From my history page it’s clear that I have grown up with Games Workshop, therefore this post will present a pretty clear bias to that fact, historical gaming isn’t my forte and I’m sure old man Servitob can chime in with some extra points once I’m done.
Classic board games and pretty much every tabletop war game I’ve seen all use dice. Varying quantities of dice to be exact. You can get by with a mere 6d6 if you’re playing Privateer Press games whereas in 40k you can easily end up rolling over a hundred. I remember reading a copy of White Dwarf where the author of an article describing the new War of the Ring game was using the fact that you got to roll an ill-fated Southampton built cast iron behemoth load of dice to decide combats. One of the things that can help you pick out closet gamers is the fact that, more than likely, there are various boxes of dice scattered around their house and the odd errant wanderer lodged under a TV cabinet of sofa.
So, why are dice used? Normally this is to add in an element of chance that exists in the real world, just because you line up a perfect head shot doesn’t take into account that at the last minute a random gust may take the bullet off target, or the mark may find some extra cover to protect themselves. Dice naturally represent the vagaries and random elements that can and do take place in normal real life activities (not really just talking about actual combat here, I have much more experience with the virtual kind and am thankful to not have had to experience it in real life). Yet some games let you roll way more than others, some people also seem to be unlucky at certain kinds of rolls. Personally I struggle with Instability tests with my Chaos Daemons and Power Klaw attacks from my Ork Nobs. Servitob has a reputation for unerring accuracy with a blast template too. While obviously the dice do not favour one person over another, we see patterns in the fate we receive. But surely, there can be other mechanics that we can use other than dice? I like dice and sometimes there is something sadistically satisfying as getting a full mob of Orks into combat and then rolling enough dice to reconstruct the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 3d, however, is this the best way to do things or just an accepted part of our hobby?
We’ve already talked about how different games require different numbers of dice, I’m pretty certain that if there was a game where you just compared the stats of one thing to another Top Trumps style, it’d be a pretty crummy and boring game (just like Top Trumps). This is why I’m so interested currently with Malifaux, it forgoes the use of dice and instead uses a pack of 54 cards, being a money making venture of course you can buy official faction themed Malifaux decks, but there are rules in the main book that cover using a normal deck of cards, you just need to have two Jokers in there as well. With cards you need a slightly different mechanic than with dice, but just as dice can be re-rolled due to certain rules, in Malifaux you get rules that allow you to add additional cards to a total as well as having a hand of cards that allow you to “Cheat Fate” by swapping the card you drew with one you possess in your Hand. With dice you’re completely at the whim of chance as to whether your re-roll is higher than the previous, but with the mechanic in Malifaux if you really need to cast that spell or win that combat, if you have the cards in your hand then you’re in a much better place to predict the outcome of the action.
I don’t know whether you can call it lazy game design that leads a lot of our games to rely on dice, after all, dice have been in use as games in their own right for millenia and now we use them to add that randomness to our games. Is being able to control things using cards better than the pure random chance of a dice roll? Well, that’ll be down to personal preference and I’m not leaning either way, it’s just nice that someone has come up with another way to play and I believe it to be a nice change of pace from the staple that I’ve seen over the past almost 20 years of war gaming.
As long as whatever system is developed is non-intrusive and doesn’t detract from the ebb and flow of a game I’m all for trying out something new. I’ve played dice games and I’d played card games. I’ve even played card games that have used dice, but I do think that while it’s easy to fall back on using dice as Malifaux demonstrates, using something a little “out of the box” can add an extra dimension to a game that makes it stand out against the ever increasing crowd.