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The Ares Project in 5 seconds

Thomas Diendorf
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Before you all complain, I actually like the game. It's fun. This is just to parody those unlikely moments when stuff like this happens.
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Fri Mar 23, 2012 9:04 pm
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My board game philosophy.

Thomas Diendorf
United States
Apple Valley
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This is not to say that I hate any game that uses any sort of dice rolling whatsoever. It's just that I'm the kind of guy who prefers less luck and more strategy in his games. Not everyone thinks this way, so everyone's entitled to their own opinion. Many people are perfectly fine with playing games that have no strategy in them whatsoever (like LCR or Bingo). Others prefer games that have a little strategy mixed in with a bunch of luck (Risk, Yahtzee). Then there are games that start rely more on strategy than dice rolls, though the players are still at the mercy of the dice (The Ares Project, Last Night on Earth). Then come the games that require minimal dice rolling, or where dice doesn't have as much of a "make or break" game component (Twilight Struggle).

[note: I'm not going to pretend to be sympathetic to everyone else's views on board games from this point on; these are my opinions only, and I will be attacking anyone else's opinion/belief on board/card games who I can think of that go against mine; in other words, this will be a biased opinion. Anyone who may be offended by this should probably stop reading right now, though I will be more than happy to respond to critiques and rants on this blog, though I won't reply to those who just rant just for the sake of enticing a personal inflammable tasteless offensive attack out of me with no benefit to the discussion of gaming in general]

The main reason that dice are included in board games (with the exception of Chase) is to provide an element of randomness. After all, just how exciting could a boardgame be without an element of randomness? Imagine trying to play monopoly where you could move however many spaces you wanted (2-12) just by declaring so, not by having the dice decide your fate? Or doing the same in Risk? Yahtzee? That would certainly make those games much more dull than they already are. When inserting an element of randomness as simple as a dice roll in those games, it adds a level of tension, a degree of uncertainty, which makes those who play wonder what the result will be, and whether or not it will be in their favor. This is good, because I don't think anyone wants to play the same board game twice, and what I mean by that is playing two or more games that have the exact same events that lead to the exact same outcome, or something relatively close to that. Thus, randomness is needed to make games exciting, thus more fun.

It must be noted, however, that there are board games where you can do what you want with your pieces in terms of movement and placement without having to roll a dice, or draw a random card/piece. Those are games that I classify as abstract strategy games. Games like Go, Chess, Shogi, Tzaar. Those are games with basically no luck and require nothing but complete strategy to determine the better player. In fact, that's the only way one can say that they have truly bested an opponent, by winning in a game against them that requires no luck of the draw, or of the roll. That said, I believe those types of games are in a whole level of competitiveness on their own, and aren't exactly, well, party games (trying to think of a better term). I won't be discussing abstract strategy games for the rest of this blog.

Anyway, randomness. The problem with a single die roll is that it is completely random. While some may be okay with that, I am not.

When you roll a single die for whatever reason (movement, combat, etc.), it's always completely random. You always hope you get the right roll to gain a position to your benefit, gain the upper hand or victory in combat or resources, etc. For a D6, it's always 1/6; for a D20, 1/20, etc. of getting the number you want. There are a couple of exceptions. First off, those who have a talent for rolling the number they wants just because they are skilled with the flick of their wrist, or have a loaded die.

Secondly, games with die roll modifiers. There are games that change the odds. One of the basic games with such a basic modifier is Risk. The rule is, roll higher than your opponent. Basic, but all it means is that the luckiest player will win. There are other games, however, that mix things up so that rolling better than your opponent doesn't always mean guaranteed victory. For example, Chaos in the Old World has it to where you have a 1/2 chance of getting the roll you want with a D6. A 4-6 would allow you to successfully score a hit on an opponent (6s also do something special, but that's beside the point in this case). Then there's Axis & Allies, or Nexus Ops, where certain units have a greater chance of hitting their target than others, and can potential eliminate others before they get a chance to respond in kind with their own attack. In other words, there are dice games which give priorities in addition to modifiers, making some pieces more valuable than others, thus giving strategy in deciding which pieces you will end up building. It all amounts to, "Will I build more units that have a less chance of hitting for cheap, or will I build a couple units that have a better chance of hitting for more, or will I settle for those in between?" Even The Ares Project does this, only at a much more complex and strategic level. Yes, strategic. From a statistical standpoint, strategy should end up very well incorporated with games such as these. Now all you have to do is roll what the game requires you to roll in order to defeat your opponent, not necessarily out-roll your opponent. Thus it becomes less about your luck vs. your opponents luck, and more about how well your luck meshes with what the game requires of you in order to win, though rolling better than your opponent is still a factor in all of this, just no longer to the extent of games like Risk, which is nothing short of an obsolete combat system.

Such a system of rolling what the game wants you to roll worked well enough to completely incoporate them in just about every co-op board game I have ever seen ( Red November, Arkham Horror). It became almost like a simulated video game. Take in the odds of succeeding according to the rules of the game, and act accordingly. Take whatever action you can that you feel will improve your odds of winning. Usually how things go is, the more variety in your choices, and the more of those choices that are good yet difficult to decide on, the better the game. Board games that make you consider your actions, letting you feel that you can really make decisions that effect the entire game, it's a brilliant feeling that is executed well in some games.

But, there is a problem with all of this. There are times when you have made some good decisions, decisions that you wouldn't take back if you had a do-over, and yet still manage to fail. Happening every once in a while is no problem, as statistically, that's how it's supposed to work. However, there are players whose luck remain bad for too long, or have games where everyone's luck is bad, or all but 1 or 2 player's luck is bad. It's times like this where the statistical system that is supposed to work for these games gets thrown out the window and into the dinosaur park (see the chaos theory explained by Ian Malcolm in the novel Jurassic Park, or even in that brief scene in the movie).



It becomes a problem where you have a 5/6 chance of rolling what you need to roll to succeed in an event, and end up rolling that 1/6 number a lot more than 1 out of 6 times you roll the dice. From a probability standpoint, once you roll that 1/6 bad number, you should have good odds of making some good rolls the next 3-4 times you make a roll, though not necessarily consecutively. Regardless, it is still very possible to roll that bad number again too many times. It can become bad enough to where you feel cheated by the dice, or by the game, or both. Either way, it makes the game not as good as its makers may have hoped it would be. There is no such thing as THE perfect game, but there is close to perfection, and every game maker hopes to achieve that, or else achieve a good income for the effort made into making the game.

That's the problem with dice rolls. It's always possible to have several games where the statistics don't matter, where you either end up doing too good, or too poor, either way making the game experience less satisfying.

[A brief note: there are certain games that use dice rolls for entirely different reasons. Take Magic Realm for example. The "searching" methods, and combat for archers, crossbowmen, and those who use certain magic spells work basically how I stated above (supposed to work a certain way statistically, but can go wrong at any time indefinitely), but it has a mechanism of re-positioning the monsters in the game in combat in such a way using dice rolls that is exceptional from what I've stated above. A roll is made to move them around so that you're not sure if your attack will hit or not, but you are capable of obtaining a weapon or encountering a monster to where you may be guaranteed to score a hit no matter what the roll is. In other words, the randomness in combat for melee attacks in that game is exactly what it should be in my opinion, the perfect blend of randomness and strategy (timing).]

Which is why I eventually came to the realization that dice are probably the worst form of randomness (albeit the easiest) to incorporate into a board game, with very few exceptions. But at some point I eventually found that there are alternatives (aside from video games). For example, Yomi. That is a combat card game that has no dice in it whatsoever. You can still make multiple decisions with each card in hand, and you end up thinking like a poker player (only it's more gratifying and you won't lose money [unless you turn Yomi into a gambling game, you sly devildevildevil]). The more you play it, the more you start to become acquainted with the fact that it is more strategic than meets the eye.

I must mention that there is such a thing as "luck-of-the-draw", which can devolve into an equivalent or worse form of "luck-of-the-roll". I find this to be the case with games like Cosmic Encounter, where the card numbers are so diverse (see file by HiveGod here) that you mine as well roll a die for combat results. However, there are card games where the statistics don't fall apart. If you draw a bad card, you will know that the next card you draw won't be that card (ignoring games with special cases of reshuffling or certain special abilities, etc.). All the game maker has to do is figure you the best quantity of cards to use, how many different types/values there will be, and incorporate them accordingly. Thus, it is entirely up to the makers in this case to make the games have a "close-to-perfect" game system going. Thus make the game good enough to the point where the gamers won't feel that they lost due to luck, but due to not having the better strategy, or overestimating their draws and not consider the statistics accurately enough.

Thus, cards become the newest and best form of randomness to put into a game, making dice-driven-mechanics take a backseat to card-driven-mechanics.

Anyway, with that said, there are a few board games that have no dice in them whatsoever that I consider to be the best. The first one that I came across, and that I still consider to be the best board game out there (though now out of print), is Starcraft, so long as the Brood Wars expansion is included with it. The combat is entirely card driven, and most of your choices outside of combat are basically unit building and expanding, which is usually for better organizing yourself for combat. Not only that, but the game also is underrated in a regard that games like Dominion are better known for. Deck building. In Starcraft (which for the record pre-dates Dominion by a year) you also get to purchase certain technologies for your units, which get mixed into your initial deck of cards, thus causing your deck to grow the way you want, which in turn can increase your odds of drawing the cards you want (unless you end up making a poor strategic choice, or your opponent outsmarted you, causing you to think of making preparations against him in one way when you should have been doing it in another). Plus, you can also choose times outside of combat when to draw cards, thus getting better odds of getting the cards you want in your hand when you need them. The game also strongly encourages you to diversify the units you build so that you will have the correct cards in your hand. Relying on just 1 unit type makes it less likely that you will have the card for them.

[Ex: multiple marines, and no other unit type, start out with a 27.8% chance of starting with the card they want, which can increase to 35% if they purchase the right technology. Ignoring technology, if you have a marine and a wraith, then you have a roughly 61.1% chance of getting the card you want. Considering that you start out with 8 cards in the game if you play as the Terrans, you could guess at how low the "luck-of-the-draw" factor can be in this game, and how the right deck-building decisions can modify this in you favor, or otherwise]

Then there's Dune. Unlike Starcraft, this game is fully reliant on bluffing. It's like a complex semi co-op poker game, only with a board and pieces, and each player has a card hand limit of 4 (except for one fat bastard who's limit is 8). In this game each player has a max limit of 20 units (which don't all start on the board), start out with certain Treachery cards, some of which are capable of drastically turning the tide in battle, and have 5 leaders who can greatly increase the odds of winning a battle. When combat starts in this game, each player compares the number of units they have against each other (sort of like Risk). Then, each opponent gets a combat wheel (numbered 0-20), where they secretly choose a number from 0 to the number of units they have in that territory (ie if one person has 6 units in the contested territory, they can choose 0,1,2,3,4,5, or 6 on the combat wheel). Then, each player chooses one of their 5 leaders, whom each has a numerical value (1-10, depending on the leader), and secretly uses him/her in the battle. The leader adds their numerical value onto the number chosen on the combat wheel. Then each player can use a treachery card or two to use in the battle, which is capable of killing off the opponent's leader (thus eliminated the value they added to the combat wheel), or defending your own against an opponents attack. The player with the higher number wins the battle and eliminates all opposing units. The catch to all of this, which truly makes this a great bluffing game, is that the number each player chose on the combat wheel is the number of units they must destroy (ie sacrifice) after combat is over. Thus each player must consider a number of things in each battle, mainly of which is, "How much am I willing to sacrifice in order to win?". Don't sacrifice enough and you lose everything. Sacrifice too many and you're at a big disadvantage later on. As for the treachery cards (cards in gaming is the main topic after all), 17/36 chance that you will draw something that can kill/defend a leader. However, if you lose a battle, or even just observe one, you get to see which treachery cards the opponents play on each other. The loser loses all his/her treachery cards used in battle, but the winner keeps theirs. Thus everyone will be that much more knowledgeable in knowing some of the cards one player holds that can be used against them. I'd take this over poker any day.

So those are 2 examples of what can be achieved in board gaming without the use of a dice in the mechanics. If those are just 2 out of the thousands out there, though I believe the majority of board games either rely on dice too much or were just made for the sake of profit more than anything else [ie board game based on a toy/movie/game franchise {My Little Pony, Halo, Pacman}, with some exceptions like those stated above whistle], imagine some of the others how there could be just as good or better, or worse, depending on your taste in games.

On a last note, don't get me wrong. I do believe dice have a place in "good" board games (anyone who says that Risk or Monopoly or LCR are good games are fully entitled to their opinion, but their opinion is wrong), I just don't believe they should be in the front seat driving the game (like the previously mentioned). It's too random and unpredictable for that or for statistics to put an absolute label on. But it can be fine if given a backseat, such as in portion of Magic Realm for enemy positioning in combat, or in Twilight Struggle where coups and re-alignments are always risky and never certain in their outcome, which is thematically important for that game.

To end this [almost], that is why card-driven-mechanics are better than dice-driven-mechanics in board games when it comes to inserting an element of randomness.


[Personal Note: decided to make this after playing a couple games of The Ares Project. I thought everything about that game was great, the card mechanics, the way each race is unique in how they build, how they operate, and the abilities they have. But when it came down to the actual combat, it was infuriating to see myself lose when having a better army with higher probabilities of hitting than my opponent, along with higher numbers of units, and yet still manage to get my ass handed to me just because of bad rolls. Games like that have brilliant mechanics of building and planning, but it can all come crashing down not because your opponent bested you, but because you got worse rolls than he did. Not saying that stuff like that doesn't happen in real life, but to happen that often on that scale? To some extent, there's something philosophically wrong with that shake.]

Edit: After discussion in the comments, have narrowed down dice systems into 3 categories:

Dice mechanic 1: Player(s) must roll above/below a certain number, which is either higher/lower than the opponent's (potentially modified) roll, or roll higher/lower than an amount determined by a rule or element of the game.

2. Rolling multiple dice and adding the results together. Believe it or not, the results of this aren't as diverse as option 1. If you roll 1 dice, the options are 1,2,3,4,5,6. 2 dice, then it's 2-12. However, unlike option one, this has a median. The odds of rolling a result of 2 or 12 with 2 dice are 1/36 each. But rolling for a result of 6 is 5/36, rolling for 7 is 6/36, rolling for 8 is 5/36 again, and then it all goes by a bell curve in probabilities. Plus you could potentially have die roll modifiers so that you can increase the min & max.

3. Games where it doesn't matter what you roll as practically any value does something beneficial. While it is a matter of timing of getting what you want with a certain roll, usually the other benefits you gain from other rolls counter-balance what you don't get. Sometimes these games allow you to take another player's roll result(s) and use them as your own. I'd say this is about as strategic as dice games get. For example, Troyes, Alien Frontier.

Dice system 1 is the system I hate the most, the one that I mainly argue against in the blog.

Also, dice do have a place in games. Dice can be good in games. But, if a lot hinges on the result of the die roll to the point where it greatly affects you winning or losing the game, then such a game is best used for thematic narrative purposes (Tales of Arabian Nights, Magic Realm). For competitive games, I argue that there are more variety of good card-based games than a variety good dice-based games (by variety I mean games that are different and not rehashed rip-offs of other games [Star Wars Monopoly, Nintendo Monopoly, etc.]).
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Sat Jan 28, 2012 10:13 pm
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