Friday, June 27, 2008

A tough dice-ision

I've discovered a duality in myself. I like dice, and I don't like dice.

I'm a board gamer who is hesitant to play games where randomness or luck play a large part in determining the winner of the game. Why is this? Because most games take about an hour to play. If I'm going to sit at a table, believing that I'm contributing to my position by my own decisions, I don't want to find out after an hour that I was deluded, that in fact my position was only as good as my luck. This contributes in large part to my diminishing desire to play Ticket to Ride. There is nothing in that game to keep first-timers from winning. That can be good sometimes, but not all the time.

The reason I mention randomness is that it is the primary purpose of dice. Dice are there to throw in an element of chance. With chance comes the potential for favorable and unfavorable outcomes - good and bad rolls, we call them. The benefit of this is that it adds tension to a game. We know that there is potential for a good roll, and so we shake the dice up and throw them across the table hoping to see the most favorable outcome appear when the dice come to rest. This tension and release stirs something in us that is emotionally pleasing. The same is true in music. The composer builds the music to a point of tension or dissonance, and then resolves it to something more consonant. This process has great power over human emotion. So, this is the strength of chance. This is one reason we enjoy the use of dice as humans. This is what I like about dice personally. I like the unpredictability of them.

And yet, I don't like the unpredictability of them. I think what I like is when dice add an element of neutral randomness as opposed to graded randomness. A good example of what I'm calling "neutral randomness" is the game Masons. In this game, you roll a set of three dice on your turn. While you may have favorable outcomes in mind based on your cards, there are no objectively better rolls. The dice just tell you what colors of houses and towers to build. Then, you need to decide how to best place those items. This is a neutral randomness at its best. No matter what I roll, the other players can't look and say, "Oh, nice roll!" or "Bummer. That roll was terrible."

I think graded randomness is easier to implement, which is why it is more common. Additionally, graded randomness adds the tension of hopefulness, as I mentioned earlier. The problem with graded randomness is that there are objectively better rolls. Anytime this kind of randomness enters a game, there enters the ugly beast called Bad Luck. This beast can gobble a player up at any time if graded randomness is on the table. This fact is what, I think, keeps many gamers from enjoying a host of dice-based games. If the Bad Luck beast can override your planning, then your effort at good play feels like a wasted effort. In many game, high rolls are best. If you roll low all game, which is possible, you simply can't compete. Few things can suck the fun out of a gaming experience like that.

So why am I going on about dice? Because I have been considering the purchase of a few dice games. Specifically,
I have played the computer versions of Kingsburg and To Court the King many times. I have yet to play Airships, but I've read about it and find that it has the same attraction as the others. What I'm attracted to in these games is how they require the players to strategize using dice rolls. These games have mechanics that put a clever spin on using dice. They all use a graded randomness, but offer a way to mitigate the extremes.

My goal is to discover whether or not I should purchase or trade for one of these games. I'll look at each game and explain my hesitance to get myself a copy.

Image by BGG user MonkeyMagic
I'll start with To Court the King because it was the first of the three that I learned to play. I discovered this game on BSW. I was immediately drawn in by the great art, and the seemingly masterful design. "This game uses dice, but you can mod them with abilities!" I thought. I am a big fan of unique abilities in games. But there is one important factor for me: all abilities should be equally valuable when used in the right context. A great example is Citadels. This was the euro game that pushed me even more into the hobby than Settlers had. I have played it many, many times. At various points, every character has seemed very useful to me. Whether it be the Architect or the Bishop - they both have their place in the right context. That is masterful design. Thank you, Mr. Faidutti.

After playing game after game of To Court the King, and reading about strategies on BGG, I discovered that I was winning almost every game by using the same characters every time. Half of the characters had no place in a winning strategy! Had the designer worked it so that every character was equally valuable in a winning strategy, I would have picked up the game right away. But I don't like winning by a formula. (This formula is attested to by others, by the way.)

But there are still things I like about To Court the King. I like that there are so many dice. What starts out as 3 dice becomes 5, 8, 10 dice by the end of the game. You're rolling a big handful of dice and then modding them with your abilities. These two aspects are what give the game its strength. I only wish the designer had doubled the playtesting and ironed out the "winning formula" wrinkle. I really wanted to buy this game, but I just can't get myself to do it. I wrote an entire post about my To Court the King struggle, if you want to check that out.

Now onto Kingsburg. I began researching Kingsburg a couple months ago. At that time, I discovered an excellently implemented computer version with solid AI (which is actually so good that I have won maybe 1 out of every 5 games). I quickly discovered that I liked this game. First, there is great artwork. I love all the unique characters sitting in their chairs, ready to help you for the right dice fee. Then, add in a tech tree. This took me back to the days Warcraft III, upgrading buildings to gain added bonuses. I love the idea of upgrades. I also think that the element of keeping your military strength up is a good way to add in an extra layer of strategy. The fun decisions in this game relate to the fact that you only have so many seasons to work and build new buildings. This forces you to choose between any number of good options. Similarly, you are forced from round to round to decide how to allocate your dice. Do you spend them all on one powerful ability? Or do you split them up to maximize your yield?

Image by BGG user garyjames

And yet despite all of these strengths, I can't bring myself to buy or trade for the game. Why? Game length. Over time, this has proven to be the biggest factor in limiting what games I buy and play. My wife and I just don't have time to play through a game that goes longer than an hour. Any of you with a number of small children will know what I mean. The other place I play is at work, but we only have an hour during lunch. The listed time for Kingsburg is 90 minutes. When I play on the computer, games are much shorter. Perhaps 20-30 minutes. This is perfect for this game. The computer takes care of all the logistics, computing, rules policing, and movement of game pieces. The AI takes lightning fast turns, so there is no AP. It's my turn, then....hey, it's my turn again! And again! And again! This is the way to play Kingsburg. I can't imagine sitting at a table for 90 minutes with this game, especially with players APing. The game doesn't have enough going for it to make it worth 90 minutes. If the real life game played in 30 minutes, I'd grab it right away.

Image by BGG user cleonhard
And finally, we come to Airships. I only discovered this game last week. This game is a game that you probably wouldn't discover unless you stumbled over it. There was just no marketing for this game. I was immediately intrigued when I read about this game. I watched a great video review of the game. Here was another game where strategic use of dice was the central mechanic. Many player comments stated that they liked it more than To Court the King. The game reportedly plays in a short time, and it fairly light. This is exactly the kind of game my wife and I have been needing more of. As our kids require more attention and time, we have less and less time to sit down and play Pillars of the Earth or Lost Valley. We need more fillers. So, Airships seems to fit the bill in that respect.

But then I looked at the rating and some of the comments. The average BGG rating is 6.5/10. I have made a pact with myself not to buy games that have an average BGG rating less than 7.0. I've always paid for it in the past when I've broken this pact, unless the game is a filler or a kids' game. Then, when perusing user comments, I see some people explaining that the game is lack's enough challenge, lacks replay value, and lasts too long, especially if someone has AP. So now I'm sitting right on the top of the fence, as I have been with To Court the King for so long. The game sounds fun, but is it? Will it provide repeated enjoyment for my wife and me? I'd probably be willing to trade for it, but not buy. The problem is, hardly anyone owns this game, let alone having it for trade.

I decided to run a poll and see what players thought - people who had played all three. I asked which game was their favorite out of these three. Here are the results as of this writing:

GameVote PercentVote Count
To Court the King23.7%22
All three are equally good.1.1%1

It is clear that the majority of players prefer the heavier Kingsburg. I agree that this is a good game. But I don't have 90 minutes to play it. This forces me to choose a shorter game. To Court the King and Airships are much closer in votes. I've read a whole slew of comments and there are those that prefer Airships, and there are those that prefer To Court the King. My feeling is that I would like them equally. I'm guessing I would lean toward Airships because it doesn't have the problem I found in To Court the King where half of the cards are useful, and half aren't. And, since my wife and I are looking for lighter, shorter games, Airships seems to fit the need best.

I'd love comments. If you have thoughts or opinions on this topic, please post. I'd love to hear what you have to share from your experience with these games.


Shea said...

Why not expand your options a little bit?

Maybe the venerable "Can't Stop"?

Or the swingy 2-player "Roma"?

The interesting "Yspahan"? (With the official 2-player variant.)

TimothyP said...

From past research, I've already decided against these three games.

Can't Stop lacks theme and seems to lack clever mechanics for modifying your dice rolls. That's why I'm not interested.

I researched Roma for a long time and finally decided against it. It's been a while so I don't remember exactly why I turned it down. It may have been because I knew my wife wouldn't like it.

I kept hearing that Yspahan wasn't good for 2 players. Apparently that isn't true. But, the listed game time is 75 minutes. That won't work for us.

Thanks for the suggestions!

Shea said...

There is indeed no theme to "Can't Stop", but I think it has plenty of clever mechanics. Every time it's a meaningful decision on whether to roll or not, and choosing how to split up your dice is very important too. I'm sure there are plenty of computer versions to try as well.

Roma is very random. If you don't want to lose through sheer luck, then it's probably not for you.

Yspahan isn't bad at all with 2 player in my opinion. It also gets done well under 75 minutes with 2 people. Heck, it's usually done in under 60 minutes with 4 players. This is another one that has a nice downloadable computer version to try out.

The nicest part of Yspahan is the dice just dictate your choices and no roll is *really* bad.

TimothyP said...

Thanks for the info. I appreciate the reply. I will look into Yspahan some more and see if it will be good. Thanks for clarifying this info!

Anonymous said...

I also highly recommend Yspahan. I've played it 2, 3, or 4 players and we very rarely went over 1h. And the 2 player version is a lot of fun!

TimothyP said...

Another vote for Yspahan, huh? Thanks for the input!

Would you say Yspahan is easy to learn and play? This would be beneficial in getting my wife to play. She can handle some mid-weight games, but she's more likely to play lighter fare.

Anonymous said...

I would say it's fairly easy to learn, I've played it with my wife, with my parents, and with some friend who is not that much into board games. What I like is that after a few games, one discovers some subtleties in the strategy, for instance how to use the caravan efficiently, and that there are several viable strategies.

If you want to try it, I think there is a computer version available.

native said...

I don't usually like dice games either, but I enjoyed Stone Age. I did not enjoy Kingsburg. I felt more at the mercy of the dice and card draws in Kingsburg than I did in Stone Age.

TimothyP said...

Stone Age is another game I've been looking at with some interest. I recently ran a poll on BGG asking which game was preferred between Pillars of the Earth and Stone Age. As of 94 votes, Stone Age was ahead by 8 votes. I'd like to acquire Stone Age. It sounds fun enough. Thanks for the comment!

Asa said...

I'm recommend Yspahan, more strategy and you are less likely to be crushed by bad dice rolls, becuase you can do several things with eahc group of dice.

Stome Age is a bit long, but might also fit your bill.

TimothyP said...

"Stone Age is a bit long" - this is the same idea I've received from researching on BGG. I did a poll to find out what people found to be the average game time. 1 hour, 15 minutes or longer seemed to be the norm. This is exactly what I was hoping to avoid. So, no Stone Age for me.

Because you all recommended Yspahan, I played the computer version and found it to be fun. To make it even better, I am able to finish a game in about 5 minutes on the computer. So, playing against real people will only be longer because of the human factor. This game seems up my alley. I think it will be even more fun with humans.

Has anyone found Yspahan to get old? Or does it keep staying fun?

TimothyP said...

Well, I ended up trading for To Court the King. My wife and I have only had one play so far, but it was a good one. Rolling tons of dice and choosing abilities is just good fun. I also appreciate that the box is so small. Good call, Rio Grande.