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Designer Diary: Dice City, or Crafting Your Dice, One Side at a Time

Vangelis Bagiartakis
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February 2012: I am sitting at my dining table with a copy of Quarriors! on it. I have just gotten the game, and I can't wait to play it. I've read all about it, how it takes the deck-building concept and applies it to dice, how the designers came up with the idea, how they ended up getting it published, etc. I read the rules and decide to play a two-player game on my own, to get a feeling of how it plays.

When the game ended, I found myself staring at the table in front of me and realizing that something was bugging me. On one hand, I liked the concept of having many cards use the same die in different ways; on the other hand I was feeling that I should have more control of how the die functioned during the game. "Wouldn't it be better if instead of having different abilities corresponding to the same die (through the use of different cards) I could actually completely change/upgrade the sides of a die?"

BAM! That was the exact moment when Dice City was born.

The cogs in my brain immediately started turning. Imagine a game in which you would start with some dice and as the game progressed, you would change the faces of those dice, replacing them with better options.

Great concept, cool idea, innovative thinking — but it left out a tiny, tiny insignificant problem: How could anyone actually change the faces of a die in a physical game?

As luck would have it, a few days before that event, a member of the Greek Guild here on BGG had posted a link from an online store where you could buy LEGO dice (and other LEGO parts). He had suggested their use as replacements in games with custom dice or as a good option for prototypes and print-and-play games. It didn't take long to realize that my idea could be implemented using those dice. Obviously, I would not be able to use LEGO dice in a published game (at least not in one not published by LEGO), but I wasn't about to let that stop me. I would test my idea, I would design the game, and I would worry about that "detail" afterwards. Worst case scenario I would have a cool game to play at gatherings which would not be able to get published. There are worst things out there than that, right?

I did some rough calculations and figured that five dice per player would be a good number, so I ordered 20 LEGO dice (to cover up to four players). I also ordered spare LEGO tiles in various colors that would snap on the faces of those dice so that I could use them for different types of abilities.

Right from the start I had the idea of "building" something, like a city or a kingdom. The dice would represent the area I controlled and during the game I would change their faces with new buildings — more or less something like a deck-building game but instead of building a deck, you would "build" your dice. (By the way, something that was bugging me then — and still does — is that all those games claiming to be dice-building are actually dice-pool-building. The dice themselves remain the same; they don't change. Your pool of dice is what increases/changes as the game progresses. Not in Dice City though!)

I am a fan of games having different paths to victory, and that was something I wanted to put in this one as well. The theme allowed me to have three different winning conditions: One would be an economic victory — build the wealthiest city. The other way to go would be military — build the most powerful army and attack the other players. The third way would be cultural — build the most fabulous and majestic constructs: statues, temples, universities, that sort of thing.

The greatest thing with these three paths, however, was that not only were they quite different theme-wise, they allowed for different gameplay strategies as well: Economic would be about going for a single big roll. Imagine combos, rerolls, one die affecting another one, chain reactions and so on. The whole game, you would be setting up for that huge winning roll that would generate tons of resources. Military, in a way, would be the exact opposite of that. You would build your dice in such a way that every roll would give you something small. Slow gain but steady. Bit by bit, round by round, you would attack the other players gaining something here, something there, always advancing towards the end but with small steps. The cultural victory now would be completely different from both the other two. It wouldn't care what your dice would roll. It would be about what buildings you had built. This would be worth that many points, this would give you extra points if you had built that one, and so on.

As is common in game design, when you start to work on a new game, you have a million ways to go. How will the attack work? What will be my resources? How will the combos function? Will I have only buildings in my game, or should I put some characters in it as well? Will the dice start all blank, or will they have something on them at the beginning of the game? Questions, questions, questions...

While trying to figure them out I would keep notes of ability ideas. I would imagine combos in my head, I would come up with medieval buildings that I could use and try to design abilities around them (or vice versa), and I would look for pictures online to put in my prototype. The toughest part in the beginning was figuring out the whole "attack" thing, or in other words, how interaction would work in the game. I didn't want the game to be all about attacking the other players, but I didn't want it to be multi-player solitaire either. It had to have the right amount of interaction that would allow a player to affect his opponents, without that becoming devastating or game-breaking.

Meanwhile, at some point the actual dice arrived. I was super excited and started working on the prototype. I printed the tiles that I had designed on transparent sticker pages (artwork and name only — nothing more could fit within the space I had for each of them) and began putting them on the actual LEGO tiles. I started playing around with the dice, creating new tiles, removing the previous ones, rolling and changing them again and again to get the "feeling" of how the game would be. Very quickly I realized that swapping the tiles was not the easiest thing in the world. Unless you had really big nails, you had to use a small tool of some kind. "Okay, that tool will be included in the game" was my first thought, not really wanting another "detail" to affect my plans.

Also, another problem that became apparent quickly was that the game would require a LOT of tiles. Just for the initial faces of the dice, I would need at least 120 tiles. (Twenty dice, remember?) How many more would there need to be to make for an interesting game? One hundred? Two hundred? The manufacturing costs were starting to go beyond the "really really really hard to do" and into the "just forget about it" territory.

Around that time, life started catching up with me. My second child had recently been born, I was super busy at my day job, and my free time was minimal at best. I ended up working less and less on the game, to a point that I was doing nothing at all about it; it was just lingering at the back of my head.

About a year later, I don't really remember what the cause of it was, but I had an epiphany: What if I replaced the tiles with small cards? They are much easier to produce, and I wouldn't have to worry about their quantity. I would get rid of the whole LEGO dice concept and simulate it using a 5x6 grid. Regular dice would now be used, and each side would correspond to a card. If I wanted to change the face of one of the dice, I would just place a new card on the corresponding space. Voilà! Problems solved!

Indeed, that was a solution that solved the two major problems I had. Of course that meant the game would lose some of the "dice-building" aspect it had since you wouldn't physically alter your dice anymore, but gameplay-wise it was effectively the same. If only I could also come up with a way to create time so that I could work on it...

Another year passed by. My busy schedule continued, so I couldn't work on the game. However, from time to time I would think about how it could be made with the new method I had come up. No playtesting yet, just exploring random thoughts and trying to see how it could all work. In some rare cases when I found time, I created a pseudo-prototype: a board with the 5x6 grid and some handwritten cards with a few abilities on them.

Nothing more (noteworthy) would probably have happened if I hadn't taken a very important life decision about a year ago. I decided to quit my day job and work full-time on game design. Okay, that probably sounds more dramatic than it actually was. Truth is, there were many factors that led to that decision and an opportunity rose that allowed me to do so. (In fact it was less risky than it may sound.) But that's for another story. What is important is that this move gave me what I needed: Time to work on the game.

And work I did!

One of the first things that I had to look into was the starting boards of the players, what their dice would look like when the game started. During the long "not-playing-only-thinking" period, I had considered having the players do a draft first to pick for themselves some of the cards that would be put on their boards. This way there would be a differentiation in the starting dice and every player could set their board according to the strategy they would like to pursue.

The first playtest I did when I started working on the game was with this method. The abilities on the cards were far from final (in fact they were still on hand-written cards), but it would give me an idea. From what little I saw, I thought it was kind of okay, but the comment from my opponent after the game was heartbreaking: "After the draft, I didn't feel like I needed to get any more cards in my board. I had already set an engine, and I was using it to pursue my strategy."

He was absolutely right. Having the players draft first was not just an alternative to a random set-up. It was effectively half the game, and its outcome was what I wanted the players to accomplish by rolling their dice in the first place. Obviously it had to go to return the focus to where it needed to be: The building (or crafting, as we would later call it) of your dice. That meant that a fixed board would have to be used. I only had to find out what it would need to be...

A very early draft of the player board (one of many attempts)

Around that time, I also had another important problem to solve: The game's resources. Right from the start I had considered "coins" to be the game's single resource. There would be buildings giving 1 coin (perhaps the starting ones on a die) that could be upgraded to other buildings giving 2 coins and finally upgraded to the ones giving 3 coins. All the buildings had a coin-cost (in order to buy them) and I even had the economic win condition laid out: Get 15 coins in one turn and you win the game! However, reality soon proved that things weren't as simple as I had imagined: The game just wasn't exciting. You would roll your dice, you would see how many coins you had and that was it. Booooooriiiiing! Your turns just weren't that fun (and obviously, the fact that there wasn't much dice manipulation at that point contributed to that effect).

Then one Sunday morning while at the countryside with my family, I had another epiphany. I was thinking of the game's board and realized that it could also represent the layout of your city. All the outer cards (first & last row, first & last column) would be the surrounding landscape while the inner cards would represent the central part of your city. When you'd start building, you would place the new cards anywhere on the board, showing that the city was expanding.

The surrounding landscape obviously led to the idea of multiple resources. I started with the ones that seemed to make the most sense (wood, stone and iron) and they stayed until the end. This changed everything in the game; in fact, this was what made the game. There were now options to be had, resources to go for in order to build a specific building, variety in the costs, and so on. Everything seemed to fit perfectly (both mechanically and thematically), and the game was now much more interesting and exciting.

I assigned the abilities I had thought of to buildings and determined their cost based on the new resources. I also added another type to the previous three (Economic, Military, Cultural) I already had: Civic. These would be buildings that had useful effects for all the strategies, usually dice manipulation abilities. You wouldn't win having only those in your city, but combined with some of the other ones they allowed you to pursue your strategy much more effectively.

Another thing that had to be determined was how the players would buy the new buildings. Initially, I had in mind a system like Dominion. You would start the game with X number of buildings available, different in every game, and you would form your strategy based on those. However, this increased the set-up time a lot, and it would lead to players performing the exact same strategies every time that the same cards were available. I needed something more dynamic that would lead to more interesting gameplay and the players adjusting their strategies accordingly.

After various attempts, I decided to just shuffle all the locations in a deck and have eight of them available at all times. (You buy one, you reveal a new one, and so on.) In order to test this system, I put three copies of each card in the deck. That was meant to be only temporary, but the game played so well this way that it was kept right until the end.

The good thing with me working full-time on the game was that I could playtest it a LOT more than before. The comments from my playtesters were quite positive, but one thing was still bugging me. You still relied a lot — more than I wanted at least — on the luck of the roll. You would add buildings in your city but never have a die land on them. You would want to desperately build something but you would be missing a key resource that just wouldn't roll. Okay, the whole idea was that you would improve your dice in time so that whatever you rolled, it would be useful to you. But in reality, it would take too long to change all six sides and there was still less control in the outcome of the rolls than I wanted. The solution to that problem came during one of the playtest sessions in which it was suggested to allow a player to discard a die to move another one to an adjacent space.

If the switch to three resources was what "made the game", this was what "made the game good".

You were no longer dependent on your exact rolls. You could manipulate your dice in an elegant and clean way to make sure that you could pursue your strategy successfully. It was amazing how much that little change improved the game.

The last thing that I had to deal with was the victory conditions. Initially I had thought of three separate victory conditions:

• To have an Economic victory, get four resources of each type in a single round.
• To achieve a Military victory, attack another player fifteen times.
• To get a Cultural victory, build cards until you reach 30 Fame Points.

However, the problem with having three completely separate victory conditions was that once you went into one path there was no turning back. I couldn't start Military, then suddenly switch to Economic; it would be like starting from scratch and everything up to that point would go to waste.

Moreover, having all these things to keep track of (resources, military, fame, etc.) was too much. I needed something clearer and simpler, so I did the only thing that made sense: I combined them all! Instead of having each strategy go for a different thing, they now all granted you victory points! You would get VP from collecting multiple resources of each type, you would get VP from attacks, and you would also get VP from building new cards in your city. You could do whatever you wanted and everything contributed to you (possibly) winning the game. Also, by using Trade Ships and Bandit cards, the victory conditions were easily adapted to end game triggers and everything was good to go.

From that point onward what remained was playtesting, and we did a lot of that. Costs were changed, buildings were tweaked, actions were adjusted — everything needed to make sure that the game was balanced and the gameplay was fun. All in all, from all the games I have designed, this is by far the one I've tested the most. What amazes me even more is that after all these games, I still enjoy playing it! I haven't grown tired of it and given a chance, I will gladly play one more game.

Come Spiel 2015, you will all get the chance to try it out. I believe you won't be disappointed...

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