Dale Yu: Review of Button Men

Button Men

  • Designer: James Ernest
  • Publisher: Cheapass Games
  • Players: 2
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: ~5 minutes
  • Times played: >200 since 1999

Button Men was the one of the first games that I absolutely fell in love with.  Way back when, you know – in the last millennium – boardgaming as we know it was still a small thing over here in the United States.  Most of the games that I had at the time were shipped here from Germany via Adam Spielt and I had printed out the rules to the game on my dot matrix printer from sites such as the Gaming Dumpster or maybe copied off of a thread from rec.games.board.

At the time, Cheapass Games was a company that promised good (if not great games) at a super low cost because they only gave you the minimum of bits – you were responsible for adding dice, coins, counters and whatnot to play the game.  Sure, a lot of the games were good, and I certainly felt like I got my $3 to $5 worth of entertainment out of them… but three (IMHO) have stood the test of time: Kill Doctor Lucky, the Very Clever Pipe game and Button Men.  Of those three, Button Men is the one that I still play regularly.


Button Men has a simple premise – it’s a PvP duel between two fighting characters.  The game gets its name from the original form of the game; the characters came on actual buttons that you could pin to your shirt.  All you needed was a handful of dice and a few buttons and you could get your rumble on!  As I was a recently converted D+D player, there were plenty of beautiful polyhedral dice sitting around collecting dust, so I was ready to go as soon as I had my first set of buttons.

some original buttons – pic courtesy of Chris Brua

Each Button Man has a number of dice icons on it – usually four or five.  Most of the icons have one of the usual die numbers in it (4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, etc) while some of them have an “X” in the die shape meaning that you can choose which die you use in that slot.  (The value for X can actually be anything between 4 and 20, but if you choose an irregular die number, you’ll have to figure out a way to fairly come up with the roll for that number).  Each die is worth a number of points equal to the number of sides that it has.

Once you have selected your fighter and figured out which dice you need, then you dig up the matching dice from your trusty dice pouch and roll them.  Your opponent does the same.  Whoever has the single lowest number rolled gets to go first.


On a turn, you must make an attack if you can – either a Power Attack or a Skill Attack.  If you are unable to make either type, then you simply pass and do nothing for your turn.


Power Attack – you use a single die of yours to capture an opponent’s die.  The number on your die must be equal or larger than the number showing on the opponent’s die.  The size of the dice involved does not matter, only the rolled number of that die.  The captured die is put out of play into your scoring area.  Your die which was used to capture is then re-rolled and put back into play.


Skill Attack – you use several of your dice to capture an opponent’s die.  The rolled numbers of your dice must exactly equal the number of the die you are capturing.  The captured die is put out of play into your scoring area.  Your dice which were used to capture are then re-rolled and put back into play.


The round ends when both players pass consecutively – this is usually, but not always, when one player has had all of his dice captured.  At this point, the round is scored.  All opponent’s dice that you have captured are worth one point per side (i.e. a regular d6 is worth 6 points, a d20 is worth 20 points).  In addition, any of your dice that are uncaptured at the end of the game are worth one-half point per side.  The player with the most points wins.  A match is won best two-out-of-three rounds.  If you are playing with a character with a Swing Die (one that uses an X), you can change the size of the X die between rounds.  It will be worth points equal to the size that you give it.


My thoughts on the game


The game that I have explained above is Button Men at its simplest (i.e. the original rules), and since I first starting playing this game, I’ve been amazed by the depth of play that can come from just this small handful of dice.


First, there is the decision on which Button Man to play.  There are plenty of Button Men available for play – many of which can be downloaded free from the Interwebs.




There are 48 different characters on that web page which you can print out and sleeve to play.  Sure, you won’t have the swanky button form, but the game plays just the same 😊


As you are playing the game, you are constantly having to make value decisions on your dice.  You might want to make sure that you capture high value dice of your opponents – if so, you’ll likely need to make a Skill attack when the opportunity presents itself.  However, if you have rolled low numbers yourself, especially on a big die – say you have rolled a 3 on a d20, you might want to specifically try to use that die in any way to capture something so that you can re-roll it and protect the points that die would provide to your opponent.  Early on in a round, there are usually multiple options for capture – and you’ll have to weigh the risks and benefits of each as you go.


It’s also worthwhile to pay attention to the dice your opponent will have available at the time of their next turn.  If they have dice that add up exactly to one of yours for a skill attack, if you’re unable to break up the attack with your capture, you might even go ahead and use that targeted die now and hope to re-roll a number which your opponent can’t add up to!


When playing with Button Men with swing dice, you’ll also have to make some interesting decisions about the size of your swing die.  Do you choose a larger die to give some bulk to your attack, allowing you to clear out whatever roll your opponent might come up with?  Or, maybe you will choose a smaller die size, giving you more flexibility in making Skill attacks. Also, losing a small die is less punishing in the final scoring as it is worth fewer points.  Heck, I’ve even seen someone make a swing die be a 1-sided die.  That’s right, a die that always rolls a 1, but is only worth one point…


The decision of die choice can be important.  I used to have a favorite character whose dice were 4, 4, 4, 4, and 6.  Anytime that this guy went up against a fighter with large dice, I usually felt like I had a good chance to win.  If I could capture a d20 and anything else, or maybe 2 d12, I’d likely win as I had a maximum of 22 points to give up.


Right now, my son and I are playing a War Variant on the game.  We printed up the Soldiers and Vampyres set from the free website, a total of 18 Button Men.  We shuffled them up and gave 9 to each player.  We each carry around our decks, and whenever the spirit moves us, we reveal the top Button Men from our deck, play a one-round game – and the winner collects both cards and places them on the bottom of their deck.  The winner will be the first player to have all the Button Men.  We’ll often play four or five games in a row, and we’ve been see-sawing back and forth over the past few weeks.  Definitely a lot of fun from such a simple game!


So, why am I writing about an 18 year old game now?  For starters, it’s a good game that I’ve actually never written a review about before, and it deserves to get more play.  Additionally, now is the time for more people to learn about it.  Cheapass Games has a Kickstarter Campaign to reprint the game – and it has already reached the funding level.




True to the original theme of Cheapass Games, it looks like the lowest level is just going give you the cards.  You’ll still be on your own to come up with dice!  Right now, the fighters are going to come on cards, but it looks like actual buttons will also be an option in the future.  I have no financial interest in this project or with Cheapass Games – but I do love the game!


If even the cost of printing up a few Button Men is too high – there is an even more Cheapass way to try the game: http://buttonweavers.com/ui/  where you can play it for free online.

There is also news a new licensed version coming out that will bring Button Men to the world of Sailor Moon…


Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor










About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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