New Boardgame Bling – Pixels LED Dice

Deluxified versions of popular games continue to appear on Kickstarter, if there weren’t already deluxified versions in the original campaign.  In the wider web, gamers can pick up all sorts of accessories for their games like packing inserts, metal coins, improved Bakelite style plastic pieces, custom 3D printed bits, and more.  One area lagging slightly behind is the idea of bits to appeal to the strong boardgaming overlap with technology nerds.  Pixels electronic dice is here to fill that gap, that you never knew existed.  Simply, Pixels Dice offers gamers the option of playing with programmable dice with an RGB LED for each face.  Using Bluetooth, the dice can be programmed with light shows for each face or used in tandem with an app or computer to trigger sounds or interactions with other software.  The Pixels Kickstarter campaign launches on March 9th.  I have had the privilege of playing with a pair of loaner dice for the past few weeks and perhaps the highest praise I can give is that my non-gamer wife has lobbied me multiple times to see if I can wrangle a way to buy the loaners from the manufacturer.

Pixels – The Electronic Dice 
Manufacturer: Systemic Games
Kickstarter Cost: (expected) $39 for one die, $219 for a set of 7+1 bonus die
(This review based off of a pre-production copy on loan.)

While I’m not as addicted to dice as my eldest (who measures his collection by the pound), I do appreciate a nice set of dice and there are more than a few dice-heavy games that I enjoy in my collection.  I admit that my expectation for a set of programmable light-up dice is biased towards its use in role-playing game situations.  However, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.  I would most likely be trying to slip these dice into any game that fit.  The light up technology even works in its favor here – as it could stand in for a die with colored sides.

The dice are standard sized and have a nice physicality to them.  Their heft is somewhere between a standard plastic die (polymethyl methacrylate) and one made of metal.  To me, it gives it a sense of a luxury die without worrying about the damage it might do when thrown down on a wooden table.  I would worry about the electronics inside, but part of the testing was included throwing them up against a concrete wall.  I figure that should be good enough for my table-based use.  

The dice that I demoed are set up for the LEDs to light up the numbers inscribed on the dice, rather than the inverse (lighting up everything but the numbers.) Of the two dice I tried out, one was solid black while the other was very dark translucent with some speckles.  In testing, I prefer the solid black die as the default setting of the LEDs is bright enough to make things hard to read in the speckled die.  This would also make me a bit wary of a die that tried to light things up in reverse – with all but the numbers lit. Of course, the dice will be available in all standard sizes (d20, d12, d10, d00, d8, d6, and d4) and my understanding is that if you buy a “set” you can pick and choose which sizes you want.  

One charging case closed, one open and set up to charge.  The 1 side is set up as a wireless charger while the 20 side can sense when the cover is put on and turns the die off.

The dice recharge wirelessly using a docking bay that takes a mini-USB connection.  They can charge with the dock “open” (and you can even set up a charging color display program) but putting on the charging cover keeps things secure.  They seem to charge quite quickly and while the battery does wear down with time, it looks to me that they should make it through a multi-hour gaming session pretty easily.  If you want to play with them all weekend, you would probably want a charger along.  There are generic single-die chargers and if you get a set it is supposed to have a charging station that charges them all at the same time.  

It wasn’t hard for me to program the “1” face to show a dying heartbeat…

Just about the only negative I’ve found on the dice is that the LEDs are almost too bright.  While they are rolling around, it isn’t a big deal and is actually kind of nice but at peak intensity it can be difficult to read the numbers on the sides once the die stopped rolling.  This was more of an issue on the ever so slightly translucent die, but still had some effect on the solid black die.  I was able to play with the programmable settings to dim things a bit, but I am aware that it is difficult to dim some of the LED lighting around my home (whether they’re just cheap or there are limits to LEDs or a little of both.)  Of course, one can simply look at the numbers after the LEDs turn off after a roll, but who wants to wait that long?

While the engineering is very cool, I am even more impressed at the thought and effort on the software side of things.  The designer has really thought through how to harness the power of a bluetooth connection.  Once a die is connected via Bluetooth, an app is used (I’ve tried beta of the iOS and PC versions) to set up how the LEDs work.  Triggers are used based on how the die moves (when it is picked up, when it is shaken, when it is charging, etc…) as well as what face is rolled.  The priority of the triggers can also be sorted.  Once a trigger is chosen, the die can be simply set up to flash a specific color for a set amount of time or more complex programs can be created.  There are a set of one-tone light-up patterns that can be paired with any specific color, or an entire multi-colored program can be run.  The speed that these programs are run can be adjusted (to flash faster, for example) as well as be set to repeat a specific number of times.  I am particularly impressed in the ability to import images to create a program. For a 20-sided die for example, a 20-row image file can be imported such that each row dictates the behavior of one of the sides.  Thus, an entire light show can be programmed by simply creating a 2d image file.  The programming can be stored at every level.  One can save a light show or even a combination of shows and then easily apply it to another die.  The complete settings of an entire die can be easily saved, so one can quickly change between themes.  Clearly every game needs its own custom dice.

While the light show from a LED die is clearly going to be the attention grabber, the fact that the dice are fully Bluetooth makes them much more powerful.  Any curious developer can gain access to the resources needed to make their own programs trigger off Bluetooth input from the dice.  The companion app is already set up to play sounds based off of triggers from the die.  The obvious use here is as a talking die.  Have a side rolled trigger an audio file that announces the number rolled.  I figure I might hook up a Wookie yell whenever I roll a “1” on my d20.  Bluetooth connections aren’t limited to the app, there is already an experimental Chrome extension that links the dice up to the popular role-playing web site Roll20.  Thus, one can roll a physical die, and have it automatically appear in the in-game chat.

One burning question, of course, is whether the dice are accurate.  Well, that can be easily checked as they also have a tracking function.  Yes, you could in theory let the dice keep track of how many times you rolled the robber in a game of Catan, just to show why you really lost the game.  (Sure, you did.)  This tracking function has allowed testing to show that the dice are quite accurate (at least for gaming anyway, Vegas will probably turn you and your dice away…)  I spoke with the creator specifically about balance and accuracy issues and was informed the symmetry of the faces and edges was the largest source of error in any given die.  The internal electronics, while well balanced of course, was not an issue and Pixel dice are more accurate than most commercial dice. (Most commercial dice are simply chucked in a tumbler and jostled together to provide the final polishing, which means the quality of their symmetry can take a hit.) 

The die named “Marion” outputs its roll into the chat of the popular Roll20 web site.

With the thought put into making the software powerful yet flexible, I fully expect to see the internet community using the dice in many unexpected ways.  It should be rather simple, for example, to allow the dice to interact with the interface of online boardgaming sites – allowing someone to physically roll dice while playing an online game of Can’t Stop, for example.

Verdict:

The critical hit disco dance party…

I can’t stress enough the potential I see for these dice to make significant inroads into gaming – at least those who can afford them.  Yes, two dice would be about the price of a moderately expensive boardgame, but they could be boardgame-bling for many games in one’s collection (or even one’s online boardgaming.)  Even though the software is still in beta, the decisions of how to implement control, programming, communication have all impressed me with their well-thought out decisions.  I fully expect the software to run smoothly once everything is up and running.  In addition, interfacing with them looks to be extremely straightforward – meaning that there should be no shortage of community developers to create new and interesting uses for the dice. Eager beaver developers can get a preproduction die through the Kickstarter.

Pixels dice bring together a killer combination of features for a dedicated gamer techie.  The dice display what seems to be a solid hardware design that includes wireless charging and Bluetooth connectivity.  Excellent (beta) software support is provided, complete with open tools for gamers to create their own features and uses.  Finally, the look and feel of the dice is simply fantastic.  The dice have a nice size and heft while the LEDs produce a range of great colors.  As a fan of colors, rainbows, and shiny things in general, I would have been happy to see the opportunity to get simple light-up dice that might flash in fun colors.  The idea of a die with a programmable RGB LED for each face is one of those things I never knew I needed.  Yes, I still don’t need it, but really – boardgame bling my wife is behind?  How can I say no?  

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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