Why are Most Dice Games Light?

Do dice games need to be light?  Often they are lighter versions of card and board games, but why is that?  Yes, there are exceptions, including Roll for the Galaxy and the forthcoming Biblios Dice, but in general, they are fluffy trifles.

It feels traditional that dice games are lighter than card games and card games are lighter than boardgames.  Not always the case, but often enough to generalize.

With the spate of dice games based on board games, including Pandemic: the Cure, Nations: the Dice Game, and Roll Through the Ages, I wonder if gamers are outside the target for these.  Are they trying to appeal to people who like the larger games, or are they for people who like the themes of the larger games, but prefer a lighter game?

Intent should not matter when evaluating a game, but for me, all three have a level of abstraction that makes them completely disengaging.  They are dice games based on their larger sibling, but none of them capture the angst – tension in making decisions – of their predecessors.

My feeling is that card game versions end up being the more successful balance in capturing the tension of the original without the game play length or complexity of the original.  A few examples come to mind, such as Florenza vs. Florenza: the Card Game.

Why are dice game designs generally lighter than card game designs when based on the same board game?  Is it dice vs. cards or is it that we have an expectation that dice games will be lighter than card games, so that is what designers deliver?

Dan Blum: I think it’s broadly true that dice games will be lighter than otherwise similar card games, and that in large part this is due to the difference in their inherent natures.

Most card games include random drawing of cards and dice games always include rolling of dice (I would not categorize a game that uses dice without rolling them as a “dice game”). However, random card draws are fundamentally different from random dice rolls in that a deck of cards has “memory” and dice don’t; if you draw lots of card type X early you’re more likely to draw card type Y later, and eventually every card will be drawn by someone (barring a mid-deck reshuffle), but you could go all day without rolling a particular side of a die (hence the popularity of dice decks for certain board games).

It’s also easy to arrange a deck of cards to cause game state to change in a predictable way, to ensure that some cards are drawn earlier than others, etc. You could do similar things with dice but it would be more complicated.

Now, there are some other factors causing dice games to tend to be lighter which are more due to tradition than fundamental properties. For example, it’s common for card games to have persistent hands of cards; in some you get dealt a hand, use it gradually, and get a new one, in others you are constantly playing cards from your hand and drawing new ones. A dice game could have “hand management” in the same way – say you roll a bunch of dice at the start of a round and use one a turn until they’re gone – but generally speaking this is not done. (Those that I can think of that do something like this have very small “hands.”)

Card games that don’t have persistent hands of cards are either extremely light or are deck-building games, most (but not all) of which require you to start with a fresh hand each turn. However, the focus of deck-building games is usually on tuning your deck so that your randomly-drawn hands are predictable enough to do useful things with. There are similar dice-building games, but unfortunately (in my opinion) they use exactly the same deck/hand mechanism and add dice-rolling to the mix. It’s much harder to predict your hand when you have to draw the hand elements randomly and then randomly determine what they can do.

It’s also fairly easy to make cards multi-purpose. You could do this with dice as well, but there are fewer options for doing so as it’s difficult to print lots of different symbols on dice and have them be legible (Dragon Dice tried this with indifferent success). You could still allow dice to be spent to power actions (a la cards in San Juan or Race for the Galaxy), of course. This is another place where tradition is a factor; using dice like that just isn’t usually done.

Of course, if someone designed a game in which dice acted a lot like cards and so made the game a bit heavier than the usual dice game, the obvious question would be: why not just make it a card game? There’s not much point in designing a dice game if you don’t really like the way that dice work.

Matt Carlson:  Dice obviously introduce some randomness, and the longer the game the less (unmanaged) randomness is welcome.  (I am assuming a “meatier” game will tend to be a longer playing game.) To create a “meatier” game, one must find ways for players to mitigate the random process.

One solution is to have such a large number of dice rolls that any random factors are mitigated by the odds.  I find this solution unsatisfying – even if I know things may get better in the long term, no one enjoys a series of poor rolls.  One could argue a game of Settlers has enough rolls to make things even out, but just look at the number of people who want to use an evenly distributed deck of cards as a substitute for dice.

A better solution is to provide players with many useful ways to use the rolls of the dice.  One might have an “optimal” roll, but most results can still be useful if one is willing to make the most useful tactical decisions at any one time.  This can be fun for many players, but if the game lasts for a long time, each individual “tactical” decision will seem more and more isolated.  This results in a game that feels like you’re doing nearly the same thing over and over again with each “round” and long-term strategy is left behind.

The best solution is to provide players to manage the results of the rolls.  This can take the form of abilities that modify the roll of the dice, give a player more dice (providing more options),  allow die rerolls, or give players many useful ways in which to use the dice.  Games such as Airships and To Court the King are obvious examples where the primary goal is to increase the number of dice rolled as well as one’s control over the results of the roll.  However, games such as Alien Frontiers and Kingsburg provide some control (if a player chooses that path) but they do not focus entirely on dice and “dice-related power” building.

The best use of dice in a “meatier” game of which I am aware is Macao.  There is one set of dice rolled for the entire group, and each player chooses two dice to use.  The larger the number on a colored die, the more goods of that color will be granted.  However, that same number determines how many turns in the future those goods will arrive.  A set of rolled dice for a group reduces the occurrence of “poor rolls” affecting just one person.  Poor rolls can still happen when each player is seeking a particular matching sets of goods, but somehow it doesn’t feel as bad as when a player has their own unique poor roll (and can see the “good” rolls of other players on their turns.)  The ability to choose two dice out of six is an excellent way to manage the die results without resorting to direct dice control (modifying, rerolling, or adding additional dice.)

Having dice in a game is a great way to add those big “highs” and “lows” in a game where a critical moment depends on the roll of the dice.  One can increase the frequency of this occurring by adding in the chance for players to set aside and then reroll some or all of the dice resulting in a “press your luck” mechanism that can easily see players take high risks for high rewards.  Providing “highs” and “lows” with the result of dice is welcome (for many people) in shorter games, but not long ones – since no one wants to spend a couple hours playing and then lose the game on a roll of the dice.  Dice also are a nice mechanism for balancing a game between advanced and beginner players.  Hopefully the game is set up to give the advanced player a consistent advantage, but just having that small bit of randomness will give the weaker player a chance to win – or at least have their moment in the sun.  As a gamer parent, I find this an especially nice feature in games I play with my sons.

Larry:  Why do dice games tend to be fairly light?  One reason may be expectations, that most people expect them to be light.  That tendency may be fairly universal.  For example, I really like Roll Through the Ages.  I’ve also played The Late Bronze Age expansion for RttA and in theory, at least, it’s a better game–heavier, with more decision making necessary.  But since the expansion retains the same base elements of the original game (that is, rolling dice), there are questions if this greater complexity is appropriate for these mechanics.  Plus, a Yahtzee-style game with more complex mechanics just may not feel right.  Thus, even though I’ve enjoyed playing the expansion, it requires the right crowd, so more often than not, it’s the base game that gets played.  It will be interesting to see how Tom Lehmann’s new sequel, The Iron Age, which seems to make things even more complex, works out.

I thought Dan made some good points in contrasting the difference between cards and dice.  The one that seems the most telling to me is having a persistent hand of cards.  Hand management is very important in most card games, where something comparable in dice games is quite unusual.  There’s also the tracking of cards in opponents’ hands, at least in card games where the entire deck is dealt out.  Knowing which cards must still be out there is a vital skill in these card games, whereas such things are non-existent in dice games (even if you care about what dice faces your opponents have, they could have rolled anything).  There’s a transitory nature about dice games, probably because in so few of them do you ever retain your dice rolls for more than one turn.  This tends to make them lighter than card games and considerably lighter than boardgames, in which having your situation persist from turn to turn is the norm.  Not having your opponents retain “hands” of dice also makes player interaction in dice games more difficult to achieve, which might make them even more ephemeral in nature.

I think this trend may be starting to change.  Games with lots of dice are becoming more common, so letting players retain dice from turn to turn will be easier to do.  In fact, I’ve played a game in which just that thing happens–the prototype for Roll for the Galaxy.  I don’t know if you’re a fan of Race for the Galaxy, but the new dice version seems to be of comparable weight.  I actually like it better than the original.  I also have high hopes for the Nations Dice Game.  So today’s designers may be ready to answer your original question–Do dice games need to be light?–with a resounding NO.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I wrote this note just reading the introduction and not going through to all the other opinionists comments to be not influenced. Probably I’m going to tell things other colleagues already wrote.

Dice games versions of board-games are, for the most part, anchored to the traditional Yahtzee schema: roll, keep and re-roll, keep and re-roll with everything starting new each turn. This schema surely drive to light mechanics where is difficult to introduce long-term planning and/or hand managements that could be better introduced in card games. Standard board games with dice (like Kingsburg, Feld’s series, Quantum), on the other side, used the dice in different way with more deepness and innovation.

Second dice are the emblems of randomness and, of course, it is not easy to design dice games without it.

Third I think that a sort of “light and quick version” of the standard boardgames is what people are waiting from a dice game and is exactly what designers are offering.

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4 Responses to Why are Most Dice Games Light?

  1. Barbasol says:

    An obvious point perhaps, that no one mentioned, is that dice only have 6 sides (typically). Cards can be in a deck of 50 or more, so a lot more possibilities. Cards also have room for text and other information that can increase complexity, while Dice pretty much rely on simple symbols.

    • Dan Blum says:

      I actually don’t think that’s a major factor. While there are card games that have lots of different cards and are complex, there are also card games with lots of different cards which are fairly simple (e.g. Munckin) and card games with just a few types of cards which are complex. There are also plenty of dice games where combinations of sides have meaning. Etc.

  2. ingredientx says:

    In most dice games, you’re rolling all your dice at the start of your turn. That means you don’t have any idea what your exact options are going to be until your turn begins.

    The thing about downtime is that it’s not always bad. Princes of Florence was the game that taught me that about 10 years ago; other players took a long time on their turns, but as I was getting a feel for the game’s strategy, I felt like they weren’t taking long enough! Some games are like that, where the downtime isn’t noticeable because I’m still engaged, either by thinking about strategy (if it’s a heavy game) or enjoying watching other players on their turns (if it’s a light or a party game).

    In a tactical dice game, you have neither. There’s no strategy to think of, because you won’t be able to work out specifics until you know your exact roll. And if it’s tactical enough, watching someone puzzle out their options isn’t so interesting from another chair.

    I think the dice games that don’t feel light are the ones that try to break this paradigm. They either give you something to think about when it’s not your turn, or they make you pay attention when it’s another player’s turn.

  3. hokutosu says:

    Is cost also am issue here? It is normal to print a deck of 110 cards with different pictures and text, but manufacturing a bag of 110 custom dice, each with different icons, may be much more expensive.

    Furthermore, since dice are small, meaning of icons can only be provided on play aids. It would definitely limit designers’ options.

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