Getting Started with Dice Placement Games

Your uncle Geekly covered worker placement in a previous starter game segment—those are games where players place pawns on the board to gain certain abilities—and this week we’ll discuss dice placement games which are like worker placement games except that players place dice instead of pawns, or one could say that one’s dice are their pawns.

As usual, good old Geekly has some starter games for someone interested in the gaming genre. Let’s get to some of the better and simpler games of this type and work our way up in complexity.

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Kingsburg

I usually try to go with more recent games in a genre, but Kingsburg is a ten-year-old game or so that deserves a mention. Players chuck dice to determine what they can do each turn. The shared board hold a king space and spaces for advisors to the king. Each one grants a different ability based on the numbers one rolls. If some rolled three 6s, they can choose the king space at 18 or a 6 and a 12. The person with the lowest roll each round picks first, and that may be the most clever way to negate a bad roll. Dice hate me. If it was possible to roll negative 18, I’d do it.

There are three phases—oh, yeah three, it’s the magic number—and each player must face an invading army on the fourth turn. The fourth phase just happens to be winter. Winter is coming.

Even though players must face something at the end of each group of four phases, it’s nice to see that a worker placement game designer isn’t obsessed with food. And Kingsburg does a good job of bad die roll mitigation. You’ll see plenty of other designs use other methods to compensate for a bad roll. Apparently, I’m not the only one dice hate.

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Dice City

While Kingsburg has a shared board, Dice City gives each player their own board. On each turn, players roll five six-sided dice of different colors and place those dice on their board according to a chart. The columns show numbers and players must roll that number to place their dice in that row, but the rows are one of their die’s colors. So, if one rolls a three on their yellow die, they must place their yellow die on the second row (the yellow row) and the third space from the left (the column for 3s).

On each of these spaces, which are shaped like the game’s deck of cards, is an action. Players may choose to take the action they rolled (usually to get resources) or they may choose to discard one or more of their die or dice (for that round) to move another die left or right for each die discarded. You know how I said that Kingsburg does a good job with bad die roll mitigation, Dice City’s use of discarding dice allows for even more of that. Yay!

Players can upgrade their boards by purchasing cards with the resources they use and that accomplishes two great things: each player’s board is different and further strategy over luck. Dice City may look like a game that uses a ton of luck, but it’s sneakily deep. That said, it’s a step up, or at least sideways, in complexity to Kingsburg.

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Discoveries

Discoveries is most likely a step up in complexity to the others on this list, but a lot is added with that smidgeon of complexity. In this game, players take on the roles of explorers tasked by Thomas Jefferson to explore the western United States.

Unlike the other games on this list, Discoveries uses unique and thematic dice to represent the players journey. Horseshoes, feet, writing, and Native American die faces replace pips of 1-6. Each player receives five of these dice in their player color. They roll their dice and may take one of two actions each turn: play dice of the same type to any space on the board or get dice back from the game board.

It’s this push-pull of gaining dice from the game board—and how one does it—versus using dice that give Discoveries its depth. I’ll discuss how to get points later, but one doesn’t necessarily grab all their used dice when they take the “rest” action or the one that allows a player to retrieve dice from the board. Many of the dice used to explore go to a communal discard area. A player has the option of taking all the dice from one of the communal discard areas or taking all their personal dice (no matter who has them or where they are). It’s a wrinkle not seen in too many other dice placement games. Players must do a good job timing when they retrieve dice. You can snake someone’s die and use it before they decide to take it back. It takes a game or two to get the timing, but it’s not that difficult to learn and that’s why Discoveries is the last game on this list.

Players earn points by exploring more areas, but to explore an area one must generate enough resources (in rivers or mountains to cross) in a single turn because players cannot bank rivers and mountains from one turn to the next.

The game ends when the deck runs out of cards, and there is a scoring method that’s simple enough to understand but would make this write-up swell even more with words, so I won’t include it here, but another one of my favorite mechanisms is Discoveries use of dual-sided cards. Players may befriend Native American tribes and if a card from that offering is used, a new card is dealt Tribe side up. Players also use cards if they explore and if a card from that offering is used, a new card is dealt Exploration side up. It’s an elegant system that forces each game to play differently than the last.

Discoveries, like the other games on this list, also has bad die roll mitigation, but it may be the cheapest of all of them: trade in one die to turn another die to the face you want. Love it. This is easily the least random result dice game on this list.

Final Thoughts

Like worker placement games, it’s difficult to come up with easy to learn dice placement games with depth. Again, I had to go with slightly more complicated games than usual, but they still have some wide appeal. There’s a little more variety in terms of subject matter too. And no food. Yay!

How many times have dice hated you? You can roll shame one of your dice or let us know your favorite dice placement games in the comments.

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