Game mechanics – dice vs cards

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One of the most asked question in game design for beginners, “should I use cards or dice in my game?”. Today I’m going to try and give my own take on this subject.

It’s all about the choices

Most board games, when you boil it down to the most basic form, involves players picking options from a limited pool. This can be deterministic in cases like worker placement or moving a unit according to a rule set. It can also be random, most commonly done by drawing a card or rolling dice. I’m going to approach this article from the point of view of the dice, and next time we’ll look at cards as a mechanism for random choices.

The underdog

Everything a dice can do can be done by drawing a card from a shuffled face down deck of 6. They are far more expensive to produce, especially if they contain more than just the usual 1 to 6 pips. If you want more choices than 6, you need to use the much more expensive exotic dice. So why would anyone want to use dice?

Speedster

If your game involves very few random choices, but they are always the same choices done frequently, then the dice is your friend. It is much faster to roll a die than shuffle 6 cards. One example is “Survive Escape from Atlantis”. At the end of each turn the player rolls a 6 sided die to decide which one of the 3 creatures to move. If you want to have the same chance of drawing each monster every time, you could either have the player draw from a deck of 3, replace and reshuffle each time, or use a die.

What the dice really excels at is when there are multiples of these simple random choices. It takes the same amount of time to roll 10 dice as 1 die, but it will take 10 times longer to shuffle cards if cards are used instead. Instead, cards are usually drawn into a hand and choices are made from the hand instead, giving players more control. If you  want to take control away from the players however, dice is the way to go. Some dice game versions of card games such as Bang and Roll for the Galaxy takes advantage of this. They offer players limited control over their choices in the form of rerolls and limited amounts of reassignments. They are however much more random than their card game counterparts.

Dice as pieces

Another thing that dice can do better than cards is they can act as pieces on the board. Sure you can place cards on the board, but they take up much more space or risk being covered. A dice can convey more information than a meeple on a game board, but less information than a card. A meeple is a good choice when it does not need to change states during the game. If your board pieces needs to change between a few states, a dice is a good option. However, if your piece has more than a few states, potentially a standee plus cards on your own tableau to track states is better.

Numeros

The information most often determined by dice is numbers. We’ve talked about dice offering random choices, but it does not have to be. When you roll dice containing pips and use them together, you are making variations of one choice. It can be the attack power, currency, and a plethora of other options that involve numbers. In this case, the number that comes out is certainly not random, but follows a very specific pattern of distribution that holds true for any number of dice.

dice frequency

If this distribution is something you would like in your game, then it is much easily achieved with rolling multiple dice than having a deck of cards that follow this pattern directly. The distribution can also be adjusted by simply removing or adding dice into the roll, instead of needing a whole new deck of cards.

In conclusion

This article isn’t to argue importance of dice in gaming, because it has certainly earned its place. It is often frowned upon in modern games due to its random nature. I feel that it is making a comeback as designers use new mechanics to counter the randomness. Games such as Through the Ages and Roll for the Galaxy are seen as strategic games even though they use dice. There is a right place to use dice, and hopefully this article gives you some cases where dice is better than cards. Lastly, it’s a lot more fun blowing into a handful of dice and wishing on the results than drawing a bunch of cards.