First of all, apologizes for the long delay since my last post. Since I wrote my piece on board game literacy, I have found myself torn on what to talk about next. Part of me wanted to write about other important questions that designers face and part of me wanted to keep coming back to the idea of literacy. Eventually, I realized that way back in the earlier days of writing for Morning Table Talk, I had done a post on bluffing games and a post on cooperative games and then it hit me, I should talk about mechanics. Part of my discussion about board game literacy was on how the ability to recognize and utilize mechanics effectively while playing a game is key to obtaining this literacy so it occured to me to continue the discussion on mechanics including what games have them and what makes up those mechanics.
As I write these posts, I’m going to try and present the most widely known and simplest mechanics first and then move into the rarer and more complex mechanics later on. This ordering will be based on my experiences as well as some of my personal thoughts and should be taken into account while reading the coming posts. I will try to cover as many key mechanics as I can but as games are made everyday there are new mechanics and new uses for old mechanics.
So without further ado, let us dive into one of the simplest and oldest mechanics in games: rolling dice. Dice themselves have been evident for as far as we have records of board games starting with the Royal Game of Ur. There are also a ton of modern games that use dice ranging including Craps, Yahtzee, Affectionate: Cats and Cuddles, Roll For It!, Dice of Crowns, as well as pen and paper RPG games like Dungeons and Dragons and wargames such as Warmachine and Hordes. This modest list doesn’t even include games that use dice as counters, as oft used by Magic the Gathering players, or as extra game pieces such as Praetor.
To help showcase the mechanic of rolling dice in games, I will showcase 3 games: Parcheesi, Affectionate: Cats and Cuddles, and Settlers of Catan and showcase how they use dice. The reason these 3 games were chosen is because each of them use dice as a core part of their game but do different things with the dice themselves. Parcheesi is a very simple racing game where players race to get all of their pieces out of their home base and to a specific set of goal spaces with a players moving their pieces rolling by two dice. Affectionate: Cats and Cuddles is one of our games were you try to gather the most cuddle tokens by the time there are none left in the middle. In Affectionate, the way the players take actions is by rolling a pair of dice and seeing what the combination of their dice is and then taking that action. Last and certainly not least, Settlers of Catan is a modern classic where players try to earn victory points by gathering resources and building settlements, roads,and cities. In Catan, dice are used to randomly generate resources if a player is adjacent to the tile whose number was rolled. As a note, there are many other games that also use dice rolling as a main mechanic but several of those games have additional mechanics that will be discussed in further detail.
One reason rolling dice is in a game is to provide a random chance that something will happen and that the random chance of things happening is consistent turn from turn. Basically, with Parcheesi, Affectionate, and Catan the player understands that the chance to roll a certain number or combination is the same every turn. This is important for dice games because if the designer wanted the chance of something happening to change every turn then there are other methods of randomness that could be used including a deck of cards or a bag of tiles. By providing a consistent random chance that things could happen players can plan and attempt to anticipate what the potential options will be on their turn (or as they wait for their turn).
Coupled with the need for random chance is that there is a distribution of different combinations that are more likely than others. For instance with two standard six-sided (2d6) dice the most likely number to roll is a 7 while it is highly unlikely to roll a 2 or 12. For several games, this idea of probability factors into the design of the game as well as the player’s decisions. For instance in Catan, players have to choose where to build their settlements since the way they acquire resources is through dice rolls matching the tiles they are adjacent to. This probability distribution makes some resources rarer and/or some tiles more valuable based on their number since with rolling dice some numbers are more probable than others. In Parcheesi this concept of a distributed probability takes an interesting turn since whenever a player rolls doubles ( two 1s, 2s, 3s, etc) they make an extra set of moves based on the numbers on the bottom of the dice (6, 5, and 4 respectively). This bonus to a relatively rare roll adds tension and excitement for the player. In Affectionate, the actions that are extra special are also the actions that a player is least likely to roll (these being doubles).
A final major component with the dice rolling mechanics is that there needs to be a positive and a negative consequence in rolling the dice. This positive and negative aspect adds tension and excitement to each roll as players hope to get a desired set of results. Without this dichotomy, players could find themselves wondering why they are rolling dice or what it even adds to the game. In Parcheesi, this positive and negative aspect comes from a need to roll a specific number to move one’s pieces onto the main track and to need an exact number to score in the score track at the end of the board. If for instance the require value is not rolled on either dice, the player cannot start moving until they get the required value. With Affectionate, there are positive, neutral, and negative rolls that either force players to lose cuddle tokens to the middle, gain tokens that could be used for rerolls, or take cuddle tokens from the middle. This difference in actions always gives players something to do but indicates that there are some options they would prefer over others. In Catan what players want to roll and what is good depends on the tiles that they are trying to gain resources from. When a 7 is rolled in Catan, instead of gathering resources the current player moves a token called the robber which allows the player to steal resources based on where the robber is moved from another player and block all resources from being generated on that tile. This means that the 7 can be either a desired result similar to other resource generation or a undesired result when a player wants a specific resource or to not be targeted for stealing. Lastly, the need for resources drives which values are desired and not in Catan adding onto the tension of the robber as well.
In conclusion, there are 3 main features that make up the dice rolling mechanic in games. First, the need or want for consistent randomness in a game. Second, a distinct distribution of probabilities ranging from likely to unlikely to help the player plan on what could happen. Finally, with dice rolling mechanics there needs to be a positive and a negative result to help provide tension and a desired result for the players.
Hopefully this gives you something to think about this fine day and may the dice be in your favor.