Tue
Jun 14 2011 11:10am
Not Your Father’s d6: A Look at 6 SFF Dice Games and Other Dicey Things

I remember receiving the white box edition of Dungeons & Dragons as a gift back in the mid 70’s. The rise of the RPG phenomenon since that time has been well-documented, but what is often overlooked is the evolution of the dice. Prior to D&D dice were strictly 6 sided cubes that came in any color you wanted as long as it was black, white, or red. By today’s standards the Basic D&D dice were laughable; soft plastic polyhedrons with dull, frayed edges that wore down after only modest use, but at the time they were a wonder to behold. A standard set included 4, 6, 8, and 20 sided dice (the Platonic Solids for you math majors out there). Since that time the 10 sided die, bastard child of the Platonic Solids, has become quite popular, and dice with 100+ sides have been produced.

While not entirely new, advancements in short run manufacturing have made it increasingly possible to design small print-run games using custom dice. You can even have your own dice made in as few as 10 copies. What follows is a brief overview of some games based on very cool looking dice, and a selection of custom dice that can be used to pimp out your favorite RPG or boardgame.

IRONDIE

The idea of a collectable dice game isn’t entirely new (see Dragon Dice below), but making the dice little metal works of art is certainly novel. Davide Averara self published and sold-out the first limited edition run of IRONDIE in 2010 through his Italian company Bluestar. The unlimited edition of dice should be reaching US distributors as I write this.

Despite the fact that IRONDIE is made up of simple six sided dice, the game itself is actually very deep and complicated. I’ll do my best to summarize play:

Two players face off against one-another and each assemble a “hand” of 9 dice. The dice are distinguished by shape, color, and the manner in which the pips are represented; dots, triangles, or numbers. Players secretly choose any number of dice from their hand for a battle roll, the only requirement being that the first roll must include at least one life die (those with the numbers). The battle roll is very simple; if a battle were to be resolved immediately each player would total the opposition’s attack dice (those with triangle pips, think “swords”), subtract their own defensive dice (those with the dot pips, think “shields”) and the resulting damage (if any) would be subtracted from their life die (or dice). Any life die reaching 0 is eliminated, a player without any life dice in play after the first battle roll looses.

If the battle roll was all there was to it, IRONDIE wouldn’t be much of a game, but there’s more, much more… and here’s where the game gets complicated.

After a battle roll, players reveal their dice held in reserve. Each player now has the opportunity to roll these dice individually in a series of skirmishes, attempting to modify the current state of the battle to their advantage before it’s resolved. Shapes of the reserved dice are now important with each shape having special abilities. There are nine such special abilities; I’ll describe just a few of the simpler types. There is a smasher—this die may target any die in play. If it rolls higher than its target that target is sent to the abyss (removed from play), and if the smasher fails to eliminate its target, the smasher itself is sent to the abyss. There is a power up die that can add pips to a target, a swarm die that subtracts from all opponent’s defensive dice, a regeneration die that can recover used (but not eliminated) dice, and so on.

A skirmish die roll isn’t resolved immediately; instead players may roll response dice which are resolved in reverse order (last in, first out). For example, a player may successfully roll a smasher intending to eliminate her opponent’s life die. Her opponent responds with his ballistic die to reduce the value on the smasher, causing it to miss, and our original player may roll her power up die in an attempt to restore the smasher back to success, all assuming that our players were wise enough to put these dice in their hands and hold them in reserve.

On top of this, we have the effects of color and a bonus for rare dice. I won’t get too far into this—color effects are based on the color wheel; on a roll of a 1, bonuses are immediately triggered for complimentary (neighboring) colors. There’s a chart to look them up. Rare dice trigger color effects on a 1 or 2. Each shape also has a color specialty which allows dice of that shape and color to win on ties.

As you can see from the pictures, the dice are absolutely gorgeous. They have a chunky, heavy feel that’s lots of fun to cast (playing on a glass surface is not recommended). If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m undecided about the game. Mechanically, it is interesting and well designed; my problem is with the complexity of interactions between the various dice. Shape effects, color effects, rarity effects… it’s a lot to keep track of. I get IRONDIE to the table less than once every three months or so, not frequently enough to become comfortable with everything that’s going on. I think IRONDIE will appeal more to players that take the time to study the game and play it repeatedly until the dice interactions become second nature. Unfortunately, for my group, that’s just not likely to happen. Nevertheless, these dice are still the coolest d6’s at the table.

Dice from the limited edition of IRONDIE averaged about $3.00 each and were sold in single color starter sets with 9 dice, 3 dice expansion sticks, and an expansion cube with 27 dice. There was only one US distributor for the limited edition and prices have risen. However, the forthcoming unlimited set should be widely available and less expensive due to the economies of larger scale production.


Dice Age

OK, these things are just cute. On the surface, game play for Dice Age is simple; a player begins the game with a collection of dice in a pile called paradise. Each player in turn chooses a die from their paradise collection to roll. If no other dice are in play, the number rolled becomes the “current number” and the die is moved to a new location called purgatory. All future dice must roll less than the current number and are also placed in purgatory. If any player should roll equal to or higher than the current number, that die, and all dice belonging to that player in purgatory are banished to the inferno. All other players move their dice from purgatory back to their paradise piles and the current number is available to be reset on the next roll. A player is eliminated when they no longer have dice in paradise to play. The last player standing wins.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a game if the dice didn’t have individual special powers. Each die has one or more faces with special effects. When rolled, these faces might allow a player to swap dice between purgatory and paradise, banish other player’s dice to the inferno, change the turn order and more. The dice are also deliberately irregularly shaped and unbalanced; understanding how these irregularities will influence the die roll is part of the game.

I haven’t played Dice Age: it won’t be available until later this year (although the rules are available online and it sounds very promising). What’s interesting about Dice Age is that the designer, Tristan Convert, is self publishing the game using an increasingly popular funding source, KickStarter*. A $25 pledge will provide backers with 10 randomly selected dice (enough for 2 players), a $50 pledge will provide backers with 23 dice (the complete set, enough for 4 players). Dice Age has already exceeded its funding goal of $10,000, but backers may continue to pledge until June 20, 2011 at 3:14am EDT.

*KickStarter is a website that allows entrepreneurs to propose a project along with a required funding level and a specific amount of time in which to meet the funding goal (up to 90 days). Visitors to the site can choose to back a project at different funding levels, usually in exchange for a promise of a copy of the proposed product. Money pledged to a project is held in escrow, if the funding goal is reached the funds are released to the developer, if the project fails to reach its funding goal, the money is returned to the backers. KickStarter is not specific for game development, however, the range of money typically raised ($5,000 - $20,000 per project) matches well to the amount of funding required to get a game produced. Alien Frontiers (a dice allocation game) and the soon to be released Eminent Domain (a deck building game) are two early KickStarter success stories.


Cthulhu Dice

Cthulhu Dice is a tongue in cheek dice game for 2 to 6 players, developed by Steve Jackson Games (Munchkin, Illuminati) in 2010, that can be taught and played in about 5 minutes or less. Players are cultists, each starting with three sanity points represented by green glass beads. Players steal sanity from one another and occasionally gain or lose sanity to the Great Cthulhu depending on the result of the die. Players without sanity are eliminated, and the last cultist standing wins.

 

First of all, Cthulhu Dice is a misnomer; there is only one 12 sided die in the game, although it is a nice, chunky size and comes in a variety of colors. Secondly, Cthulhu Dice is very easy, really too easy to be much of a game. I’m not much of a game snob; I’m all for straight forward games that can be played with non-gaming friends and family, but even Steve Jackson’s own crew didn’t look enthused in their promotional video. At $5 or less, retail is cheap enough, but you’re essentially buying one specialty die and some green glass beads that might be more useful in other games.


Zombie Dice

Zombie Dice is another offering from Steve Jackson Games, a considerably better offering than Cthulhu Dice. I’ve talked about Zombie Dice in this space before, but to recap: Zombie Dice is a party game for 2 or more players. It’s a push-your-luck style game where players/zombies roll 13 dice, trying to collect brains while avoiding being shotgunned 3 times. Players can give up rolling at any time and score the brains they have collected, 3 shotgun blasts wipes out their score for the current round. The first player to collect 13 brains wins.

I was enamored with Zombie Dice when it first came out, but I have to admit, after repeated plays I wish it had a few more decisions to make, a little more game. There is a variant out on the web for a different end game that I’m excited to try out. When a player reaches 13 brains or more, instead of ending the game play, they enter the elimination round. From this point forward, each player/zombie must beat the current high score or be eliminated, and the last zombie standing wins. This variant does two things to make the end game more exciting: it gives players that are close to 13 an incentive to risk continuing to roll well beyond that, and it gives risk-averse players an incentive to go for broke in what could be their final round rather than being eliminated.


Dragon Dice

I can’t verify that Dragon Dice was the first collectable dice game but it’s been around a long time; designed by Lester Smith and originally published by TSR back in 1995, the game is still alive and well with updated rules and new products coming from SFR, Inc.

Dragon Dice is a game for 2 to 4 players and plays in about 30 minutes. Dice of different sizes, shapes, and colors represent fantasy armies (d6’s), terrain (d8’s), magic items (d4’s), monsters (d10’s), and dragons (d12’s). Players roll dice, lots of dice, in an attempt to either capture two of the terrain dice in play, or to obliterate the opposing forces.

Players begin the game by selecting dice up to a specific health point total (the new starter sets include complementary armies that are ready to play). Each player will have a home base terrain die to defend; there is also a neutral terrain die in the center of the table. Player armies are then divided into three forces and positioned near each terrain die. The game begins with a roll of each terrain die, the resulting number indicating the starting distance between opposing forces at that location.

On a turn each player is allowed two marches and a reinforcement phase. A march can consist of a maneuver attempt and an action (usually attack). When attempting to maneuver, the acting player announces his or her intention and the opposing player has the option to counter maneuver. Both players roll their army dice at that location and count the number of maneuver icons showing. If the acting player out-rolls the opposing player, he or she may adjust the terrain die up or down one step, changing the distance between armies at that location. If the terrain die is maneuvered up to an 8, the acting player will have captured the terrain. If the opposing player out-rolls the acting player, the terrain die remains unchanged.

As previously mentioned, the current face on the terrain die indicates the distance between opposing forces, which dictates the types of attacks armies may perform against one another. The basic types of attacks from far to close range are: magic, missile, and melee. The procedure for attacks is similar to that of a maneuver; each army die has a mix of attack icons. When rolled in combat, only icons matching the current terrain distance count. Dice with lots of melee icons will be better at close range, those with lots of magic icons are better at distance.

Lastly, dice can be withdrawn from an army fighting in one location to be held in reserve, or moved to a new location on a later turn.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of Dragon Dice. There is a library of spell effects, there are special racial abilities, different armies are better at fighting in different terrain, there are magic items and, of course, there’s dragons to contend with. At about $18 for a two player starter set, I strongly encourage interested readers to take a look.


Elder Sign

This is completely breaking news. Elder Sign was announced by Fantasy Flight Games on June 11, 2011 while I was putting the finishing touches on this post. It was literally summoned out of the blue.

I know very little about this game other than what FFG has made available on their website, but what they’ve shown so far is very exciting. Let’s get the bad news over with first; the expected release date is third quarter of 2011. Realistically, that means maybe in time for Christmas.

And now for the good news; Elder Sign is a cooperative Cthulhu dice game for 1 to 8 players developed by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, the same team that brought us Arkham Horror. While FFG is calling this a dice game, it’s classic FFG components with 156 cards, 144 cardboard tokens, and lots of other stuff. With countless Arkham Horror expansions (OK, you can count them if you want, but there are a lot), Mansions of Madness, and now Elder Sign, FFG has a wealth of back-story, game concepts, and art to draw from. The only components that look a little weak are the, ahem... dice, but if the game play is as good as it looks, we’ll get over it.

You can check out FFG’s site for details on game play but in brief: players are investigators exploring strange events at a museum, racing against time to prevent the imminent return of the Ancient Ones. Investigators roll dice attempting to resolve adventure cards which offer great risk for failure or great rewards for success. By completing these adventures, investigators hope to collect the equipment, magic items, and spells that will contain the ancient one, or help them do battle if the unthinkable should occur.

Elder Signs will list for $34.95, but online prices are likely to be about 30-40% cheaper.


Q-Workshop

Not a game this time: instead Q-Workshop is a dice manufacturer in Poland that produces some really amazing dice. A standard polyhedral set includes 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 2d10 (1-10 and a decader 00-90), 1d12, and 1d20. Prices vary from $15 to $30 for glow-in-the-dark dice, individual dice may also be ordered in some styles. There is a set of dice designed specifically for Arkham Horror, although they would work well with any d6-based Cthulhu game.

Q-Workshop can also produce custom dice of any standard shape with intricate printing on each face. Instructions and templates are available on their website. Custom dice prices are not published, however, an example is given of 20d6 costing $140, or $7/die, and they require about 3 weeks to produce.

 

 


Chessex

Chessex is another dice manufacturer, focusing less on elaborate engraving and more exotic materials for dice (mostly translucent colors). Like Q-Workshop, Chessex can manufacture custom dice. Chessex charges by the number of customized faces, so they’re significantly cheaper for promotional dice with only one custom face (as little as $1/die for a 10 die order). With 6 customized faces Chessex and Q-Workshop are about even. Chessex will only customize 6 sided dice, Q-Workshop will customize any standard polyhedron.

The Chessex catalog also includes some really interesting dice jewelry. Claws of the jewelry are hinged to securely grasp your treasured die and release it when it’s time to play. The problem with this cool product is that it was listed in their 2009 catalog as available for pre-order and in 2011 this product is still in pre-order status. I called the company and the sales representative assured me they’re serious about bringing this product to market, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.


The Cutting Edge (literally):

Shapeways is a new company taking advantage of 3D printing technologies. Artists upload designs, Shapeways fabrics the design and makes the product available for sale. Think of them as a 3D CafePress. If you want some truly exotic dice, take a look around their site.


When not rolling dice, Bob Gallo is a computer programmer specializing in Flash and interactive application design living in the Charlotte, NC area. Bob got his gaming start in the mid 1970s with traditional hex-and-counter war games and has played nearly all types of games including role playing games, miniatures, collectible card games, video/PC games as well as traditional board and card games.

15 comments
Mark Cunningham
1. Mark Cunningham
You should check out Dicecreator as well. He does custom dice as well, not just Cthulhu but from internet memes to tron light up ones. Particularly popular with Fudge players (dFs instead of d6s).

I may be biased though because I did win a set from him and had my Cthulhu twitter avatar immortalised on a set of dFs. :)
Bob Gallo
2. StormbringerGrey
Thanks for the tip Mark. He does some interesting work with multicolor inlays that I haven't seen before and the light up dice are very cool.
Chris Hawks
3. SaltManZ
The upcoming Martian Dice looks like a fun alternative to Zombie Dice (which, like you, I enjoyed for a while at first.) The ZD variant you quote sounds like the standard rule for Pass the Pigs, a classic push-your-luck game with a pair of rubber pigs for dice.

But my favorite non-standard dice-based game is probably James Ernest's Diceland, in particular the original "Deep White Sea" set. A tactical dexterity game using giant cardboard d8s? Brilliant, and probably the most original game I've ever had the pleasure of playing.
Kristoff Bergenholm
4. Magentawolf
Boo. No mention of the Star Trek: TNG dice game? ;)

The dice themselves weren't terribly special, admittedly, but it had some pretty fun mechanics back when I played it.

EDIT: And while I'd love to get my hands on a few of those dice from Shapeways (like the companion-cube D6)... I'm not paying in excess of $30 per die.
Bob Gallo
5. StormbringerGrey
@SaltManZ – the original poster on BGG (Chris Schenick) credited Cosmic Wimpout but you’re right, it’s the same end game as PtP. ZD has the potential to be an interesting game, it just needs a little more something to keep it interesting. Thanks for the tips on the other games.

@MagentaWolf – lol, yeah, I saw the ST: TNG game while doing my research for the post but in general I try to avoid listing out of print games (I know, I’ve broken that rule several times). For those that are interested the dice are still available on eBay.

For the record there are two other out of print dice games that didn’t make it into the final article: Dungeon Dice, a mass market game from Parker Brothers published in 1977, and the Dicemaster series, published by Iron Crown Ent. in the 90’s

If you think $30 is bad, check out the $106 gold plated set. For the record, at least for the thorn dice pictured, $30 is for the set … this is about twice the cost of a nice set from Q-Workshop, expensive but still within the realm of the imaginable, the gold set on the other hand…

Also, an update on Chessex … they have expanded their custom die manufacturing to include any standard polyhedron, not just d6’s. Also, they have expanded their offerings on dice jewelry holders, so maybe they are serious about offering the product. Available as a necklace or key ring for any standard polyhedral die.
JOhn Johnson
6. smileyman
Do those shapeway dice actually roll normally or are they just for show? If they actually roll normally it'd be fun to have one for those special moments when you have to make that critical roll.

As soon as I saw the title of this blog post I knew I had to mention Dice Age and I'm glad you covered it. I'm very excited for that one to come out--I found out about the project some time back and have been pimping it whereever I go online.

I'm glad for this article, because I must admit to having a fascination for dice and being a nut about collecting them.

@1 Mark, I'm glad you mentioned the Dice Creator blog, because that was another project that deserved mention.
Bob Gallo
7. StormbringerGrey
@SmileyMan - The Shapeway’s site was a last minute find as I was finishing the article so I don’t have any firsthand experience. The link I provided in the article is to Shapeway’s home page, user Chuck Stover (CeramicWombat) made the thorn dice and a number of other interesting designs (direct link to his store front). The thorn dice set has 89 comments with 4/5 stars. Chuck has stated that the dice appear to roll without any bias. There have been some minor complaints about the plastic dice being very lightweight, I would be concerned about the thorn points wearing down. The consensus seems to be that the metallic materials are a better choice (but at $89.60 you’d have to be a serious collector). One of the comments seemed to indicate that there is a new acrylic material that might be a reasonable compromise between cost and functionality. If anyone takes the plunge and picks up one of these dice, or the other designs from Shapeway, I’d love to hear back.

As for Dice Age, I’m on board for a full alpha set and excited to see it come out. I’ve only backed one other KickStarter project (yes, its another game: The Road to Canterbury) but it seems to me that Tristan has been exceedingly proactive in keeping his backers informed and is constantly sweetening the pot with incentives to reach higher funding goals.
John Skotnik
8. ShooneSprings
Wow, thanks for the info. Definitely liking the custom die sites.
Tim Callahan
9. TimCallahan
This is my favorite post of the week! Now I am nostalgic for these dice games that I've never played. (Well, I've played Dragon Dice and that Marvel Super-Hero dice game where the little guys are INSIDE the dice.)
Kevin Maroney
10. womzilla
Cthulhu Dice sounds like a very lightly rethemed version of LCR, the skill-free dice drinking game, but I see from the BoardGameGeek forums on CD that you actually make an occasional decision in CD.

The mention of Diceland reminds me of Krakatoa, Joli Kansil's game of throwing d12s at other d12s. Maybe someone will do a fantasy retheme of that some day.

And what discussion of SFF dice games would be complete without a mention of Button Men?
Bob Gallo
11. StormbringerGrey
Lol, you’re right, CD has one decision to make (choosing who to roll against) which is exactly one decision more than LCR ;-)

Hmmm, throwing dice at other dice … I see a future post on SFF dexterity games in the works here. Actually, Catacombs isn’t dice but it’s pretty good in that whole flicking things at other things genre.
Sandy Brewer
12. ShaggyBella
I won a game of Cthulhu Dice from the Pirate Munchkin GM at GameStorm in Vancouver. (for backstabbing) An interesting die and easy game to play. I like Zombie dice, a good one to take to the local bar to play, unless it is too dark.
Jason Denzel
13. JasonDenzel
Fun article! FYI: Elder Sign is available on the iPhone / iPad, and Android as well (I think).
Mark Cunningham
14. msouth
Hey,

do you have any idea what this is?

http://imgur.com/Il9xr

Someone on a math-ed list has it, and is wondering what the source is:

"All dice can move when the object is picked up and rubbed against palm, but then, once placed on a flat surface, each die is locked into position."

All the dice are six sided, the center is marked by 10-20-30..60. It sounds like the dice never leave the case, you just rub it against your palm and they roll around.
Michael South
15. msouth
Hi, posting the answer to my own question. It's a math game toy, called Math Magic Mixer:

http://toysdiscovery.com/Products?category=62&subcategory=&product=4234

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