My preteen niece seems to have a bit of game design in her blood. She experimented with the design of Phase 10 and a standard deck of playing cards and wound up with her own game… almost a Rummy-light. Since Phase 10 is part of the Rummy family, that’s not a huge surprise, but it’s interesting to see her chasing down those game design principles and applying them in new ways. It’s instinctive, it seems, rather than the sort of analytical approach I might have used. Color me impressed.
She also designed another game from the ground up, a curious little game that has little resemblance to anything I’m familiar with. It’s pretty solid for a small game, and I’m still trying to suss out the strategies and balance. She does all this game experimentation and design simply with a deck of cards, just noodling around with ideas.
That sort of game design experimentation is something I’ve tried to capture with a recently purchased set of dice. It’s a standard role player’s collection, seven dice of varied shape. There is one twenty sided die, one twelve sided die, two ten sided dice, one eight sided die, one six sided die (the ever-popular cube) and one four sided die. These are usually abbreviated as D(whatever) dice, with the twenty sided die labeled a D20, and the six sided cube labeled a D6 and so on. It’s a nice spread of dice, with a variety of potential applications.
I’ve tried to come up with math games using them to teach my children. I’ve tried to use them to teach my niece a little about game design. I’ve used them to play with variations on themes I see in games that already use dice, like Warhammer and Settlers of Catan (which plays differently with a D12 instead of 2 D6). It’s nice to have these dice for when I want to experiment with a bit of randomization, but want to try something a bit less common than the standard D6 collection.
I’ll share a couple of rudimentary games, then, in the hopes of spurring some thoughts and conversation. I’d like to see what else might be done with this set of seven dice. I’m still experimenting, but I’d like to hear other ideas, if you’re willing to share. I’ve been keeping things simple; no board, no cards, nothing much more than scorekeeping. That’s not the only way to design, and certainly not a restriction for conversation, but it’s been nice to keep things simple while I’m getting a bead on exactly what I can do with these things.
Game One: Pick n’ Roll (2-7 players)
Each player picks a die (youngest player first), then rolls their dice. Highest number rolled wins.
Simple, maybe too simple, but gives young children the chance to see the differences between dice and hopefully, to relate shape to numbers.
Game Two: Roll n’ Toll (2 players)
Remove one D10. Player one picks a die, then player two picks two dice, then player one picks two dice, then player two picks one die. Both players roll all three of their dice. Highest number rolled wins. (Alts: Start with two sets; D20,D6,D4 vs. D12, D10, D8. Players just choose a set. Highest total wins.)
A bit different choice involved, and with the Alt rules, a more equal chance to win. Even with equal total potentials (max of 30 if using either set), the “swingy” D20 will make for a sporadic win pattern. Minor addition practice for kids, some probability considerations.
Game Three: Mix n’ Match (2 or 3 players)
Roll one D10, rolled number is the target number. Players choose a set and roll. Closest roll to target number wins. Use these sets if two players: D20,D6,D4 vs. D12, D10, D8. Use these sets with three players: D20, D4 vs. D12, D6 vs. D10, D8. Any of their dice count for target roll. (Alt: Use any simple math functions using your dice results to get close to target. Ex: Target = 6, rolls = 2,8,10. 8/2 = 4, 10-4 = 6.)
More math potential, estimation of probabilities to match target.
Any of these could, of course, be mixed and matched. You could also add complexities and other players like this:
A third, neutral player (Judge) rolls the extra D10 and keeps the number secret behind their hand. The other players roll one of their dice (they have either two or three, depending on how many players), and the Judge tells each player if their result is higher or lower than the target (if this first roll matches the target, declare an immediate winner and move to another round, ignore ties). Each may choose to keep that roll (lock their choice) or roll another die. Repeat for as many dice as you have (2 or 3), if the player chooses. Previous rolls are ignored; only the latest roll may be the locked number. When each player has a locked number, reveal the Target, and the closest roll wins.
These are pretty simple math games. You could introduce some sort of brinkmanship mechanic, or a bluffing mechanic. Maybe use the dice not for their numbers, but for their shapes. Maybe see who can stack the dice better and/or faster. See who can spin one like a top for the longest, and which dice spin better. There area lot of things you can do within the seven dice box before you ever try thinking outside the box.
I start with seven dice because that’s a nice, streamlined set of data. It’s great for number games for kids, and might just help nail down some balance issues before layering a bunch of complexity into the system.
Whatever the limitations you choose for yourself, like my niece’s game design experimentation with a deck of standard playing cards, I believe it’s a good game design exercise to work with simple game units and see what sort of games you can come up with. Once you have a feel for those simple elements, you can start introducing a few new factors and see how everything interacts. What works with 7 dice may blow up with 15, and what works fantastically for two players might be painfully political with three. Something perfectly balanced for three players might fall apart with four players. Hidden information might make a game better or just frustrating.
Like learning any new language or skill, playing with basic elements is useful for comprehension. Complexity and shiny blinginess can be added as occasion permits. Nail down the core game design first, and become fluent with the tools, and then branch out.
Interestingly, after I’d written this but before I posted it, Raph Koster reposted an essay about The Fundamentals of Game Design, and how designing in small pieces can be a good approach. His “prototype kit” is a bit more than seven dice, but it’s still pretty simple compared to some final games. Really nailing down the basic elements of a game should, in my mind, take precedence over any of the window dressing, including art. Even Wizards of the Coast famously does iterative design with what they call “playtest” cards long before they get the artists on board. Game first, trappings later. As an artist, I do believe that art and appeal are important, but without a solid game to hang them on, they just can’t do much.