I’ve never really been into roll-and-write games. I played plenty of Yahtzee as a kid, which was fine, but the whole system felt outdated to me. However, roll-and-write games seem to have made something of a resurgence in recent years.
I was pleasantly surprised by titles such as Harvest Dice and Dice Stars. They’re a bit lighter than the kind of game I usually like to play, but there was enough strategy to keep me interested. When I heard that one of the Kennerspiel des Jahres nominees this year was a roll and write though, I was astonished.
The Kennerspiel is the strategy game of the year and the nominees are a step up in complexity from the lighter Spiel des Jahres nominees; they’re usually what I would call medium weight at least. Could a roll-and-write game be sufficiently involved for a Kennerspiel nomination? You bet it could! Let me tell you about Pretty Clever…
It hasn’t actually been released in English yet, so many people are still referring to it by its German title of Ganz Schön Clever (which translates as Pretty Clever). I have to say, I thought it was a terrible name for a game when I first heard it; it tells you nothing about it.
Having said that, there is no theme attached to it (you’re just rolling dice and filling out a grid), so naming an abstract game like that is tricky at best. Many of them settle for random words like Quixx or Gipf. And you know what? The game really is pretty clever, so the name has grown on me.
How does it work? Well, on your turn you roll a set of coloured dice and like Yahtzee you get to roll them three times. After each roll though, you have to pick a die to use on your grid and you then lose any dice with a lower number.
So imagine you decide to take the yellow dice, which is showing a 3. Any dice showing 1 or 2 would then be lost. You roll the rest of the dice and repeat the same procedure until you have taken three dice in total (or you run out of dice).
What are you doing with these dice? Every player has a sheet of paper with several coloured grids that correspond to the colours of the dice. When you take a die, you either cross off the matching number, or write it in the next available space of that grid.
Most of the grids give you points the more numbers you cross off/fill out. Some have restrictions though. For example, the purple numbers always have to be higher than the previous purple number you filled out, unless you write in a 6, in which case the next purple number can be anything you want.
So far, you’re probably a bit underwhelmed. The mechanism for taking dice is nifty, but how much strategy is there really? Isn’t it all rather luck-based? Well, there a number of things that really elevate this humble roll and write.
The first thing to realise is that higher numbers are often best. Your score for the purple grid is simply the total of all the numbers you’ve written in there, so 6s are fantastic – not only do they give you the freedom to write any number after it, but it scores you big points.
If you roll a purple 6 on your first roll though, you almost certainly can’t take it. You would lose any dice that weren’t 6s! So even though you want to take higher dice, you’re often better off taking lower dice – at least at first.
And lower dice can sometimes be very useful. The first number you take for the green grid can be anything you like, the second one has to be 2 or higher, the third must be 3 or higher, etc. After requiring 5 or higher, it resets to 1 or higher again. So if you’ve rolled a low green number early, you definitely want to use it to get the greens going.
Deciding which dice to take for each roll is surprisingly tricky. The decision is further complicated by what is, in my opinion, the best aspect of this game: the bonuses. Quite a few of the spots you fill out in the different grids give you some kind of bonus when you fill them out.
So you might fill out an orange number, and it might let you fill out another box on the blue grid, or the yellow grid. Near the end of the game, these bonuses start to chain. “If I take the orange die, I will get the yellow bonus, which will give me a green bonus as well. Ah, but if I take the purple dice, I’ll get a blue bonus, and that will give me a +1!”
What’s a +1? To understand that, let me first explain the final masterstroke in this game. Once you’ve finished taking all of your dice, everybody else gets to use one of the dice that you didn’t use (including the ones you lost).
This keeps you invested on other people’s turns. “I really hope she doesn’t take the purple die here – I desperately need that one!” It also adds even more layers of strategy to the dice selection. You might occasionally take a dice that isn’t the absolute best choice for you because you’re leaving everyone else with a really bad selection to pick from.
If you have a +1, it lets you re-use any of the dice on someone’s turn. So if you really want that purple 6 that they’ve just taken, you can use a +1 to take it anyway – as well as taking one of their leftover dice.
It helps you mitigate the luck factor as sometimes all the good dice come up at once and the +1s allow you to take advantage of those situations. Some of the bonuses include re-rolls, which further reduce the potential impact of unlucky rolls.
Overall, I think it’s a fantastic game and a worthy nominee for the Kennerspiel. It’s my favourite roll and write by a fair margin at this point. In fact, it’s my pick for the winner of the award this year, although I wouldn’t place too much stock in that as my track record for predicting Spiel winners has been awful. I keep hoping I’ll get it right one year. Maybe this year will be the one.