, the uses of dice fall into one or both of the data storage and data generation categories. I”ll leave the examination of data storage for another post and focus, today on using dice for data generation.

Dice (and other random factors) often get criticized when they replace player choices. In so many “classic” board games, players roll dice simply to figure out how far they can move. In role playing games and war games, dice are frequently used to determine the success or failure of actions. But the dice rolls play two very different roles. In the first case, the roll just changes the state of the game, while in the second, dice are used to simulate a much more complex computation. To put it even more clearly, in the first the randomness is the focus, while in the second the randomness keeps focus on the players’ decisions.

This is more than a question of how large of an effect the dice rolls have. The issue is how players evaluate the impact of the dice rolls. Let’s go back to Settlers of Catan for a moment. Each turn starts with a dice roll to generate resources. In real life, the production of all of resources would depend on a lot of factors like weather, population, supply and demand, &c. but that would be incredibly tedious to calculate on every turn. But using dice lets players skip all that and get right to the building and trading.

Often, (and this is one of my biggest complaints about dice, and other random factors), as players approach the end of the game, the choices are much more restricted. I have played plenty of games of Settlers of Catan in which multiple players are within a point of winning, and the outcome depends on who gets the rolls they need between turns. The simulation breaks down, and players focus on the result of the roll, not the choices that they will make. Many methods for mitigating the randomness break down in this situation, which makes it hard to design around.

There are, of course, games in which rolling dice is intended to be the focus. Yahtzee immediately springs to mind. But there are plenty of other games in which the interesting part is seeing what you get. Overcoming risks is a very satisfying experience. So there are some games that, rather than minimizing the random aspects to focus on the decisions, limit the decisions in order to let players experience the risk through rolling the die.

These are two fundamentally different approaches, and which one you are aiming for dramatically changes the feel of the game, and its audience. Generally, Euro-games tend to maximize the decision process and minimize the simulation, while American games tend to maximize the simulation and the experience while minimizing the execution. But these distinctions are not hard and fast rules, and the hobby is starting to see a lot of crossover between these traditional classifications. But as I am more familiar with the Euro-game side, that is what I choose to focus on today.

To return to my original premise, I often find myself disliking the way dice are used in games because there is almost always a circumstance in which one player benefits significantly from the random results, which draws the focus away from the decision process and onto the dice themselves. Obviously all rolls can’t be equally useful, or there is no point of having dice. But I’d like to examine ways to bring balance to the system and shift the strategic focus away from the random numbers.

First, some existing approaches. Many games let players pay to manipulate the dice rolls. While this can be a useful tool, it does not fix the problem that one player can get exactly the roll they need, while the other player has to continually manipulate the dice. The random result is clearly the focus of the strategy.

The recent game Castle Dice uses the approach of “dice drafting” to gather resources provided by a large pool of dice. The large number of dice and the drafting mechanic help balance out player positions. But the way the resources are structured, you might not have any of a given resource available. The random number is still in focus, even though the distribution is more balanced.

Euphoria, the dystopian worker placement game from Stonemaier games, takes an interesting approach. The rolled dice act as workers, and the number represents their intelligence. Higher workers are more effective, but can be lost if they are around too many other intelligent workers, making lower numbers valuable. The system has balance, and the theme takes some of the focus from the pure numbers on the dice.

Quantum, by Eric Zimmerman, does a great job of balancing the rolls, where high dice are stronger, but low dice are faster, so your roll defines your fleet, but because the effects are balanced, a specific roll isn’t necessarily good or bad. The dice could be replaced by cards showing an appropriate speed and strength, which takes the random numbers a full step away from the strategy.

The question I am interested in is how do you let the dice affect the game without forcing players to use the numbers on the dice directly? I would like to avoid having players feel like the numbers on the dice control their strategy. I have a few thoughts on how that can be developed into mechanics.

I see dice being used to take a number of resources. High numbers take more resources, but lower dice could still be placed to take resources. Potentially, leftover dice could provide an alternate resource that is more flexible.

More generally, I’d like to approach a design using dice, where high dice and low dice are used asymmetrically. But the alternate strategies could neither be completely independent nor completely dependent, or else a player might find him or herself stuck on one path, waiting for another. Each path would provide a way of feeding back into the player’s chosen strategy. This makes the random number a few steps removed from the strategy, and begins to look more like the simplification of a complex analysis.

We aren’t limited to using the numbers on the dice directly. There are two By finding ways to shift the focus from the random number to the strategy, we can find additional ways of balancing the system. In this way, it would work like a Mario game, where the player can only fit through some spaces as regular Mario, not as the larger Super Mario. The two paths provide different benefits and challenges, but one is not necessarily better.

And indeed, video games learned to achieve this separation between strategy and the random numbers a long time ago. Yes, some games still take the basic approach of using a random damage value or to calculate success/failure. But many games also use random numbers to create AI, to create or control the world, or add an element of surprise. The random numbers become invisible to the player.

In board games, the player must act as the processor for these random numbers, so there is certainly a limitation to how much pure computation we designers can place on the player. The goal should be to find new ways of having players use dice in the game to control the experience. We can use dice for more than just to generate random numbers.

For more discussion of dice, listen to Episode 85 of the Ludology podcast.

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  1. #1 by Randy on September 5, 2014 - 7:15 am

    Interesting read! I too am not a big fan of the typical randomness that dice bring to a game, but to look for ways to implement them in other ways is something I absolutely support.

    Could you give an example of your idea of using high & low dice asymmetrically? I find it a bit hard to form a mental picture of this.

    • #2 by Oakleaf Games on September 5, 2014 - 7:39 am

      The first idea I had was some kind of building game with resource collection, where the dice can either be used to collect resources or set a building cost. If you only see low numbers, your resource collection will be proportional to the cost, and the same happens when you only roll high. Still some luck involved, but the bad luck is less of an impact.
      You could extend that to lots of systems with a cost structure or upkeep element.

      • #3 by Dr. Wictz on September 5, 2014 - 8:31 am

        So you are looking to use dice to make each game unique by changing the payoffs within each game?

      • #4 by Randy on September 5, 2014 - 8:54 am

        I see, thanks for clarifying that! That does sound a lot more interesting than the typical random outcome a dice throw has in a game.

        Perhaps I should play some more dice games myself to get a better idea of the possibilities that are already out there. Usually I try to avoid them.. 😉

      • #5 by Jonah Berlin on January 20, 2017 - 6:47 am

        Very interested in the very same questions you pose right now, and have been studying dice manipulation and “dice worker” games across the board, reading the PDFs, watching the Let’s Plays… Quantum I just discovered, and my piles of notes by coincidence came up with some common mechanics.

        My idea is somewhat like yours, but the “management of chaos” is essential to the theme. Die faces represent order (rather like Euphoria) and one must sacrifice the bonuses that higher values give on the board (movement, power, action) to perform certain high risk investments necessary to win. Low face dice are weaker on the board, but far from worthless. I’ve introduced and cut down all kinds of mechanics that fit the theme and make one feel like the world is out of their control, but at every turn an important choice can be made with what they have available. There is no “worse” roll because the balancing measures in place are too unpredictable to plan around. Black swans are fun because they have to be overcome.

        On top of that, I want to introduce an impending threat that focuses its eye on the player with the most “order” represented on the board. This is my game’s “komi,” the handicap given to black in Go.

        And what about Go? How many generations did it take before the great masters said, “You know, white seems to win more. It’s not fair that this game is basically heads or tails. Let’s give black a 2.5 point lead.” And then, they made it 4.5. Then for decades (millions of playtests!) it became 5.5, where it lingered, then the great dans of Japan raised that compensation to 6.5. Finally, China decided to make it 7.5.

        Without this intervention, there was only the illusion of a fair fight for centuries, and that’s what dice games are too, you just have to hide it better.

  2. #6 by lukepeterschmidt on September 12, 2014 - 12:50 pm

    I like using dice to create an environment that all players then react to when possible. That’s what I did with them in Castle Dice as you mention. It makes them more of a “random event generator” than a “comparison between players.”

    I also like to use dice to set goals early in the turn, so players (all of them) have time to react to the rolls, rather than have the dice be pass/fail/how-many.

    Of course, this is just for board games. In a miniatures game, I love rolling dice to see if I hit. Dice are just fun… 🙂

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