Monday, September 26, 2005

Game Store Confidential ~ The Dice Gods Are Smiling

The three games I’ve played the most of in the last month are Runebound, Axis & Allies Miniatures and Conquest of the Empire. All three are total dice fests. Admittedly I’ve had a round or two of Power Grid and even the always boring snooze-fest, Through the Desert. But It's been a pretty steady diet of dice-driven games lately.

About a week or so ago Joe Gola posted a really nice article here about dice, and since he posted it in the middle of a four week dice festival of gaming out here in the sticks, I’ve had dice on my mind a lot.

Game Geeks are really, really weird. About dice that is. Probably about other things too, like politics, hygiene, Star Trek trivia, historical minutia, math, clothing, Mountain Dew, Doritos, Ziploc baggies, file transfer speed, totally rank music and perhaps even women. But those things aside, nobody is weirder about dice than Gamers.

So Lyle, his brother Sean and I are in a game of Conquest of the Empire and both of them are carping about how horribly they, in particular, roll dice. As the early game progresses I lose a few battles here and there and even a particularly important one in the province of Numidia. But oddly enough, when I’m getting my ass handed to me early in the game I’m not hearing them bitch about dice.

Same thing when I’m playing a couple of rounds of A&A Mini’s with my tree-farmer buddy Tony. He waxed me completely, twice in a row and never once did he moan about dice. But let him get pounded in a game of Runebound or Memoir '44 and he’ll complain endlessly about how he never, ever gets any luck with the dice. The good part about Tony beating me up in A&A Mini’s though is he ended up buying a couple hundred bucks worth of the booster boxes.

Makes me wonder if I ought to think about losing gracefully more often.

But back to the game with Lyle and Sean. After the early setbacks I suffered in North Africa as well as being shut out of Italy by Lyle building a large army there and posturing aggressively, they left me alone for a while. Being brothers, they much preferred to start beating up each other in the fertile lowlands of the eastern shores.

If you've never had a chance to play Conquest of the Empire then you probably are unaware that the worst thing you can do is to leave a guy like me alone… in Spain… with taxes rolling in… and a shipyard cranking out triremes… and catapults rumbling down the roads to the north and south… and hordes of foot soldiers and cavalry hankering to earn an extra measure of salt… and four generals all vying for the Caesar’s attention.

You do that and you’re asking for trouble.

And trouble is just what those two got. After a particularly humiliating sea battle where Lyle lost a significantly large army that was heading to Egypt, followed by Sean losing almost 50% of everything he owned in the heated up sands of North Africa, the whining about dice started.

“Man, I never get any good rolls!” Lyle moaned.

“How come I can’t get the rolls you do DW?” Sean complained.

A compassionate and caring person would have explained to Lyle that his lost fleet was more about doing something really dumb than it was about the dice. A kind man would have advised Sean that buying only infantry because they’re cheap means you can’t take advantage of any rolls for catapults or cavalry.

But I’m neither kind and compassionate nor caring when all I’m hearing is that the only reason I’m kicking someone’s butt is because I’m lucky.

For the last 23 years I’ve stood behind a game store counter and watched literally thousands of dice-chucking role-players open a set of dice and roll them 20, 30 or 40 times on the glass-topped counter. Besides making an incredibly annoying sound, it’s scary to imagine what is going through what passes for a mind when the customer is rolling the dice. Is he praying? Meditating? Conjuring? What’s the point? What on earth is standing at a counter and rolling a D20 going to tell him about a game session that night, next week or whenever?

Faced with illogical fear of the unknown – otherwise known as being real dumb – the typical dice-chucker would probably stand at the counter for hours rolling and rolling until some metaphysical event shone a ray of intelligence at him and broke the neural shut-down mode that excessive dice rolling creates in role-players. So to help them out I normally choose to offer a suggestion that will get the Geek to stop the incessant and irksome dice rolling and get to the part where he buys the frickin’ things. My usual suggestions are:

“You know… keep that up and you’ll roll all the 20’s out of that one.”


“Pick the ugly ones. Dice are like women, the prettier they are the more capricious, mean and destructive they can be.”

Or maybe:

“If you roll those dice one more time I’m going to reach into your chest, pull your heart out and hand it to you while it’s still pumping.”

That last one always does the trick by the way.

So, back to Lyle and Sean. I smoked them. No surprise there, based upon the fact that they are typical gamers in that they actually believe that the randomness and chaos of dice in a game have anything at all to do with winning. They see dice as the reason, the source or perhaps the cause of wins and losses. And so long as they view dice in that fashion they’ll never get the understanding that chaos, while technically uncontrollable, can be temporarily corralled and used when you apply brainpower to a game that involves dice.

Sure, sure, sometimes you get a great roll when it’s not important and that’s followed up by a bad roll in a critical situation. But if you remove the situational bits and just look at the results over the course of a game you’re usually going to see that you average out, rolling just about as many good rolls as you do bad ones.

To me that is the challenge. To understand that you can’t control the dice, but you can avoid doing really dumb stuff where dice results will compound the negative situation.

“Hey DW, why don’t you just attack Sean there now?’

“Well Lyle, Sean has 12 units and two extra dice for the fortified city and I only have 14 units.”

“So what? He hasn’t been getting good rolls and you have.”

See what I mean? Duh.

Two turns later I land two triremes with an additional 10 troops and two generals and simultaneously attack from the west. In the interim Sean has bought 4 more infantry and sent them off to the meat grinder that I created just for him.

The net result? I take North Africa from Sean and Macedonia from Lyle in one turn… and the dice get all of the credit.

As we’re putting away the game, all neatly in separate Zip lock baggies of course, three dice-chucking geeks stroll in, wander over to the counter and announce, “We need to see a few sets of dice.”

Yeah,” adds one of them, “Mine have gone bad on me so I need to get a set that matches the color of my rogue’s cloak.”

“Sure guys, I’ll get some out for you, but remember, if you roll them too much you’ll use up all the 20’s.”

All three of them nod sagely at me, confident in the knowledge that they shop at a game store where the owner understands how fickle dice can be.

Yep. That's me. A guy who understands. Not to mention a guy who's in need of a career change.


Coldfoot said...

It's no wonder you're a game store owner, with that wisdom and dice comprehension under your belt. Good thing you didn't decide to be a doctor! :) What boring stories you'd have to tell then.

Scrib said...

A great read, as always, DW. I usually stay away from MP games because of the increase in relationship variables. The number of players squared minus the number of players = the unpredictability rating. I have a gamer friend who, in two different games, attacked the player to his left for no apparent reason and then withdrew from the captured turf.

BUT...Richard, my grognard friend and I aren't superstitious about dice.

When playing M'44 Richard will not roll the same dice twice when firing until all have been rolled once. Makes sense, right?

I switched out the blue die that came with Age of Napoleon because it rolls low numbers and I put it in game where low numbers are good. Planning ahead.

We know the odds of rolling most combinations and we know if you announce the exact probability of rolling what you want as a fact and not an incantation it increases the chances of it happening.

In my last game of Pirate's Cove I needed boxcars for the win. I announced, "A 35 to 1 shot." And I rolled boxcars. See, nothing mysterious about it. Knowledge is power.

ekted said...

Anyone who likes Runebound more than Through the Desert needs to be pummelled repeatedly with pastel camels. :)

gamesgrandpa said...

DW -- I'm absolutely rolling on the floor. The description of the dice-rolling on the counter broke me up!

Now, I generally consider myself as leaning more towards science than superstition. Consequently, I KNOW the realities of dice rolls, and, when not too emotionally involved in a game, I can accept the results of rolls as within the laws of probability. However, my 7-year-old grandson has caused me to question whether science actually applies to him, when it comes to dice-rolling. We were in a six-player game of Settlers on Saturday. At one point, the grandson picked up the dice for his turn, said "I need a five" and rolled it. As the rest of us groaned or sat there with our mouths open, he scooped up four resources. On his very next turn, he announced "I need a four" and, again, he rolled it. Now, wait a minute, here -- he calls and rolls a five and a four on successive turns? Whoa!

His uncle, our son, is beginning to get serious thoughts about introducing his nephew to Las Vegas, as soon as he's old enough...

Coldfoot said...

I'm not superstitious myself, but none of that changes the facts that red dice are luckier than white dice when the goal is to roll high, and black dice are the way to go if you need to roll low, like in Axis and Allies.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sober when it comes to dice. I understand probability and all that. I don't have any superstitious beliefs about good or bad dice rolls. But still, there are those times when a roll really counts, and I find that I try to put a bit of extra spin on the dice when I let them fly...

Kimbo said...

I've been dealing with this same issue since the 1970's. Whining about dice almost broke up a friendship or two before we smartened up and vowed not to blame the dice. But it's so hard sometimes...

It's all about context of course. We remember the bad rolls and forget the good rolls. Why is that?

We all have our little dice related superstitions. In my case it's dice towers. I can accept a bad roll if I (or my opponent) used a dice tower much more readily than if the die/dice are rolled by hand. I guess I feel that a dice tower truly makes the roll "random".

Jeff Coon said...

Great read. The ratio of superstitious to non-superstitious games is high. It's even higher with RPGers. I'll admit I pick a set of "lucky dice" for a night of RPGs, but it's all in good fun.

DWTripp said...

Yep, based upon comments from Scrib, Coldfoot, Johnny, Kimbo and Jeff it seems that dice hold some sort of sway upon the average game lover.

We all have little peccadillos when it comes to dice I think. Mine is that if I'm rolling, for example, four dice, I like to have at least five in my hand. No reason, it just feels good.

The other, non-mystical point about dice is simply that they aren't balanced. This ain't Vegas, where Gamesgrandpa's little grandson will make his fortune. These are plastic dice that are mass produced and they aren't all alike. So when you notice a specific die, say a D20, that seems to land more frequently on the high side, you take note and it becomes the special die.

I don't find that odd, in fact, I think it's smart.

As for Ekted and his idea of pummelling me with pastel camels... c'mon, you have to admit, Through The Desert is not exactly an exciting game. Yes, it's a game that requires planning and thinking because there are no dice, but it is boring-boring-boring. I'll play it because of the challenge and I'll play it if time is short... but exciting? No way.

And one other thing, for Mary... how do you know I'm not a doctor? perhaps I was stripped of my license? Perhaps I'm on the run from the authorities and found a safe haven in Game Geekdom. If you ever need brain surgery, give me a call. Maybe I can help.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

So when you notice a specific die, say a D20, that seems to land more frequently on the high side, you take note and it becomes the special die.

I hate to sound like a party pooper, but um... oh, never mind.

GrillTech said...

Hey DW you never mentioned that homeless guy that used to come in the store about once a week and buy 2 or 3 d20s and then wander off..

Jasen said...

I used to play Risk with a friend of mine when I was 10 or 11 years old. At that time, I used to put all the dice in my hand before rolling and picked the dice the *felt* hot. My recollection was that I rolled an inordinate number of 5s and 6s, often wiping out armies with a single die. As I haven't played Risk since then, I fear my ESP superpowers have waned a bit...

Coldfoot said...

DW, I try to steer clear of brain surgery whenever possible.

As for my particular dice superstition, I swear if someone says the word 'one' in a sentence while I'm preparing to roll, I'll roll a one. It happens about 50% of the time so thems pretty good odds.

I also believe that your sense of deperation can transfer to the dice. During our Risk days, I could hold off an attack with 1 lone soldier by rolling as many as 5 consecutive 6's. Talk about a pissed off hubby!

fubar awol said...

Whenever I win, the first words out of my mouth are almost always: "I got lucky".

Try it, it works.

Anonymous said...

I used to complain bitterly about dice until a friend pointed out that I was giving him absolutely no credit for playing a good game. Since then, I always (try to) phrase my complaints along the lines that I didn't get extraordinary dice when I needed them (because of earlier mistakes on my part). Sometimes I still gripe more than I should, but I always try not to. (And I understand exactly how my friend felt after playing with others that are convinced that the dice are out to get them.)

On another note, I swear I used to have telekinesis (or an unconscious control over my wrist as I threw the dice) to a certain extent when I was a kid. I used to get very lucky rolls most of the time. I remember many Yahtzee games where I'd get multiple Yahtzees. In Risk and Monopoly, I was a feared opponent and could often duplicate Gerald's grandson's feat of calling a number. As a trained engineer, I know that is hogwash, but as a science fiction/fantasy reader, I can't help but wonder....

Anonymous said...

To fubar,

For some reason, it doesn't bother me to admit as the winner of the game that I got lucky and I frequently claim that in Carcassone, among many other games. It is annoying when the the loser(s) (even/especially when it's me) of the game chalk it all up to dice.