Dice in games

Dice around the obelisk ready to draft

This post was inspired by the Board Game Geek podcast episode starring Paul Grogan which discussed games which use dice in clever ways.

For the most part I don’t mind dice in boardgames, with a few exceptions. I like games with some randomness, although generally I prefer the randomness of drawing cards than rolling dice. But for some games I find the dice rolling essential. And as discussed in the podcast above, some use dice particularly cleverly.

Dice for resources

Two of the earliest games I played using dice are both games I don’t particularly like, because of the dice rolling.

First is Catan. I want to love Catan as it’s such a classic and I like the theory of it. But the last few times I’ve played have gone on and on because none of the players could get the resources they wanted because the dice just weren’t in their favour. I ended up so bored, every turn rolling two dice, looking down and sighing in dismay as my numbers didn’t come up.

Game Details
NameCATAN (1995)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.29]
BGG Rank550 [7.10]
Player Count3-4
Designer(s)Klaus Teuber
Mechanism(s)Chaining, Dice Rolling, Hexagon Grid, Income, Modular Board, Negotiation, Network and Route Building, Race, Random Production, Trading and Variable Set-up

I must have first played Stone Age in around 2015 and at the time it blew me away. It was one of the first worker placement games I ever played. But like Catan it involves dice rolling for resources. There are ways to mitigate with tools and you have more chance of getting what you want if you use more workers, but your whole turn can still be made, or broken, based on the roll of dice. And because it’s worker placement on top of that, you can be blocked from getting what you want or need too. On top of this there’s just not enough substance to keep me interested.

Game Details
NameStone Age (2008)
ComplexityMedium Light [2.46]
BGG Rank160 [7.53]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Bernd Brunnhofer
Mechanism(s)Contracts, Dice Rolling, End Game Bonuses, Set Collection, Turn Order: Progressive and Worker Placement

Dice as workers

The first worker placement game I played, however, was Alien Frontiers, which was one of the first games (if not the first) to use dice as the workers. I must admit I can’t quite remember exactly how the dice worked in the game but I did love it. I only moved it on recently, purely because it was spoilt for me when I played it with someone who power gamed it and cheated. It was such a bad experience I just didn’t want to play it again. And I now had another game with dice as workers which I’d much rather play.

Game Details
NameAlien Frontiers (2010)
ComplexityMedium [2.57]
BGG Rank346 [7.36]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Tory Niemann
Mechanism(s)Area Majority / Influence, Dice Rolling, Open Drafting and Worker Placement with Dice Workers

That game was Euphoria, which I have wavered about keeping but having played it again recently I still love. When your dice come back to you, you roll them and if the sum on the dice is too high you lose one. Euphoria takes place in a dystopian future where you want to keep your workers happy but unaware of what really goes on (“Ignorance is Bliss”). The higher the number on your dice, the more intelligent that worker is and so more likely to leave your company.

Game Details
NameEuphoria (2013)
ComplexityMedium Light [2.00]
BGG RankNot Ranked [7.38]
Player Count (Recommended)2 (Unset)
Designer(s)Oscar Celma
Mechanism(s)Action Queue

Dice for combat

I know a lot of people don’t like dice for combat, and I must admit I prefer a combat system like that in Scythe where it’s about guessing what the opponent is doing rather than a random roll of the dice. And I really couldn’t stand how dice in Blood Bowl could absolutely kill your game.

But I do really like the Command and Colours (or Memoir 44) system where dice are used for combat. Yes, you can lose your units based on the roll of a dice which can scupper your game, particularly when you don’t think very tactically (like I don’t). And these games also mix in a randomness of cards – if you don’t have the right cards and your dice rolls are bad – well the boardgame gods can’t help you.

Game Details
NameCommands & Colors: Napoleonics (2010)
ComplexityMedium [2.74]
BGG Rank479 [8.04]
Player Count2
Designer(s)Richard Borg
Mechanism(s)Campaign / Battle Card Driven, Command Cards, Dice Rolling, Grid Movement, Hand Management, Hexagon Grid, Modular Board and Simulation

But this is the chaos of war. We’re talking about mass battles where the survival of the individual is based on luck, even if the outcome of the war is based on strategy. Dice in these games just works.

In skirmish style games I’m not necessarily as keen, but then I do love Imperial Assault which also uses dice for battles. That said if you are playing the game well, the single roll of a dice shouldn’t lose you the game, but if you are unlucky and keep rolling badly it can make the game feel soul destroying at times. But when I lose at Imperial Assault it’s not because of bad dice rolls but because we didn’t out-strategise the guy running the game.

Game Details
NameStar Wars: Imperial Assault (2014)
ComplexityMedium [3.31]
BGG Rank69 [7.97]
Player Count (Recommended)1-5 (2-5)
Designer(s)Justin Kemppainen, Corey Konieczka and Jonathan Ying
Mechanism(s)Dice Rolling, Die Icon Resolution, Grid Movement, Line of Sight, Modular Board, Role Playing, Scenario / Mission / Campaign Game, Solo / Solitaire Game, Square Grid, Team-Based Game and Variable Player Powers

Dice for action selection

Both Tekhenu and Tiletum use dice to determine what actions are available each turn, in slightly different ways. I won’t describe Tekhenu in too much detail here as I’ve already written about it, but in this game you can either take a dice for resources (based on the colour and number on it) or use it for the action it is assigned to, with the number determining the strength of the action.

Game Details
NameTekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun (2020)
ComplexityMedium Heavy [4.06]
BGG Rank368 [7.72]
Player Count1-4
Designer(s)Daniele Tascini and Dávid Turczi
Mechanism(s)Action Drafting, Income, Open Drafting, Pattern Building, Turn Order: Stat-Based and Variable Set-up

Tiletum is similar as when you select a dice you get resources based on the colour of the dice and the number at the top of the dice. However, you also get a number of action points – based on the number at the bottom of the dice. Each number dice is assigned to a specific action (each round the action will have a different number assigned to it) – this means that in some rounds you’ll may only be able to get one or two action points for that action, but you can also have actions completely unavailable based on the numbers rolled.

Game Details
NameTiletum (2022)
ComplexityMedium [3.41]
BGG Rank318 [7.94]
Player Count (Recommended)1-4 (1-3)
Designer(s)Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini
Mechanism(s)Action Drafting, Action Points, Contracts, Dice Rolling, End Game Bonuses, Point to Point Movement and Set Collection

Out of the two I think I prefer how Tekhenu works, although Tiletum is far simpler and I haven’t played it as much.

But the winner is…

I’m not really use how to categorise Castles of Burgundy but I think it probably fits better in the last category.

Game Details
NameThe Castles of Burgundy (2011)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.98]
BGG Rank16 [8.14]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Stefan Feld
Mechanism(s)Dice Rolling, End Game Bonuses, Grid Coverage, Hexagon Grid, Open Drafting, Pattern Building, Tile Placement, Turn Order: Stat-Based and Variable Set-up

Castles of Burgundy is an absolute classic where the whole game revolves around the rolling of two dice. Every round all players roll two dice and on your turn, based on the number of your dice you can take a hex tile or place a hex tile, or sell some goods. And if you can’t do any of these you can get workers to change the number on your dice on a later turn. That may feel like a wasted turn, but there is always something you can do.

I think what I like the most about the game though is how you can sometimes chain actions and have some pretty big turns – just for two dice. That and the fact that there isn’t one specific tactic that always wins. It just plays well, and it’s one of those games where if I’m asked to play it I will very rarely say no. This is now at the top of my list of games to teach my ten year old (who couldn’t stand Catan).

So that’s my little monologue on dice in games. For the most part I like dice in games and they can be used in really interesting ways.

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