Monday, December 03, 2012

The virtues (and sins) of using dice in game designs

In the very oldest traditional board and card games, dice are rarely used.  (Backgammon and Parcheesi are the most notable exceptions.)  Most of those boardgames have perfect information and the only uncertainty comes from the intentions of the other player, except where dice are used.  There are always just two players.  Think of checkers, go, chess, tic-tac-toe, Nine Men's Morris, mancala, and so forth. 

Dice were used primarily for dice games.  Cards were not really invented for game purposes ion the West until post-Medieval times, and cards provide so much uncertainty on their own by hiding information that there evidently wasn't much impetus to add dice to card games.  Race and chase games combine dice with boards, but most of these don't have the ancient pedigree of the games I mentioned above.

With the advent of what I call traditional commercial games such as Monopoly, Sorry, the execrable Game of Life, Risk, and others much older, dice became a typical component of boardgames, to the extent that video game design students who are not familiar with today's hobby boardgames simply assume that a non-abstract boardgame must include dice.

When I first give game design students some materials to make games with I do not give them dice, but they often request it and then I give them whatever kinds of dice they need, whether d6s or something more offbeat.

Yet there was a time some years ago when many people playing Eurostyle games declared a great unhappiness with dice.  They simply did not want to deal with them, perhaps because dice reminded them of non-intellectual American family games.  And as someone who in early adulthood said "I hate dice games" I can sympathize with that.  Yet there's a place for dice in games, depending on the target market and many other factors, and that's what I want to talk about, more the virtues of dice than the sins though I'll also mention the sins.

Obviously, dice are a randomizer.  Spinners are an alternative, as is a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 6.  (Note that an unshuffled deck of cards is not entirely random if players can memorize what numbers have already come out of the deck.)  Unlike dice, spinners can have a great variety of weights to different choices, whereas with dice each number ought to come up with the same frequency.  We can use dice with more or less than six sides, and combinations of results (such as, if you roll a 5 or a 6 something happens).  It's also easy to roll several dice at once whether you add the results or not. Using the sum of two dice is common, giving probabilities from 1 to 6 out of 36.  It's also possible to use pictures on the dice instead of numerals, and of course you can do the same thing with cards and spinners.

Randomization serves many purposes, and many things in life are random.  If you're one of those people who says "everything happens for a reason" you might disagree.

An extreme example of randomization is the people who roll dice to decide what choice they're going to make within a game; this is especially popular amongst RPGers.

Replayability and Variety
I have a few multisided game prototypes where I have tried both deterministic combat methods and methods involving dice.  In some games the deterministic method seems to be acceptable and in others a dice method seems to work better.  This may be related to the "natural variety" of the game: a game with more natural variety can have a deterministic combat method, while a game with less natural variety needs the variety from the dice.

Now what do I mean by "natural variety", which is a term I made up just this minute?  Imagine chess played on a board 16 squares wide instead of eight and with twice as many pieces on the side.  This has more natural variety than standard chess because there are more places for pieces to be and more pieces to move.  Then imagine chess with a 5 by 5 square board, or even 4 by 4, and proportional reduction in pieces.  That has less natural variety.

To compare my two prototypes, in a game with only 30 locations and one type of unit (armies) there is much less natural variety than in a game with 45 locations, technological advances, and event cards, even though it too has only one type of unit.  The latter game uses deterministic combat while the former game works better with a form of dice combat that is fairly predictable and has a small standard deviation.

Excitement and Surprise
"Decks are fair, dice are exciting."  (Sean Givan)

Dice provide moments of excitement that rarely come from cards, even more rarely from any other kind of activity.  If you are at a convention or other well-attended game meeting, and hear a big cheer from a table, it probably involves a dice roll.  Many kinds of games are meant to be intellectual (chess again) rather than exciting, but the exciting ones frequently involve dice.  (Is there a connection to a fascination with gambling?  I don't know.  As I said, I used to say "I hate dice", and I have absolutely no fascination with gambling, which to me is a sort of tax on people who cannot do math.)

Dice also inject surprise into games, especially those that are otherwise perfect information.  And if you think about it, surprise is one of the main reasons why people play games.  It's really difficult to create new ways to surprise, but dice help do so, at least until people get used to the possibilities and probabilities in the game.

"Chance is skill when you win. (Skill is chance when you lose)."  (Jonathon Walsh)

Dice contribute to replayability not only because randomization creates a greater variety of situations.  Rolling dice means you're not putting your evaluation of your self into the game as much, not risking your ego.  How many times have you heard people blame the dice for their loss in a game?  Some people even profess to be convinced that they have consistently bad dice luck, which is of course ridiculous.  Though it's certainly possible to have bad luck in a single game, as I remember one 2-player Risk game where I rolled one "6" during the entire game.  Simply put, diceless games make you take more responsibility for the result than games with dice do.  And people who feel they're responsible for a loss may be less likely to try again.  Put it another way, if a player can convince himself that dice were his downfall, he's more likely to say "let's try that again."

One reason why people dislike dice is that randomization dilutes the "purity of the puzzle." Many modern games, both board and video, are essentially puzzles because they can be solved - played in a way that is always successful.  When you introduce random factors then no solution will always work because luck won't always go your way.  The "speed runs" that are popular in video games, where someone shows how fast he or she can go all the way through a video game that they've played before, often with astonishingly quick times, are much less possible if there is much randomization in the game.  The speed running player cannot depend entirely on everything working exactly the way he's familiar with.

Having said that, hobby boardgame players are often much happier with cards as a randomizer than with dice.  That may be because they feel they can manage a hand of cards whereas they can't manage dice rolls, or don't feel they can.

Using knowledge of probability to manage dice rolls is something I would expect hobby game players to be able to do, but I suspect relatively few can.  For example, in Settlers of Catan two dice are rolled to determine which hexes produce raw materials.  Experienced game players generally know the chances of rolling particular numbers and know that a "7" is six times as likely to be rolled as a "2".  Yet the American edition of Settlers of Catan includes a table that shows those chances, so my suspicion is that a lot of people playing Catan don't know those dice odds. 

In other words it's easier for some people to manage the cards they can see clearly in their hand than it is to manage probabilities that they can only see in your head - if they can work them out.

Then a "sin" of dice is that you need to understand probability to fully manage dice.

Another "sin" of dice is that they have the smell or odor of gambling, and gambling is very unattractive to a lot of people, though very attractive to many others.  So much so that some religions ban dice games.

A minor sin of dice is that rambunctious (or merely clumsy) players sometimes disarray the game board while rolling dice all over the place!

But the biggest sin of dice, in the minds of many, is that they're random.  Those who dislike randomness in games, dislike dice.

Randomness has a place in games, and strongly I recommend Greg Costikyan's brilliant and detailed exposition available at, "Randomness blight or bane".

I'll close with some "six word stories".  I occasionally ask blog readers to say six words about various topics, and here are some of the responses about "chance/randomness in games".  The quotes above are also responses to this question.

First are some of mine:
Chance provides a form of surprise.
Cards are more manageable than dice.
Egos are not involved, with dice.
No chance/randomness, two players: mostly puzzle.

And contributions from others:
Need some randomness, JUST NOT DICE!  ( BMinNY)
Randomness, for interesting situations; not outcomes (Matthew Rodgers)
Cards 'feel' less random than dice (davidestall)
A spoonful of chaos is fun (davidestall)
Randomness keeps you on your toes (davidestall) 
One. One. One. One. One. Impossible! (John Mitchell) [No, just improbable]
Used well, best game ingredient ever (Guido Gloor)
Life has randomness; why not games? (Wendell)
A good servant, a bad master (Anthony Simons)
Mastering chance is the true mastery  (Ien Cheng)
Do we reflect, or master, life? (Brian Leet)
Say a prayer, pass the ammunition  (Patrick Carroll)
Controlled chance: good; complete chaos: not  (David Brain)
Randomness is merely just another tool   (Russ Williams)
Randomness does not magically improve games  (Russ Williams)
The skilled make their own luck  (Steven Stadnicki)
Intelligently used, balances risk with reward  (Eversor)


Wynand said...

There can be great skill in managing randomness and probabilities. That is why the insurance industry makes so much money. So the Euro mantras about "no dice" or "randomness for interesting situations, not outcomes" does not always make sense.

Black Jack may not be an interesting game, because it is easily solvable, but there are definitely games out there where outcomes are random, yet these games still need skill and good choices to play optimally.

HoopCAT Games said...

Very interesting! Our first game (Fill The Barn) has cards, not dice. The second game (AtataT) will have neither dice nor cards.

The decision to exclude dice from both designs was not a conscious decision. There have been dice in some of my game prototypes. But so far, the only ideas that have panned out as games have been the ones without dice.

Lewis said...

Facility with math seems to be in very short supply these days, and video games do not rely on that facility because whatever math there is, is hidden from the player(s). So understanding and calculating probabilities, for most people, falls under "frustrating and annoying", to be avoided. Dicefests like Risk have the same probabilities all the time, simple ones, so they don't need to be calculated (but I bet few players really know the percentages).

Whether to use dice or not can depend on the kind of game you're designing. It's natural enough for "screwage" games, where players mess with their friends, but less desirable in strategy games.

Lewis said...

The most striking thing about games fandom is its diversity. This is reflected in the surprises I get from reactions to this blog, which is often posted in four places (and occasionally a fifth). This particular piece has surprised me in the strength of positive response, I have hit some kind of important vein without expecting to. Fascinating. Thanks for the comments, as always.