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

(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.)