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Fraternizing with the Enemy – A Discussion of the Dreaded Dice in Eurogames

October 14, 2007

Disdain for dice and games that use them is clearly a common feeling among eurogamers. It’s not surprising, given the fact that most of us have embraced eurogames as the luck-minimizing and strategy-maximizing alternative to traditional American games, such as Monopoly and Risk. However, after playing Martin Wallace’s Byzantium for the first time the other day, it struck me how heavily some of the most treasured eurogames rely on the use of dice. Of course, while Byzantium entails a significant amount of dice-rolling, it is not one of these “most treasured” eurogames that I speak of, given the fact that it falls outside the Top 300 on BoardGameGeek (although I found it to be quite enjoyable and perhaps underrated, although more plays will be necessary to determine that for sure). However, the groans heard round the table when the dice didn’t go someone’s way (or even more extreme, failed to roll a single hit on five dice for one person, while rolling four hits on four dice for their opponent) led me down the garden path of pondering the role of dice in eurogames.

My first thought was that Byzantium was an odd duck in its use of dice. I thought about how eurogamers are happy to tolerate the luck that results from cards or tiles, anything but dice. For example, Tigris & Euphrates, Carcassonne, and Ra all obviously involve an incredible amount of luck, but it’s all in drawing tiles from a bag. Furthermore, Keythedral, Goa, Java, Oasis, and Kreta (among many others) similarly involve a good deal of luck, but only in drawing cards from a deck. It’s not entirely clear why these alternative forms of luck, whether they be tiles or cards, are generally more acceptable to eurogamers (including myself) than dice. One of the underlying reasons probably has something to do with the fact that incorporating luck through tiles and cards is more exotic than using dice in board games. For all of us who were raised on Monopoly, Risk, Clue, Trouble, and Trivial Pursuit, dice are the most familiar randomizer, and perhaps we’re just sick of them. Another related reason for the widespread disdain of dice that I’ve perceived among many of my fellow eurogamers is the general feeling that “dice hate me.” Otherwise perfectly rational people appear to have a tendency to be convinced that the overall results of dice rolling are biased against them. For anyone who sincerely believes this, it’s clear why they would avoid games that incorporate dice.

I believe the third reason why eurogamers prefer the luck of tiles and cards has to do with the Law of Averages and the Law of Large Numbers. I will presume some familiarity with these concepts, and simply discuss how I see them in this context. People hate dice (or conversely think that dice hate them) because they wish that the Law of Averages applied to their dice rolling, when in fact it’s actually the Law of Large Numbers that governs the distribution of probabilities. That is to say, when using dice, just because you’ve rolled poorly ten times in a row, you’re not any more likely to roll well the next time. The Law of Averages won’t save you when rolling dice because your chances of rolling the specific number you want are constant. I think everyone knows this in their head, but the vast majority of people refuse to believe this in their heart, and consequently end up wishing and believing that the dice have got to work for them this time. In stark contrast, the luck resulting from a bag of tiles or a stack of cards actually does involve the Law of Averages. If you desperately need a “civilization tile” in Ra but draw other tiles five times in a row, then you’re actually increasing your odds of drawing what you’re looking for due to each successive failure because you’re depleting the bag of what you don’t want and therefore increasing the percentage of tiles that are what you do want. The same applies to a deck of cards, such as Java where you might need a particular type of festival card, and are in fact helping your chances of getting it when you draw the wrong type of card. The finite universe of tiles and cards is the only rational reason I can think of for preferring these randomizers over dice. While the fact that they are more exotic than dice and many otherwise rational people think that dice hate them certainly play a part, the Law of Averages (assuming I understand the principle correctly) is a sound basis for preferring the traditional randomizers of eurogames over the traditional randomizer of American games.

With all that being said, it’s incredible how many highly regarded eurogames incorporate dice. After playing Byzantium the other day and thinking about this, I came up with a list of a few examples (which is certainly not exhaustive by any means). First and foremost is obviously the grandfather of all eurogames: Settlers of Catan. In addition there’s Yspahan, Entdecker, Mississippi Queen, and Shear Panic. That’s not all though, in addition to those relatively light games, there’s a handful of heavy hitters that also use dice, including Age of Steam, Die Macher, and Twilight Struggle. In fact, four of the Top 10 on BoardGameGeek use dice!

I will now attempt to justify the acceptance by eurogamers of dice in the aforementioned games, despite the general disdain for dice that I discussed above. However, since I haven’t planned the remainder of this discussion out in detail, I may very well fail and throw up my hands, admitting that the acceptance of dice in some of these games is inexplicable.

Mississippi Queen is easy. The die in Werner Hodel’s Spiel des Jahres winning game is not a traditional six-sided die. While it does have six sides, they’re not covered with the numbers one through six, but rather covered with directional arrows. Two sides show a “turn left,” two sides show a “turn right,” and the remaining two sides show a “go straight” icon. It may be effectively the same die as used in Monopoly and Risk, and ignore the Law of Averages just as much, but it’s exotic (even more so than cards or tiles) so it’s accepted. Perhaps it’s also amusing when the river turns the wrong way and your steamboat runs out of coal and crashes into a landmass, especially because the game is so quick and light-hearted. I’ll go ahead and append Shear Panic to the same paragraph because the two dice in this game are just as unordinary as the die in Mississippi Queen. One of the Shear Panic dice is covered with a variety of colored circles, while the other is covered with X’s and plus signs. The first die indicates which color sheep you move on your bonus “Lamb Slam,” while the second die indicates whether you reconnect sheep that have been separated from the flock using horizontal/vertical or diagonal movement. These are anything but traditional dice, and eurogamers have a strong tendency to appreciate innovation in board games.

This leads right into the third game: Yspahan. Talk about innovation! When this game was released at Essen last year, the only thing you ever heard anyone mention about it was that it used dice, but don’t worry because it doesn’t use them how you would expect, but rather uses them in a whole new way. Once again we have a game where eurogamers appreciate the innovation of the dice roll determining which actions are available for everyone sitting around the table, not just the person rolling the dice. There’s still clearly an enormous amount of luck in Yspahan, as the dice can still help or hurt you, by providing two great actions when you pick third, but only one great action when you have a chance to pick second, for example. Nonetheless, the use of dice in Yspahan, which is tough to explain to anyone who hasn’t played (which probably explains why the descriptions coming out of Essen last year where so vague), mitigates the amount of luck by having the same nine dice determine everyone’s actions available. Personally, I think this is a clever mechanic, but am not convinced about the rest of the game, so I’m already looking forward to the first time another designer decides to “borrow” this mechanic and implement it in a different game.

Speaking of games where the dice affect everyone around the table, rather than simply the person rolling them, Entdecker is similar to Yspahan in that regard. The die in Klaus Teuber’s prequel to Settlers determines the amount of income that each player earns, but mitigates the luck of the dice by having everyone’s income determined by the same die roll, not by each player rolling individually to determine their own income. Obviously there’s still some luck involved because different players may need different amounts of money to accomplish their short-term plans, but at least everyone still has the same resources the work with. I have to admit I feel a bit odd when it comes to Entdecker, attempting to justify the luck of the dice, when it plays such a small roll in the game, whereas the luck of the tiles is enormous in the game, but this is a discussion of dice after all, so I’ll just move along now to the next game.

Before I launch into the heavy games (Die Macher, Age of Steam, Twilight Struggle), I ought to touch on the grandfather of all eurogames: Settlers of Catan. Innumerable people have complained about the luck of the dice in this game, not least of which is Mike Siggins in his infamous negative review of Die Siedler from the Summer of 1994. Mike pointed out, “as you know it is necessary to roll an awful lot of numbers to get a perfect bell curve and the game has relatively few rolls in this respect . . . The result, as you might expect, is complete chaos and planning goes right out the window.” The most memorable line of course is the one we unfairly chuckle at (with the benefit of 13 years of hindsight): “this one has all the signs of a flash in the pan.” That prediction aside, Mike makes some very good points about the shortcomings of Settlers. The Platonic ideal of the bell curve is unlikely, if not impossible, to recreate in the short span of an hour’s worth of dice rolling, so the 5 or 9 may very well produce more than the 6 or 8, and even the 4 or 10 might have a good day. I suppose this is why many people “solve” this problem by using a Deck of Dice instead of two actual dice, in order to smooth the bell curve and make the resource production element of the game more predictable. However, how can I justify the widespread acceptance of the significant role of dice in this game for the majority of people that don’t replace the dice with a stack of cards? This is not an easy question to answer, and trying to put myself back in Mike’s shoes during the Summer of ’94, I wonder whether I’d be tempted to dismiss the game as well. Perhaps the acceptance of the dice in Settlers stems from the fact that it is the quintessential “gateway” game. The game fulfills that role precisely by using dice, and thus not departing too much from the mold of more familiar games. This might explain why seasoned gamers have been known to tire of the game and see no point of continuing to play it with their veteran opponents, yet those of us who are continually bringing new people into the fold keep going back to the well since the appeal of Settlers has never run dry for proselytizing eurogames to the uninitiated.

As I am wont to do, I have saved the best for last: Die Macher, Age of Steam, and Twilight Struggle. Die Macher is certainly the easiest of the trio. Not only do the dice in Die Macher play a small role given the enormous scope of the game, and the fact that dice only determine party membership growth for declined opinion polls and bribes, but also the dice are less offensive to eurogamers because Die Macher uses special dice with a smaller standard deviation (assuming I have my terms correct). The dice in Die Macher are six-sided, but the faces show: 0, 1, 1, 2, 2, and 3. The range among these numbers is smaller than on a traditional die, so the luck is obviously minimized. The mean is 1.5 and the absolute best and worst you can do is roll 1.5 above or below the mean, whereas on a traditional die the mean s 3.5 and the absolute best and worst you can do is roll 2.5 above or below the mean. I don’t know much about math, but this certainly leads me to believe that this is the reason that the dice in Die Macher are acceptable to the masses.

I’ll close with the two games that I have no answer for. Age of Steam and Twilight Struggle are both fantastic games. However, they both involve a good deal of luck based on dice rolling, and I can’t come up with any excuse for them. The only thing I can think of is that these games are so great that the people playing them have learned to live with the dice, accepting and overlooking the dice so that they can continue right on playing and enjoying these two games. Perhaps I’m missing the obvious, and there’s a good reason that these games have found their way to the Top 10 of BoardGameGeek despite their reliance on dice, but it may just be that everyone is ignoring the elephant in the room when it comes to this necessary evil.

With all that being said, and over 2,000 words to explain away the dice in my collection, I think I’m in the mood to go play a game of Can’t Stop!