Dice are one of the oldest known game components in the world. They have existed since before we started recording history. The oldest die ever found was from 5,000 years ago in Iran. Over the years they were used by many of the great civilizations for play and for decision making purposes. Originally dice were made from animal bone which coined the term ‘throwing the bones.’
Dice come in all shapes, sizes and numbers. They can be the main focus of the game or an element as simple as the method to determine how many spaces your pawn advances. What they represent is chance, chaos. They are the element of the unknown.
I’ve definitely heard the opinion saying games that rely to heavily on dice rolling to determine the outcome are a bit flawed. Someone can play a perfect game and get screwed over by lousy rolls. People in this camp are probably looking for something more deterministic. Personally I love dice games. I like that you can’t plan everything out to a tee. You can play the odds, put yourself in the best position, but ultimately you’ll need a bit of luck. Throwing the dice needing a result and getting it is one of the most satisfying moments in gaming. It’s really hard to replace that with anything.
I grew up playing games like Clue, RISK and Monopoly (admit it you did too!). Your rolls are pretty important in all of those games, but not the single focus. Then there’s Yatzee. When I was a kid that was a go to game for me and my family and Yatzee is nothing but dice rolling and playing your odds. If you haven’t played it, on your turn you get three rolls of the five dice. You keep whatever you results you want and after three rolls you score points for the combinations you’ve made…hopefully. Richard Garfield’s excellent party game King of Tokyo mimics the Yatzee mechanic, but you know with giant radioactive monsters destroying the Japanese capital and each other. Bang: The Dice Game and The Three Little Pigs also uses the three roll result method.
One of the most influential games of the past 50 years relies on dice rolls. The Settlers of Catan can be won and lost by your position on the board in relation to the resource numbers. Thanks to Catan most modern gamers can quickly assess the odds of any result with two dies. Those odds are physically represented on a Can’t Stop board. The long path to controlling the 7 is an indication of how likely it is to roll it. Push your luck games can yield such great effects from dice. You can keep going playing the odds that you’ll get what you want, but dice can often find a way to punish the greedy.
Bluffing and bidding games can rely heavily on dice for the main mechanic. In Liar’s Dice the players secretly roll up a set amount of dice and then make bids on the total number of results around the table. You must increase the bid of the previous player or call their bluff and check the results. Whoever is wrong is going to lose one of their dies. My favourite bluffing game only requires a cup and two dies. Mia (or Meyer as I know it) has the players in turn rolling the dice under the cup and reporting their results. The catch is that they need to have gotten equal to or better than the last player. It continues around until someone is called out for their brazen claim and the dice are revealed. Someone will be right and someone will be wrong…and that person will lose a life.
More recently dice have been used in some pretty interesting ways in board games. Designers seem to be taking another look at them and how they can be used. In Alien Frontiers dice represent space ships. Each turn you roll your ‘ships’ and then choose what action to take, worker placement style, by placing them at orbital facilities. You result of your roll determines what actions might be best for you to take or even which you’re able to take. There are ways to mitigate your rolls, so if you really need to accomplish something there’s usually a way to do it. Castles of Burgundy by Stefan Feld also uses dice to determine actions and like Alien Frontiers there is a way to change your rolls.The designers are adding an element of chance to the game but giving the players some control over it.
Quarriors by Eric Lang uses dice as money, monsters and spells. Players acquire die as they defeat creatures and learn new spells. Each turn they draw a ‘hand’ of dice and roll them to determine there strength or effect for the round. It’s like a deck building game in the spirit of Dominion, but with dice. In Quarriors you need luck in both the ‘hand’ of dice you draw, but also in the results you get.
This is not an extensive look at all dice games. Just a look at what some modern designers have done with an ancient component. I haven’t even mentioned the importance of dice in role-playing games or how the different sizes of dies can used for different effects. It’s incredible that a playing piece of such simple design has lasted for so long and is still being worked into games in new and original ways.