Today I would like to talk about my favorite new [Rattle Rattle Rattle] … Ahem, my favorite new game from this year [Rattle Rattle Rattle] … MY FAVORITE GAME FROM 2015 CALLED [RATTLE RATTLE RATTLE] … WOULD YOU JUST ROLL YOUR DICE ALREADY!? [Click Clack Clack]
Thank you. Now as I was saying, I’m very excited to talk about Roll For The Galaxy! It’s a clever dice game that [Rattle Rattle Rattle] … COME ON! Forget it, looks like it’ll have to wait until after we’re done playing. [Rattle Rattle Rattle] We get it, the dice cups are loud. You can stop doing that now.
How it Plays
Meanwhile… in a much quieter room far, far away.
Roll For The Galaxy may be one of the nosiest games about building a galactic empire. But if you listen closely to the rattle and click-clack of its many, many dice you’ll actually hear the hustling and bustling of citizens going about their daily work. And as you know, the challenge of running any empire comes in motivating your citizens to get to work. That’s right, you’ll be building your empire through painstaking micromanagement. It may not be as glamorous or grandiose as you’d expect for a galactic emperor such as yourself but believe me, it’ll be well worth the effort when your sprawling empire asserts its dominance in precious victory points. GALACTIC ALIEN SPACE AGE VICTORY POINTS!
At the start of the game your humble empire contains 5 regular (white) citizens and several worlds that grant specialized (colorful) citizens. These hard working folks are represented by dice that have different symbols on them depending on their specialty (color). You can think of each die as one person, a team, or even thousands of citizens. It all depends on how important you want to feel. It’s probably millions, you’re very important.
The trouble with people is that they often make up their own mind about what they want to do. Also, they’re lazy but we’ll come back to that. You’ll begin the turn by rolling all the dice in your workforce (cup) and grouping them by symbol between the five different tasks. This is the action they will be taking unless you can persuade them that they’d better serve the empire in a different way. Fortunately you’ve learned a couple tricks from your galactic management classes to help get your citizens in line. First up, you’ll want to set an agenda for the coming turn by assigning one die to a role. This ensures that this role is guaranteed to happen. Next, any dice that have a wild facing (*) can be assigned to any role. Finally, you can use any reassignment powers that you’ve acquired to move dice around. To start you’ll only have one such power, Dictate. Turns out people don’t like dictators but you’ll have to flex your authoritative muscles from time to time if you want things to get done.
This dice shuffling is done simultaneously and in secret by all empires. Once the best laid plans have been agreed on the shields are lifted and only the roles that were selected will occur in the proceeding round. Go through the actions one at a time using all dice that were assigned to those roles. They will let you run and expand your empire in various ways. Exploring sends out scouts looking for new worlds and developments (tiles) to build or stockpiling money. Developing and Settling allows you to construct tiles once a number of dice equal to the cost of the tile have been assigned to it. Developments provide ongoing abilities such as reassign powers and worlds come with one or more specialized dice. Producing generates a goods on colored worlds, each represented by the die assigned to production. Finally, Shipping can pick up these goods and trade them for money or consume them for points. Consuming rewards extra points if the color of the good and ship match the world.
If the dice successfully complete their task they kick back at the local citizenery and have a drink. There’s only one thing that will get them back to work, cold hard cash. To finish off the round use your spare funds to get those lazy dice back in your cup at the low price of 1 space buck each.
Empires continue to flourish and expand until one gets large enough (12 tiles) or the galactic reserve runs out space age victory points. Take a moment to survey your empire and add up the value (cost) of all your developments and worlds along with any galactic super victory points you stockpiled along the way. Some of the high cost development may also provide additional points. Hopefully you surveyed the most impressive empire! If not, please try to refrain from throwing your dice in anger.
Playing In A Vacuum: Approaching Roll Without Branding or Bias
I have a small group of friends with whom I play Race For The Galaxy, we share a mutual admiration and enjoyment of the game. It might have been shortsighted but I bought Roll For The Galaxy expecting to play it solely with them (and my family who also love Race). What I didn’t expect was how well received Roll would be by people who actively dislike Race. Maybe they were willing to give it a try because Roll was new and exciting, maybe it was all those wonderful dice, either way players were able to put aside their disdain and play Roll regardless of branding. Naturally I found that my friends who loved Race also enjoyed Roll. It was the Race haters who surprised me when they ended up loving Roll as well. Of course this wasn’t the case for everyone but I was overjoyed to see how much appeal a game, that in my mind was tied so closely to a fairly polarizing one, could have.
The first part of my review is going to take this fresh perspective and attempt to evaluate Roll For The Galaxy on its own merits. Forget that Race For The Galaxy even existed, or at least don’t let it define or restrict the Roll experience. Personally this is a bit of a challenge because I was predisposed to LOVE Roll For The Galaxy before I even opened the box. Race For The Galaxy is my number one all time favorite game and the strong connection and shared designer gives it an unfair leg up. In spite of that I have tried my best to explore what Roll has to offer without letting my bias get in the way. In fact I purposeful waited until I had a decent number of plays (nearly 50 at the time of writing) before I even considering starting this review. But enough with the preamble, I’ll be revisiting how Roll compares to Race later on. For now it’s time to consider Roll in the cold vacuum of space.
My search for the grail dice game
If you know me (the snobby euro gamer that I am) what I’m about to share may shock you. Way back in the day, about 15 years ago, I used to be a miniatures gamer. I loved the thrill of deploying my carefully crafted army and moving them tactically in reaction to my devious opponent. But there is part of me that has always had a love/hate relationship with dice. In this context they represent the chaos and uncertainty of battle, each roll is an unknown that presents an opportunity or calamity that must be reacted to. They narrate the success or failure of each maneuver and action. Every moment, each decision is tense and exciting because the outcome is just beyond your control. This is something that is both aggravating and intoxicating at the same time.
Years later I would discover modern boards games and, for many reasons, gave up my former hobby in pursuit of a new obsession. It was a friendly and more approachable world but one that demanded that I retire my dice. Not that there aren’t modern board games with dice but I can’t remember the last time I rolled this many dice in one shake.
It was bittersweet. Since then I have secretly been on a quest for my grail dice game. One that would bring back the glory of rolling fistfuls of dice with some of the refinement of modern board games to balance things out. Recently there have been games that started using dice in new and innovative ways, providing players with the ability to mitigate poor results (or do away with the concept of a poor roll) while still placing the emphasis on the tactical decisions that are inherent in a die’s nature. Along comes Roll For The Galaxy like a pinnacle of innovation literally built on a mountain of dice. Was this the end of my search? Had I finally found my grail?
The short answer is a resounding yes. Absolutely YES. Roll satisfies that dice-chucking, thrill-seeking, complaining-about-my-bad-rolls-then-reveling-in-a-moment-of-perfect-luck junkie in me. All while providing real meaningful decisions that put me back in control once the die has been cast. If I never play another game with dice again I can die happy. I’m being dramatic here but let me have my moment.
Moment over. The long answer is that while Roll For The Galaxy has dice it doesn’t exactly feel like a dice game in the traditional sense. I’m using this term loosely but I’ll define a dice game as one that uses dice as the central driving factor not just a game that contains dice. In that sense Roll absolutely fits the bill, dice both dictate and drive the action. You fill up your dice cup, give it a good hard shake, and let your dice fly. Then there’s that thrilling moment when you wait for the outcome. At this point most dice games continue to play on that thrill, encouraging you to push your luck and keep rolling. This isn’t the case with Roll, it injects a similar feeling but not by providing players with the option to roll on. Rather, players shift to the assignment phase where they are back in control but still face a sense of uncertainty that borders on gambling. Instead of your fate resting in the hands of the dice (as with rerolling) it’s in that of the other players (based on their role selection). The second thrilling moment comes when everyone lifts their shields and reveals where they put their dice. Once this moment has passed you’ve either lined up your dice in the active roles or guessed wrong and they end up back in your cup. It’s not as stark as rolling until you bust but the result is similar.
What I’m getting at here is how Roll For The Galaxy provides a fresh take on what it means to be a dice game. You can get the same thrill without forcing players to dabble in the uncertainty of repeatedly rolling dice. You still get the initial excitement from rolling a pile of dice followed by the uncertainty of guessing what the other players will do. Much like in other games of this vein you can play it safe or risk losing most of your dice but Roll’s decision point hinges on an entirely new premise without sacrificing excitement for control. This is what sets it apart and makes it my grail.
Just one more roll – Accessible and addictive
I know I said I wouldn’t talk about Race but bear with me for a moment. I heard several people mention that Roll For The Galaxy felt more like running a space empire than Race. This surprised me, I hadn’t really considered it as both games are fairly abstracted. In Race the cards represent everything and move fluidly between the deck, your hand, your tableau, and the discard pile. You could say nearly the same thing about the function of dice in Roll (with the addition of tiles to make up your tableau). In my mind it was the same difference. My level of immersion in both systems has been nearly identical, they just happen to use different components. However, reflecting on this difference of opinion made me consider part of what makes Roll shockingly more accessible: the dice.
People like dice in a way that is distinctly different from cards. They like to pick them up, they like to shake them noisily in the dice cup and watch them roll, they like to move them around their empire. First off dice are more tactile than cards, they have dimension and as with any solid component they can be fiddled with. You could argue that artwork (on cards or a board) can be just as effective but I’d be willing to say that components foster a more immersive experience. This may not be true for everyone but I’d say that most people will feel more involved in a game if they have something to hold and move around (in other words something to do) rather than something to look at. Traditional card games may challenge this notion but there are plenty of popular games with dice, stones, or other pieces that appeal more to our desire for immersion.
The second thing that dice allow is a feeling of character and motion. Dice represent your work force right down to the fact that they have their own will. When you roll them their facing indicates what they want to do, it’s up to you as the overseeing commander, to redirect them as need arises in your empire. You send them to work and they individually carry out the tasks that they’ve been assigned to. Explorers go out and come back with reports of a new world to settle or credits from a mission. Developers and Settlers get to work on building the infrastructure of your sprawling empire. Producers and Shippers work in tandem to foster, pick up, and deliver goods from your worlds. The whole process simulates a bustling empire with your dice citizens moving all around to carry out your vision.
My initial impression that both games are similarly abstracted and just happen to use different components was a bit misleading. You see, I had become quite addicted to Roll much like when I first experienced Race eight years ago. Many of the reasons for this were the same but there were a few distinct differences. Both games are exceedingly clever and take you through stages of discovery as you try out different strategies and refine those that work. Both games are quick and let you accomplish something but force you to make tough decisions along the way about what you’re going to give up in order to accomplish your highest priorities in a frantic VP race. Both make you feel like you could do better next time. But Roll adds in another layer, the actual motions of playing the game are themselves addictive. You get to roll more and more dice over the course of the game and send them out to do your bidding. You’ll pull tiles in search of the perfect world or development that synergizes with your strategy. These are fun and absorbing tasks that lead to interesting and meaningful decisions, dare I say more fun than shuffling cards around. Part of me feels like I’m just as excited to play Roll for the physical act of playing as I am for the competition and camaraderie. It’s a game that feels fresh, it feels new. I want to play it and when I’m done I want to play it again. I am hopelessly enthralled and after nearly 50 plays I still feel like there’s more to discover.
Let me take a moment to be crystal clear on one thing: I don’t want to mislead people into thinking that this means I think Roll is superior to or replaces Race. While I may claim that Race For The Galaxy is still the better game at the moment I’d say Roll is more FUN (and it seems that plenty of people agree, at least with the second part). I’ll come back to this point later but I wanted to derail this line of thinking before my gushing about Roll got out of hand. Never mind, it already has.
Coming back to the topic of accessiblity, Roll does a lot to present players with very clear choices that make the game fairly easy to pick up considering how many moving parts there are. There’s still a bit of a learning curve when it comes to how to play well but that’s another matter. In particular there are two big design choices that go a long way towards making this possible. The first is that all icons in the game are accompanied by text regardless of how straightforward they are. Now, I’m a strong proponent of Race For The Galaxy’s icon system and will defend it until I am blue in the face but I appreciate how well text and icons coexist in Roll especially when it comes to teaching the game. The second factor has to do with simplifying the tableau in order to present the majority of choices in the game as dice assignment and execution. Once you roll your dice you can easily visualize how well you can execute each role based on how many dice you have in each column. Wild dice facings and reassignment powers let you manipulate these results but it’s simply a matter of shifting the effectiveness between roles, the whole process is very visual and your choices are crystal clear (albeit tough). Once roles are revealed then each corresponding die represents one action, it’s as simple as moving the die to the appropriate place and carrying out its function. In other words, the dice both present the players with their choices and let them execute their actions. Developments can play a role in enhancing reassignment, execution, or scoring but the action is clearly defined by the dice that you have in front of you. It’s a brilliant system, both simple and dynamic.
All too easy – How a simple system leads to a deep experience
So how does a game where you’re stuck with most of what you rolled offer a reasonably deep experience? At the start of the game you can only move up to two dice each turn and to get additional reassign powers you have to forgo other abilities that more directly provide points. The key lies in two things, speculation and efficiency. It’s true that you are initially limited to only moving two dice but in doing so you are actually evaluating a wealth of options. First you need to decide what you absolutely want to happen (select a role), this is fairly straightforward. Then comes the hard part, deciding what to give up in order to select that role and how to distribute your remaining dice between several roles that have no guarantee of happening. Maybe you have to decide between leaving a single die on ship to trade your lone good or removing a key developer or settler that can finish constructing a tile. No matter how many dice you have you’ll almost always be forced to give up something in order to more effectively execute something else. It’s this series of trades offs between areas of speculation that makes for surprisingly deep and non-obvious decisions. Once you get more experienced you can factor in what the other players are likely to do making the decision even more nuanced.
Guiding this decision process is an incredibly simple point system. Before considering special powers all dice assigned to building will earn 1 point and consuming earns between 1-3 points per pair. All dice not used for one of those two purposes instead provides income which lets you cycle dice back into play (thus indirectly earning points). The basic strategy is pretty clear, use your dice as often as possible to earn points and get just enough money to keep them out of your citizenery so they can continue doing so. It’s nice to have a transparent point system and clear path of efficiency in order to provide players with direction. Luckily the game injects multiple paths of efficiency both through tableau building and dice manipulation. Since you can earn points through building and shipping there isn’t one role that encapsulates all point earning. The same could be said for income. Furthermore, both point sources require two separate roles to fully execute. Building requires exploration and construction while consumption requires producing and shipping. This brings me to a slight annoyance of mine, when Roll (and Race) gets labeled as multiplayer solitaire. It’s true that once you select roles the rest of the turn is done with no interaction but the very nature of role selection and speculation is inherently interactive. The fact that there are two separate point sources and you only have the ability to pursue one of them with your own role selection means that you’re very limited on your own. If you want to utilize both you’ll need to alternate between them or rely on the other players to provide the opportunity. Even within a given point source having a partner to play off of will significantly increase your tempo. Players that can speculate and take advantage of opportunities that the other players provide will do better, just like in Race. It’s a learned skill that requires you to pay attention to what the other players are doing, just like in Race. It’s true that everyone is building their own separate empire but it’s the opportunities that you provide through role selection not the things that you do which allow for interaction.
This brings me to yet another thing that I heard quite a lot of when introducing new players to Race, the luckier player will win most of the time. Card draws are what ultimately determine the winner. While I understand why people can come to that conclusion it’s absolutely not true. The same reasoning can be used (and has been) for the importance of “lucky” dice rolls in Roll and just like with Race it’s simply not the case. One of the fascinating things about Roll is that there aren’t strictly better facings on the dice aside from the * side. Rather the facings are situationally good or bad and you have some control over both your situation and the distribution of dice specialties. This means that your rolls are less prone to luck and more about providing options within given circumstances. This logic is similar to (but not entirely the same as) when I tell people that I play Race in such a way as to minimize draw luck by building a tableau that will take advantage of more varied or specific cards. You can plan around uncertainty in such a way as to minimize its effect. Or you can throw caution to the wind and hedge your bets on a lucky roll. It’s up to you how to play and that means you have a choice that isn’t strictly defined by your dice rolls.
Table for two – Exploring a new galaxy
A lot of games throw in extra rules for 2 players and you have to evaluate whether they were included to pad the player count or are genuinely worthwhile. Going down to 2 usually requires games to make some changes to the dynamics in order to accommodate the face-to-face nature of having only one opponent. Race successfully handled this by giving players more control over role selection and game tempo. I initially thought the Roll’s random role would be inferior to Race’s double selection but I hadn’t considered the differences between the two games. Roll caters to its own strength by instead playing off of speculation and uncertainty. After many 2-player games I can happily conclude that Roll’s 2-player rules not only work well but change the dynamic of the game compared to other player counts. The fact that any role could be called (with Explore being the clear favorite) makes the give-and-take of dice selection even more tense. It’s not that you’re counting on the phantom player to pick what you want for you, that would be highly risky. Instead you may be willing to give up dice in order to take advantage of these random occurrences. There’s a different sort of opportunity cost when a totally random factor is weighed in, the fact that a role could happen means it’s probably worth considering. I can understand how this level of randomness could be off putting but I found it to be fascinating and well implemented.
The final word on Roll For The Galaxy
If it wasn’t already abundantly clear I am hopelessly addicted to Roll For The Galaxy in a way that is quite unlike any game I have experienced before. It’s a profoundly fresh take on how to use dice to provide players with choices rather than simply giving the choice of rolling again. Yet it still retains the excitement of many more traditional dice games because it emphasizes uncertainty. Simply put, Roll is the grail dice game. Much like Race For The Galaxy it provides an incredibly fast and streamlined experience that packs a ton of decisions into a short time. The kicker is that it’s simply fun to play, a LOT of fun.