Board Game Theory: To Dice, or Not To Dice

If you're reading this blog because you troll around on the House of Paincakes blog roll, you probably require no persuasion of the following statement: dice are cool.  When I was, some 17 years ago, beginning to channel my inner nerd, I found myself spending inordinate amounts of time ogling my nerd-mentor's massive dice collection.  He had a shoebox full of those strangely shaped, magically colored, and variably-sided polygons rattling around in a symphony of pure intrigue.  I fell in love with them, which led me to embracing the games that utilized them - Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: 2nd Edition, West End Star Wars RPG, even Risk.  I wanted to roll those bones as much as was possible, and then some.

This continued until just at the end of my college years, when I discovered a new genre of gaming that the wisdom of the internet (and the local game shop owners I interacted with) were calling Eurogames, since these were games produced and marketed in Europe (primarily Germany) and had been making their way over to stateside in the last decade or so.  The first Euro I ever played was Carcassonne - I bought it on a whim.  It looked "interesting."  It lead then to me playing Settlers of Catan, and the rest is relative history.  I embraced the genre fully and have become a board game junkie.  But one question has really got me thinking recently: are board games better off without dice?

One of the things I like about board games is that I consider them to be stand-alone tests of skill.  Allow me to briefly contrast a board game with a miniature war game, such as Warhammer.  A board game is a constant, self-contained experience.  The contents of the box never change (unless expansions or house rules are introduced, and that is purely optional), the rules remain constant and do not shift, and a player can usually know what to expect each time he breaks it out to play.  The only variable is the play of his opponents, and that is governed by the unchanging rule book, which allows him to speculate the actions of others in contrast with his own. 

Warhammer, on the other hand, is a game of variables.  Army lists differ based on the selection of each individual player, and amongst the various armies, there are a dizzying amount of intricacies.  Often times, Codices or Army Books change or adopt variants of the main rules.  There are a myriad of scenarios and game types that can be played - truly, there are a lot of factors to consider.  This is an experience created and mitigated by the creativity and individuality of each player, who are subject to one another.  I'm not saying this is bad!  I simply see a stark contrast between the two genres of gaming.  In a board game, there is a guaranteed balanced playing field that a player can be comfortable with that he will not necessarily find in a miniature war game, or even a role-playing game.  As an avid board gamer, this factor is something that draws me to board games.

Board game or mini game, the most "random" factor introduced to most any game is dice.  Whenever a person picks up a handful of those vexing, multi-sided keepers of fate, there's literally no telling what can happen!  In a board game, a dice roll can mean the difference between gaining resources to build that next settlement or sitting on your thumbs; it can be the glory or demise of a captain's seamanship on the open sea; it can determine how many logs your workers are able to haul in for their tribe (Kudos to anyone who can guess what these games are!)  .  In Warhammer, a single roll can be the difference between losing an objective or keeping one; it can mean life or death on an armor save; it can determine whether you stand and fight with conviction or flee in cowardice.

For those players who cling to predictability and strive for the perfect strategy that cannot be thwarted, the dice are a source of evil and strife.  You never know what will happen when you roll them, and thus the outcome of any die roll is wholly unpredictable - and I think therein lies the Achilles heal of a lot of staunch board gamers.  Many board gamers huff and puff about the "laziness" of dice games. They would argue that using dice is a way to make up for lack of or poor mechanical design.  They want their success or failure to rely entirely on their own strategies and decisions, with nothing left to chance.

While I can sympathize with this sentiment and find myself feeling this way quite a bit, I disagree.  Dice bring a level of tension and excitement to gaming that cannot be expressed in any other mechanic.  A strong statement...maybe.  But without the simulation of chance through the casting of a die, what other mechanic acts out the "hand of God" with any level of justice?  What about how another player will act in a game?  The behavior of a player in a game may be unpredictable, sure, but his available actions governed by a standard rule set narrow his options down into an array of predictable choices that will generate a finite set of outcomes.  There is no such luxury in a dice game.  The dice will fall where they may.

Are board games better off without dice?  I would submit: hardly.  I appreciate all the vast forms of gaming that I've had the pleasure to enjoy and I can understand why a player would choose this game over that.  Some of my very favorite games are dice less, even - maybe even more than half of my top ten!  But, in the end, I find myself always and ever seduced by those colorful little cubes from my childhood.  Without them, gaming would be far less fun and interesting.  Happy rolling!