Monday, September 4, 2006

Fighting the Dice Wars demon

There is no post of substance this week due to my all consuming addiction with the turn-based strategy game Dice Wars.


I have a weakness, a fundamental flaw in the basic fabric of my personality. Sit me in front of a casual turn-based strategy game and I become its willing slave. Another turn. Another game. A short 15 minutes session turns into a lengthy marathon of dozen upon dozens of such delightfully bite sized morsels. Hour and even days fly by in a rush. For many, “Casual” just means that you get your fix quicker, not that you play the title for any less time.

I love it when someone takes a well known game and strips it down to the essentials. This is single player Risk without silly things like moving units or placing reinforcements. There are no cards or lovingly detailed card board maps. Instead we have the following:

  • Two simple verbs: Attack and End turn.
  • Two types of tokens: Board spaces and player units in the form of dice.
  • A simple score to let you know exactly how you are doing.
  • A randomly generated map.
  • Zero load time.
  • Minimal initial learning curve.
The AI isn’t brilliant, but I don’t play this sort of game to demonstrate my superiority. I play Dice Wars like others play solitaire. There is a meditative rhythm to the clicking and periodic taking of territories is quite soothing. Early on, you frantically attempt to claim some small smidge of territory in the midst of the wildly careening enemy hordes. In the midgame, the board hangs in balance and ill planned moves can swing the gathering tide against you. The tension of the early and mid game remains delicious even upon repeat play.

There are minor flaws.

  • New players find the mechanism for allocating new units to be mysterious. This can discourage players from digging deeper into the title.
  • The end game, as with most games of this genre, turns into a bit of a grind. The games are so short however, that a few minutes of grind are very bearable.
  • The abstract board game style doesn’t pull in new players as much as it might with some spiffier graphics. It is however, very easy to use and understand.

“It would be so cool…”
As a serial player of multiple Dice War games, I find myself falling into the well trodden trap of the genre addict. I briefly considered drawing up a far better strategy game that dramatically improved on Dice Wars.

  • Cute little creatures in a lovely verdant landscape instead of stacks of dice. As they grow, they evolve Tamagotchi-like into charming warriors of mass destruction.
  • Special tiles that when captured give your characters increased strength or defense. Collect enough key tiles and the end game is over in an orgy of automated mass destruction.
  • Roulette style conflict resolution that allow for carefully scheduled super combos that make the combat even more addicting.
  • A metagame system that tracked your win/loss average and provided statistics. Nothing says genre addict like a request for detailed and extensive statistics. So I can bath in them and let them lovingly run through my fingers after a game’s post victory bliss.
Drawing the creatures would be quite fun and I even sketched a couple on a napkin. But then just as I was becoming excited about the idea, I was sucked into another beautiful game of Dice Wars. So much for being productive this weekend. :-)

Take care
Danc.

(So that this post isn't a complete waste of your time, I'm curious how you might redesign Dice Wars. Still keep its rapid gameplay and ease of use, but improve its appeal and perhaps even give it a valid business model.)

27 comments:

  1. I have also become highly addicted to this game, because of both its simplicity, and the fast pace of the games.

    You highlight that the method used to allocate new units can be a bit confusing for new players, but you don't go on to explain how it works. Are you trying to let others figure this out on their own? I found that once I knew how the units are allocated, the game became even more interesting (and addictive), and seemed less random.

    For those who are interested, please read on. If you want to figure this out for yourself, then just skip the rest of this comment.

    The game allocates a number of units corresponding to the number of contiguous (or adjacent) territories you currently have. For example, if you have two clusters of 3 territories, you will only get 3 units at the end of your turn. If instead you manage to capture another territory which connects your two clusters together, you would then receive 7 units instead of the 3. The game encourages you to consolidate your territories as much as possible.

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  2. I, too, have trouble understanding how new units are allocated, so that's an isuue I think needs to be addressed. Very often units are placed in countries that are surrounded entirely by friendly countries, which seems strange to me and is even frustrating from time to time. Maybe if I knew the allocation algorithm, the frustration would go away. Even a simple text explanation somewhere on the site might do the trick. (If you can enlighten me, that would be great.)

    I admire Dice Wars' simplicity and I'm not sure whether adding features would make it a better game. I'm not a big fan of games that involve a lot of chance, so that's an aspect of Dice Wars I don't really like, but that's more do with me than with the game.

    Dice Wars doesn't really allow you to play defensively - partly because of the way units are allocated - and I'm usually a defensive player. The game could be rebalanced to allow a more defensive playing style, but I suspect that would mean the game would lose pace and I think the quick pace is one of its strong suits.

    At first, I thought Dice Wars had a bit of a problem with positive feedback, where the strong just get stronger. But since the amount of new units you get are based on the amount of connected territories you have at the end of your own turn, it's possible for multiple players to get lots of new units, even if they lose a lot of territory during the turn of their opponents. The strong do get stronger, but not as much as I originally thought.

    I guess that, all things considered, I wouldn't change much about Dice Wars. Even though it's not really my kind of game, I really appreciate it for what it is.

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  3. I've been playing Dice Wars on and off for about 3 months now. While I think the randomization of starting locations is fine (and in fact, elegant), I'd like to have the option of a Risk-style mode where there's round-robin placing of pieces on the map.

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  4. Suggested additions:
    Career: Add some form of storyline by gaining victory points in each game that can then be exchanged for special powers or access to higher stakes games.

    Multiplayer: Is it just me or is this game screaming for a multiplayer mode? Advancement would come from victory points and stats would only keep track of total wins and points gained, so as to avoid players dropping because of a losing streak.

    Special tiles: I have to agree 100% with you. This could make games a lot more exciting, due to the addition of swing moments and decisive, verdun-style battles.

    Paratrooper dice: You could start the game with half a dozen dice that you can add to any pile at any moment. This can turn a sure loss around and managing that pile can be a game by itself. Not sure how you could raise more of these, though.

    **********

    I have a hard time buying into your tamagochi gameplay, though. I find that this could be detrimental to Dice War's simplicity and instant learning curve.

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  5. Suggested additions:
    Career: Add some form of storyline by gaining victory points in each game that can then be exchanged for special powers or access to higher stakes games.

    Multiplayer: Is it just me or is this game screaming for a multiplayer mode? Advancement would come from victory points and stats would only keep track of total wins and points gained, so as to avoid players dropping because of a losing streak.

    Special tiles: I have to agree 100% with you. This could make games a lot more exciting, due to the addition of swing moments and decisive, verdun-style battles.

    Paratrooper dice: You could start the game with half a dozen dice that you can add to any pile at any moment. This can turn a sure loss around and managing that pile can be a game by itself. Not sure how you could raise more of these, though.

    **********

    I have a hard time buying into your tamagochi gameplay, though. I find that this could be detrimental to Dice War's simplicity and instant learning curve.

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  6. Sorry about the double-post. Please spare me, I have much to live for.

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  7. I'm not sure I'd change much about it. Adding any extra complexity diminishes its elegance. While the gamer in me WANTS to take my stack of eight that's trapped in a corner and start moving it towards the front lines, the designer in me knows that the extra 'reinforce' verb just isn't worth it (and it's oh-so-satisfying when the CPU drills into my territory, thus "freeing" my big stack to just take everything right back).

    If I were to change anything, it'd be:
    1) Instructions. Add something on the front page for those five of us in the world who like to read the manual first. In there you can explain how you get extra dice equal to the highest number of contiguous territories, and how they're distributed randomly among your territories that don't yet have 8 dice.
    2) Multiplayer. It would slow the thing down since you'd have to wait for other humans, but it'd be much more gratifying to win. Adding a time limit per turn would keep things going at a reasonable clip (and also act as negative feedback on whoever's ahead, as a bonus).
    3) Some mechanism to break the late-game grind. Maybe a single "launch nuclear strike" button that has all players rolling all their dice in all territories, high total wins? Or a turn limit, most dice on the board at the end wins? I agree with danc that it's not a huge problem usually, but there are occasional maps where a single choke point can turn the game into a frustrating stalemate for awhile.

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  8. It may improve the game to only reinforce territories that border enemy lands. Otherwise it seems like a lot of back and forth. Haven't played too much yet though...

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  9. I wouldn't agree with changing how reinforcements are positioned. Currently its very fast and the AI isn't generally good enough to halt its advance (running smack bang into the 8 stack you were annoyed to have so far from the lines. One of my favourite tactics is to purposely weaken my line so that the AI enters my back field to be destroyed by those pieces places far behind.

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  10. Funny, I had dice wars open on one monitor while I browsed to this page..

    I think I agree with Ian that part of the appeal for me is it's complete simplicity. I love seeing games at such a bare minimum level, because it shows you just how little you need to create a great game.

    That said, if I was doing dice wars in a new vein, I'd experiment with several things:

    1. Replace the graphics with something more universaly appealing yet still able to convey the basic concept. While dice are fine for me, they're not for most people.

    2. Change the starting distribution so the map isn't filled. This would help prevent being completely screwed on the first turn by neighbors with large stacks.

    3. I thought a lot about manual distribution of new dice after a round, but I think I'm against it. Besides breaking the AI, I think it would change the stratagy in an unplesant way.

    4. Build some form of persistance, ie, a campaign, through the game.

    5. Multiplayer - you know you want it.

    I tend to think about Archon a lot when I think of new directions for these types of games, but I wouldn't want to pull too many elements from Archon into dice wars, because I think those elements would muddle the purity of the design.

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  11. I think the presentation is just fine. So are the random elements, territory and reinforcement assignment. The random elements keep the game varied and interesting. Sometimes you lose before getting a chance to move, but it's not a problem, since it wastes 10 seconds of your time.

    Changes:
    1. Better AI. It really needs to start thinking about defense.

    2. Varied AI. Some AI players should play differently to others. It would be nice if I didn't always know that AI will attack against an equal sized stack.

    3. Persistent statistics. I would love to look at all sorts of graphs about how my game went, how ofter do I win/lose, etc.

    4. Multiplayer would be nice, of course. Something simple and fast. Just see how many players are waiting for a game when you start it up and then join them if you want.

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  12. I've also been completely addicted to Dice Wars for a while now... still trying to convince co-workers who've only watched me play it, since it looks far more boring that it really is.

    My only main "wouldn't it be cool if..." is related to how I currently play it. When asked if I want to play this random map, I'll continuously hit "no" until I see a really strange map shape... something with cool bottlenecks or penninsulas. The map layout seems like the obvious place to add new player experiences without changing much of the basic mechanics.

    So, I love the idea that certain territories (or touching groups of territories) would provide bonuses like "extra die on defense" or "extra die on attacking from" or "provides additional units"... this would introduce some location-based emergent gameplay without much mucking about with the rules.

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  13. I have a computer adaptation of the card game San Juan, itself based on the somewhat well known board game Puerto Rico. The games are quick, taking five to ten minutes maximum, and for me they are like little pieces of candy that never fill me up. I have played so many games I have no doubt seen all the variations of initial card deal and building mixes that are possible, but I still love to sit down and see if I'll be able to outproduce and/or outscore the 3 AI players. I rarely play more than one game at a time, and never more than two. But after a day at work or any time I need to decompress, it's like I can turn my brain completely off and just watch myself play the game. So in other words, I understand completely your addiction to this game.

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  14. I'd like to try this game without the dice rolls (higher tower wins), and the earlier suggested nuclear option.
    It would make for faster, simpler gameplay.

    I could program it on a preset field, but wouldn't know how to tackle the map generator.

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  15. Hey Danc!

    You married yet? Post somethin!!!

    --Ray

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  16. Thanks for turning me on to this! I've since brought it to the attention of several of my co-workers, all of us complete slackers, due to you.

    The only 'problem' I've seen in the game design is that a player can get completely wiped off the board in the first turn, oftentimes before he's had a chance to move. Even the AI hates that.

    My suggested fix is this; during the first turn, if you lose troops (dice) while defending, they get instantly re-assigned (randomly is fine) to your other territories.

    The results would be that as you lose territories, your remaining territories get stronger. But only during the first full turn.

    As it is now, I find that increasing the number of AI opponents just increases the chance that I won't survive because of that first turn.

    Cheers! (And Congratulations?)

    AndyA

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  17. A really weird, but maybe striking, combination would be to leave the dice as they are, but draw a beatiful, beautiful tile set for the map.

    ::emp::

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  18. Hey Danc!

    I've written a few DS games and I'm searching for a new genre to toy with; Dice Wars clearly seems to be a solid candidate.

    I don't know if you actually read these comments, so I'll keep it simple. I'd love to jump in and write up a Dice Wars game for the Nintendo DS, but I lack artistic skill. My Coder Art is... umm... Yeah.

    If you could scratch up some graphics for me, I could get the code side done. It should be easy; the DS' screens are small (256x192). My email is fireslash at beyondunreal.com.

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  19. I assume you've found this, but: http://kdice.com/ is a multiplayer version!

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  20. Dice Wars is an interesting variation of good old Risk. it is quite an interesting game only on a tactical level. However I agree with other comments that you need to be able to place your own reinforcements yourself. Of course some people find this an interesting twist and challenging. Due to this lack of reinforcement phase the game becomes too long towards the end and is less strategic.

    Nevertheless, it is kind of addictive to play. It makes you think on border expansion and also how to eliminate other players for good.

    You can easily use successful strategies from Risk to win in this game. I have presented many strategies in my book Risk (Total Diplomacy: The Art of Winning Risk) and there is a dedicated website for the book and risk strategies. It is sometimes amazing how certain tactics are universal and can be applied to games that look completely different and even have different rules. Strategy after all can be timeless. This is beautify demonstrated by the success of Sun Tzu's Art of War after so many years.

    [Declaration: I am the author of the book and the website]

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  21. the AI changes are the main thing i'd want to see. if you could pick them that'd be great, or even tune them. aggressiveness, acceptable risk levels, etc. it doesn't seem like the ai always even has the goal of connecting territories in mind. sometime it's pretty easy to trick them as well. on your turn, if you can seal off an opponent then make yourself look like the "dominant" player (the one everyone is ganging up on), the opponent will not attack through the weaker opponent even if it's the only way to stop you.

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  22. well no one has posted here in a year. I just browsed by because I'm a dice wars addict. And thought I'd add a "how to improve" comment. Just one thing:

    when you conquer all the territories, zoom out so that your set of territories is just a patch in a larger game. No end. Perfect for solitaire.

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  23. a few strategies:
    > if you have 8 dice on all your territories, and a multiple of seven leftover reinforcements + territories (say 14 or 21 - it doesn't work as well with just 7 (too easy to lose) and by 28 you've basically won) you can make that number of attacks, and maintain your full reinforcement - you rarely lose from that point

    > bottlenecks are NOT a good place for starting out - you need a significant chunk of territory quickly to win - if you have a 1-unit bottleneck even 2 or 3 deep, all your armies will get trapped back in it, and by the time it fills, you'll be a bit player against highly superior computers (that said, 2 or 3 country wide bottlenecks make GREAT places to start - you can draw men out of them without losing all your territory)

    >if there is one dominant player on the board, the computers nearly always all kamikaze him - this can be used to your advantage

    >especially early on, a player's last country gets some sort of twisting of its odds - it is ridiculously difficult to kill a player completely in the early stages - you just lose trying, even when the odds should be overwhelmingly in your favour

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  24. You should get extra bonus dice for eliminating a player. Maybe 8 extra. That would give another goal in the game and you would have to balance between deterring the strongest opponent and going in to finish off the weakest.

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  25. the placing of new dice can be mysterious at times. for example, with all of my territories maxed out at 8 dice each, i'll attack (and win) 2 enemy territories, leaving me with 16 dice that i need to replenish (7 on both attacking territories and 1 on both newly won territories). i have exactly 16 contiguous territories (as indicated by my score on the bottom) so i click 'end turn' and watch as my new dice get added to the board only to have several of those new dice left over. so... where did those extra dice come from? this tends to happen later in a game. anyone else notice this?

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  26. from s.o. who spent 2 years on dicewarsSeptember 10, 2008 at 12:20 AM

    This game is so addictive because it is simple and sophisticated at the same time, and fast (that's what we think). So now, go outside, get some fresh air, turn off your computer: there is life out there.

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  27. The best casual turn-based strategy game I've played is Sean O'Connor's Slay.

    After trying it 14 years ago (!) and losing track of it, I rediscovered and promptly bought it in a pack with all his games for 25 euro.

    This price is worth it for Slay alone, but I challenge you to find any of them less than addictive!

    It's games like this that demonstrate that gameplay is not a function of graphical firepower.

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