Posted by: markfender | May 6, 2015

Dice and Components

I’m torn on components.

DiceFanOn one hand, components are what make or break a board game. The Avalon Hill version of Cosmic Encounter had annoying shapes for the ships that made them awful to manipulate, whereas the Fantasy Flight version goes for a simple, stackable shape. I’m a huge fan of the level tokens in Mage Knight – they exist in a stack on your character card that tell you your current statistics, but when you level up you take the top one, flip it over, and put into your ally area, creating a new command token to use with allies. It’s a simple trick but one that uses these small pieces of cardboard in a smart way. Likewise, the secret combat dials in Rex: Final Days of an Empire are perfectly designed to keep hidden information while also slotting in other cardboard tokens in a smart, economical way.

So, components are cool when done right. But I’m not a fan of the accumulation of components in modern board games. This business model was invented by Fantasy Flight Games, as they figured out pretty early that bits sell games. And so, they cram their games full of components, often to the game’s detriment. While the component design in something like X-Wing is great (the swappable bases, maneuver dials, and movement rulers make that game work), it also suffers from lots of tokens to track ongoing states, tokens that proliferate across the myriad expansions. Staring at Arkham Asylum and it’s multiple decks of cards and countless tokens just makes me never want to play that game. I already don’t get War of the Ring out often enough because set-up is a pain. And that gets worse when you’re trying to find the 80 different token types. Other game manufacturers have followed Fantasy Flight’s lead, cramming their boxes with cardboard. I’m more leery in my board game purchases because I don’t want to have to figure out how to store and distribute thousands of token types.

And yet, I am always down for custom dice. Because custom dice can generate more than just a number. They can generate attacks, defenses, and special effects – all with one die. They can have multiple symbols on a single face, generating more interesting outcomes than is possible with just a number. They’re a concise, randomized way to create more interesting results than just pass/fail. The dice of Imperial Assault or Descent are a good example of this, generating three possible statistics with every roll that gives the combat some dimensionality.

Roleplayers have an aversion to custom dice. I don’t know why. You often see complaints along the lines of “what if I lose some of the dice? Then I can’t play this game ever again!” which is a fairly false premise to me. For one, with production falling more and more into the hands of consumers with every passing day, I’m almost positive that someone will have created Makerbot files for these wacky dice. And for two, do you really need to play this one game for the rest of your life? I realize that D&D has been played by some groups for more than four decades straight, but I think most games are more ephemeral than that. Game systems adapt and change with advances in the industry – I’m pretty sure I couldn’t sit down to play something like Cyberpunk 2020 without regretting that it doesn’t include hero point mechanics or any of the other iterations in the industry since that game came out that have improved gameplay. So, the idea of losing your custom dice and not being able to play that game twenty years in the future seems like a false dichotomy. None of these Playstation games work either, but I got my fun out of them and have moved on to PS 2, 3, and 4 games. But it makes me sad that roleplayers are so averse to using new technologies to play their games. Custom dice and custom cards can play with more facets than just a number. And numbers are kinda played out.

Custom dice may throw some people for a loop, but I’d rather take them than twenty different stacks of counters.

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