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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Heavy Dice

Last week's posts about mechanisms got me thinking about a few things.

First off, I have an aversion to eurogames that use dice. Looking over at my shelf, there's only three games over there that use dice as a primary driver: Settlers of Catan (and variants), Pirate's Cove, and Formula De. (Age of Steam doesn't count here, the dice are a very minor part of the game.)

Yet, I cut my teeth on role-playing games and wargames. Both heavily dice-dependant. My favorite miniature wargame, De Bellis Multitudinis, uses a LOT of dice. An average turn (depending on a LOT of things) may have 15-20 dice being rolled. And the average game lasts 12-15 turns. That's a fair amount of dice. And the games usually last around 3 hours.

RPGs are, of course, also usually heavily dice-dependant. We all know legendary stories of RPG gamers and their bags of dice.

So, why? Why do I not like dice in my eurogames when I've been more than happy to use dice in activities that take a lot more time than your typical eurogame? It just seems backwards to me, yet I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. You'd think that I'd be much more willing to accept the luck of the dice in a shorter game than a longer one. Yet my preferences are the reverse. Odd.

Second, and I know I've heard at least Mike bring this up in the past as well, I've had a strong draw towards longer and heavier games lately. There's been a glut of great wargames and heavier games hitting the market recently. For multiplayer, there's Antiquity, Friedrich, Sword of Rome, Revolution, Struggle of Empires, and the new Wellington.

The two-player list is a long one, but I've been VERY taken with GMTs American Revolution series (the latest entry, Savannah, should be at my door on Wednesday) and their Musket and Pike Battle Series.

I'm not entirely sure why I've had this urge for bigger/heavier games lately. Maybe it's subconsious backlash because I have a lot less time to play games with a near-18-month old running around. Maybe it's because I've been taunted by local opponents even though we can't find time to play. Who really knows. I just know it's an itch I'll get to scratch at our upcoming semi-annual Sunriver trip in less than two weeks.

This might also be an opportunity for some of us to all report on the same game. (I know Doug, Dave, and I will be there.)

Recent gaming

Well, there really hasn't been a whole lot. Due to varying schedules, Jodie and I haven't played very much lately. In fact, the game of Oltremare we played last night was the first game we've managed to complete in two weeks. Life just intrudes sometimes. It's going to be a busy week before her vacation, so I doubt we'll get that much gaming in – we'll have to correct that after she returns.

I have managed to get a couple games of DBM in recently, however. There's been a recent revision to the rules (probably the last as the co-authors now disagree on future direction) and it's now the standard for all future tournaments. Got to get practice time... Of course, practice time means somebody's travelling as the closest opponent to me seems to be 150 miles away. I headed north a couple weeks ago and six of us got together to go over the changes. Last Saturday, Chris (no, not OUR Chris) was in town for the Timbers game and made time to push some lead. It's nice when things like that work out.


  • At 1:26 PM, Blogger Jeff Coon said…

    I tend to think that dice in a longer game have time to average out. In a game where you roll 15-20 dice a turn, the bad rolls and the good should average out very quickly. With shorter games there is less time to recover.

    RPGs are quite different, in that most GMs will "fudge" either dice rolls or events to let players live. Some GMs don't, and I don't enjoy playing those games. If I'm going to invest that much time in a game, I don't want my actions to come down to a single dice roll.

    Dice are a tricky thing, aren't they? I don't mind them as much as most people, but I certainly prefer when they add a little bit of chaos rather than be a driving mechanic.

    - Jeff

  • At 3:03 PM, Blogger Yehuda said…

    The longer the game, the more the dice as as "randomizers" rather than "luck".

    My definitions: random means that things happen at random, and then you have to react to them. Luck means that you act and then luck determines the results.

    The more game after the event, the more luck turns into randomness, in general.

    Also, you have to factor in how heavy a role the dice play. In Risk type games, dice basically determine if you win or lose. In SoC, dice determine a lot, but usually you can trade around them and regain some ground. In PR, for instance, the random elements serve only to change the game.

    The shorter the game, the more directly the random/luck element determines victory, and therefore, for me, at least, the less interesting.

    I also just commented on this on my blog (jergames.blogspot.com).

  • At 3:08 PM, Anonymous Greg Aleknevicus said…

    Your aversion to dice in Eurogames may simply be a product of the fact that relatively few Eurogames actually employ dice at all.

  • At 3:11 PM, Blogger Eric said…

    Okay... I'm having trouble following you. I don't see why you're making the distinction between "randomness" and "luck."

    Isn't "luck" merely a trial run of "randomness" that is skewed in a particular direction?

    Also, there's no more "randomness" in PR than in E&T - but a LOT more player chaos. A decidedly different thing in my eyes.

  • At 4:01 PM, Blogger Eric said…


    Interesting - just went over and read your comments on luck vs. randomness vs. player chaos.

    We definitely have differing ideas on the meanings of those three terms.

    To me, luck is a trial of randomness that ends up skewed. And player chaos is decidedly non-random. Now people that are considered "lucky" are either good at maintaining the odds in their favor, or their sample set just hasn't normalized to this point.


    Yes, the bad and good rolls can average out over the span of a game, but the impact of those rolls is much harder to bring back into balance.

    A not-uncommon situation in DBM is for the attacker to position himself in an agressive position and then roll very poor movement dice for a couple of turns. If his opponent has good movement dice, he might be able to position himself in such a way that the dice would have to WAY over correct themselves to have an equalizing impact.

    So, it's more that while it's possible for the raw numbers to balance themselves out over a long series of rolls, the final 2/3 of those rolls may be irrelevant due to how skewed the first third were.

  • At 4:04 PM, Blogger Eric said…


    Very true - but is that what's causing my feelings, or an effect of most designers feeling the same way?

    I mean, if most designers were like Bruno Faidutti, we'd see a lot more randomness-inducing elements in eurogames.

    Cards and tiles seem to be "blessed" but dice are far less favored. Why?

  • At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Luck, with dice and cards, is really just statistical probabilities. With a longer game, you are creating a larger sample size of dice rolls or card draws, getting closer to the actual mathematical probability. With a short game, the sample size is too small to make it an even match.

  • At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Dave Wilson said…

    While I'm not sure I'd use "luck" vs. "randomness" to make the distinction, I do see a difference between early luck and late luck. In early luck, some probabilistic event occurs. The players then have opportunities to address the outcome to twist it to their benefit. In Settlers, that'd be the resource rolls (of course). You get what resources you get, and then you can make something of them. Sometimes it takes good trading. Sometimes it takes a change in plans (abandoning the pursuit of longest road, say, to go for a city-heavy plan instead). But you have the opportunity to make something of it. And that is likely my favorite type of game, where you have to think on your feet, and adapt to the changing situation.

    Late luck occurs when you spend time and resources setting yourself up for some probabilistic event, and then the event occurs, and it either was favorable or not. There's no opportunity afterwards to make it good for you. That's the kind of game I have a hard time with.

    (Most of the above comes dredged from my memory of a discussion on a mailing list on this topic. At the risk of being considered a name dropper, I believe it was Larry Levy who put forth this explanation, and I liked it enough to adopt it as my own. Still, credit where credit is due.)

    Personally, I like Penn Gillette's (from Penn & Teller) definition: Luck is just probability taken personally.

  • At 10:48 AM, Blogger Dug said…

    I like the Penn quote!

    I agree with yehuda in that you have random elements that you can react to, and random elements that you can't. While in some games you can react a priori to a potential random occurence (for example, in Amazonas you can save your indian bidding card for when a really bad event comes up), in some games it's simply a way of adding wackiness that you can't respond to.

    And I defintely agree that more dice make for a more predictable curve. However, as a certain pig once said, some rolls are more equal than others...

  • At 12:17 AM, Anonymous Greg Aleknevicus said…

    Cards and tiles seem to be "blessed" but dice are far less favored. Why?

    Cards offer far greater flexibility than dice.

    This does not mean that cards are always superior -- it's easy to design a card game that features wild and unwelcome luck. (I'm specifically thinking of games that have a subset of cards that are clearly superior to others -- draw the "good" cards and you win.)

    Much better are the games in which no single card can be said to be better than another. Consider Titan: The Arena. Is the 10-Titan better than the 5-Titan? Not absolutely; in some circumstances it will be better but in others it will be worse.

    The same sort of feature is possible with dice so it's not that they are fundamentally flawed as a game device. I think the problem is rather that they are very easy to use as a crutch -- an easy way out of a design difficulty. Doing so is likely to be a bad decision and perhaps this is why they are not favoured.

  • At 7:42 AM, Blogger dave said…

    "Much better are the games in which no single card can be said to be better than another. Consider Titan: The Arena."

    The Serpent. Got another example? :-)

  • At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Greg Aleknevicus said…

    The Serpent

    ??? You'll need to explain that reference to me as I don't understand what you mean.

  • At 10:33 AM, Blogger dave said…

    I believe the Serpent is the 0-value spectator in Titan: the Arean.

  • At 10:37 AM, Blogger dave said…

    My contention being that the 0-value spectator is not just better than another card, but all other cards.

  • At 11:31 PM, Anonymous Greg Aleknevicus said…

    RE: Serpent


    While I will agree that the spectator cards are *generally* better than other cards (and the extreme values even more so), I disagree with the assertion that they are *always* better than any other card (which was my original point). There are lots of situations where I'd rather have another specific card than the 0-spectator. Here's one:

    Four creatures left, all with cards played except for the Ranger (on whom I have a large number of bets). The current values are: Titan(4), Hydra(2), Cyclops(8). I do not have any bets on the Hydra but my left hand opponent does.

    In this situation any spectator or Ranger card of value 3+ is better than the 0-spectator card.

  • At 10:37 AM, Blogger dave said…

    That was rather contrived. What are you doing with a large number of bets on the Ranger without a Ranger or Spectator card to protect it later on? :-)

    I see your point, though. While the 0-spectator is better than 1-spectator in almost all situations, there is that one example where there is another 0 on the table, and the 1 can finish the kill. I just found it an odd example because low cards are generally far more powerful than others (e.g., in your example, rewind the game three rounds; would you rather draw a 3-ranger at this point, or the Serpent?). But it is true that folks rarely complain about card draw in a game of TtA.


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