Possibly the oldest game component in existence, dice have ruled the fate of many gamblers, Cthulian monster hunters and would-be world conquerors. Dice seem to be used in games today more than they ever have been.
What is our fascination with them? Why do we still depend so heavily on the original random number generator? Let’s talk about dice, baby…
Dice come in all shapes and sizes. So many in fact, that we’ve developed a convention for identifying the particular type: a d8 would be an eight-sided die, for example. RPG fans will be familiar with many of them; d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20 dice are all common.
There are dice for virtually every number of sides. You might even consider a coin to be a ‘die’ with two sides. Geometrical considerations make it difficult to construct dice with an odd number of sides, but many people have tried over the years, with varying degrees of success, from the truly elegant to the downright ugly.
One of the most important considerations for a good die is how well it rolls. There is something peculiarly satisfying about rolling dice, but some dice never roll well. Here’s my breakdown of the ‘rollability’ of the most-common dice:
I always hated the conventional d4. It is traditionally in the shape of a tetrahedron (think 3D triangle) and doesn’t roll so much as go ‘clunk’ when it hits the table.
The d6 is nice and symmetrical and is just ‘round’ enough to roll well if you add a bit of spin to it when you throw it. The thing to avoid though, is letting it simply fall from your hand – if you’re not careful, it will land flat on one side without rolling at all. I always feel cheated when this happens.
The d8 isn’t as bad as the d4, but it’s still covered in triangles and still feels too clunky for my liking.
Some people like d10s, but they look more like a spinning top than a proper dice. I think they’re fine, but their odd shape makes them bounce spasmodically rather than roll.
My absolute favourite die is the d12. No triangles in sight. It’s round enough to roll beautifully, yet the sides are large enough to land confidently when it comes to rest.
The d20 is good die, but it’s almost too round for me. The triangles are back and it lacks the solidity of the d12. As if a slight breeze or a bump in the table might cause it to teeter past the side it should have landed on.
The original, and still most common, use for dice is to generate random numbers. Whether you’re moving your piece around a board, attacking with your army or resolving an event card, game designers keep coming back to dice as the de facto way to include randomness in their game.
There are other ways to generate randomness of course: cards, spinners, tokens, apps, etc. Dice seem to have a few advantages though:
Everyone knows how to roll a die. No extra rules explanation required.
Other methods of generating randomness can often be awkward. Quite a few games require you to select a token at some point from a face-down pile. This pile needs to be randomised at the start of the game and it makes setup fiddly. From a game-design point of view, dice are clean.
Dice feel more solid than cardboard chits or cards. They add a sense of weight and quality to the components.
Dice are widely manufactured, which brings the cost down and allows most game manufacturers to cater to any custom dice requirements that a game might have.
- Tactile Experience
I keep coming back to this, but rolling dice feels good. It creates a physical interaction in an otherwise sedentary hobby. There’s nothing like standing up for a big roll!
More recently, dice have been employed in other ways though. The excellent Too Many Bones, which describes itself as a ‘Dice Builder RPG’, comes jam-packed with dice. It uses dice to track attack and defence stats, to act as debuff counters (eg. how many rounds a poison effect lasts for), to track consumables (eg. how many bombs a character has left) as well as using them in the more traditional ways (rolling dice to attack).
Dice placement games are another innovate use for dice. In Kingsburg, which epitomises this genre, players simultaneously roll a set of three dice each and then take turns placing them on action spaces. Each space has a number, from 1 to 18, and you can combine your dice as you see fit (so you could pair a 3 with a 5 and place it on the 8 space, for example).
Like a worker placement game, you can’t place your dice where someone else has gone though, so you have to look around carefully at what other people have rolled to work out if you’re going to be blocked. It’s simple and yet gives you lots to think about.
Personally, I’m a big fan of dice. They can be used badly, for sure, but when they’re employed well, they really elevate the quality of the components and the gaming experience as a whole. Who’d have thought they’d still be going strong thousands of years after they were invented?
What are your favourite uses for dice? And which kind of dice do you like best?