[Not only is Joe Huber a frequent contributor to the pages of Gamers Alliance Report, he is also a noted game designer. His latest, Caravan, is, in fact, featured this issue! In addition, and a nod to the interconnections found in the World of Games and in game design, Joe has designed a game already signed and to be published by Rio Grande Games, inspired by, among other games, the game he is previewing here: Dice Realms.]
Reviewed by Joe Huber
DICE REALMS (Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, 30 minutes; about $100)
You may have noticed that the game being reviewed here hasn’t actually been released. If this give you pause – you can only imagine how it feels to write such a review. As a practical matter, I can’t write a review of most games before they’re released for the simple reason that even when I get to play them, I don’t get to play them enough to do a reasonable job reviewing them. But in the case of Dice Realms, I’ve been fortunate enough to have played the game nearly forty times, and therefore feel I can do a reasonable job.
While there are many game designs I’ve had the opportunity to playtest prior to publication, it’s far more rare that I get to try a game early in its development. This has happened most often with Tom Lehmann’s designs. His designs aren’t always a fit for me – while I can see the appeal of New Frontiers, for example, it’s not a game that really works at all well for me – but many of his designs are among my favorites, and I always enjoy being involved in the design process with him, whether for one of his designs, one of mine, or another one altogether. This is the point at which I would normally describe the gameplay; given the limited information made public so far, I will restrict myself to an overview of the game play.
Dice Realms is a dice game with changeable faces. There are five types of faces present in every game, each with three levels of development. Five additional types of die faces are added to the game, either from a recommended set or at random; some of these have different development levels, though most are at a single level.
Players start with two dice each and a very small treasury, which can hold – and starts with – one coin. One player receives the fate die, which causes a mix of positive and negative events, and determines ordering in the rare cases where a specific player order is required. A bank of additional dice, grain, victory points, and penalty points is set up for the game.
Play is mostly simultaneous; players roll their dice, and then the three phases of the turn are carried out. The most significant element of the first phase is resolution fate die, which often impacts grain – increasing production, decreasing production, or requiring payment of one grain for each die possessed – with penalty points received for each shortfall. After some opportunities for die manipulation including one free reroll of one die, the first phase ends.
The focus of the second phase is accumulation of resources: grain, victory points, upgrades, and money. Money can be used to buy die manipulation abilities, to buy upgrades, and, when combined with grain, to buy more dice. Finally, in the third phase, players use their upgrades, either to improve their die faces or to change them. Dice Realms ends when any one of the resources – grain, victory points or penalty points – runs out. Scoring is based upon victory points, penalty points, and improved die faces – the further improved, the more points. The highest overall score wins.
Playing Rattlebones and Dice Forge, I could see the glimmer of a game much more my style but the limited opportunities to change die faces really failed to take full advantage of the opportunity the dice provided. What I wanted to see was a game that was focused on changing die faces. And then I had the chance to try Dice Realms. And it did EXACTLY what I wanted. And, even better, it was fun!
Dice Realms is the type of game that’s very easy to sit down to multiple times in a row. It’s quick, there are things one learns which can be applied to a second (or third, etc.) attempt, and because only a small subset of the additional die faces are used, there can be as much – or as little – variation from game to game as desired. Further, there are inherently multiple paths to pursue in the game. Upgrading die faces is always valuable but it’s entirely possible to earn enough victory points quickly enough to end the game before other players really develop their upgrade engine. And the ability to buy opportunities to manipulate dice – whether through rerolls or even setting a die to a chosen face – allows for real choices as to how to mitigate dice luck. Of course, there is an opportunity cost to such actions.
While the game is not yet available, I’ve seen the final die faces, and they’re very clear and functional. Given the small size, there’s really not an opportunity for complex artwork but the artwork on the tiles used to randomly (or purposefully) select additional die faces is good, and the focus on functionality was really necessary to make the game work smoothly.
The theme? Well, it’s easiest to convey by noting that I’ve often heard Dice Realms compared to Dominion. As I’m not a fan of Dominion, but really enjoy Dice Realms, I’m not so taken by the analogy but, in terms of themes, both games have really interesting mechanisms. I’ve never seen the rules, so I do not know how easy – or difficult – it will be to learn the game from the rules though I’ve found that Tom’s rule sets are usually quite good. Finally, the game plays very well with two, three, or four players and, with any number, the game typically takes less than 30 minutes to play with experienced players. The level of interaction offered is usually limited and indirect – very similar to that of Race for the Galaxy, though Dice Realms does not have the challenge with iconography that plagues many Race players. However, there are die faces which offer more interaction just as some of the Race expansions did.
So the kicker: the biggest factor many will consider in deciding whether or not to purchase Dice Realms is the cost. In the preview video Tom recorded with BGG at GenCon, he noted that the retail price is expected to be over $100. Between the custom-designed trays for the die faces and the huge number of die faces, Dice Realms is an expensive game to produce. Of course, that’s a lot for a game and enough to dissuade many. A game really has to have a lot of staying power to be worth $100. And, for me, Dice Realms DOES have just such staying power.
I’ve collected my plays in spite of having only limited opportunities to try the game out; after a few tries, getting in more plays became a priority for me. So I will have no problem buying a copy. Four, actually: one for home, one for work, one emergency backup copy, and a fourth that – frankly, I can’t remember the reason for. But I came up with a reason to buy a fourth copy some time back and I’m more than happy to pass on a couple of other games for an extra copy – for whatever reason – of a game I love.
It’s definitely my favorite game to be released since 2013, and might be more than that. I’m sure Dice Realms will be of less interest to those who prefer regular, direct interaction. And the randomness of the die rolling will undoubtedly bother some players, the opportunities to adjust for die luck not being enough for everyone. Finally, gamers who really value board play may be disappointed by the complete focus on dice. It’s certainly true that not everyone has been as taken with the game as I have been. But more than enough have enjoyed it that I have no doubt there’s a significant audience for the game. So now the challenge is the same one I’ve been facing for a couple of years: waiting for the game to be available so that I CAN buy four copies! (Release is scheduled for later this year.) Unless some of the reasons above suggest the game clearly won’t be for you, I would strongly recommend giving it a try – even if it’s with someone else’s copy. In spite of the price, I do expect this game to be a hit. – – – – – – – Joe Huber
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