Game mechanics – dice vs cards

Dice header

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?


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.


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.

Video game mechanics in board games

video game mechanic

We often see a lot of board game mechanics being used in video games, especially in the RPG, puzzle games, and real time strategy games genre. What about some mechanics that are common in video games but not often seen in board games? In this article I’m going to go over some popular video game mechanics and how they might be utilized.

Physics based destruction

As computers get more powerful, we can build more realistic physics based destruction that will actually affect game play. In the board game world, the only games off the top of my head are simple kids games “Rampage/Terror in Meeple City” and “Jenga”. I think this is an interesting mechanic that can be utilized even in heavier strategy games. One idea would be to build buildings out of different colored bricks during set up. As different colors are knocked into different areas on the board, special effects would be triggered. Buildings can be knocked over flicking, a small spring powered gun or cannon, dropping “bombs”, or a small swinging heavy ball.

The main draw back of destruction in board game is the added randomness that is undesired in heavier games. However, plenty of heavier game uses dice, but they have ways of adjusting dice values, or using the same dice face for multiple purposes. This randomness of destruction can also be attenuated by allowing limited removal fallen pieces, or moving the pieces. (One idea would be to “bulldoze” through the destruction, spreading the pieces to either side).

Real time competitive play

When I say real time, i mean the play is non-stop, not just simultaneous. Lots of games do simultaneous game, taking pauses in between turns for resolution. The game that comes to mind for actual real time is Captain Sonar. I think the reason we don’t see this mechanic more often is because of the ease of cheating when all players are so focused on their own choices and actions. Computer games can do real time gameplay easily because there is an omniscient third party that make sure all players are following the rules. Captain Sonar does this beautifully by forcing players to monitor each other in their own team, performing checks after every movement. It is much less likely that the whole team cheats to ruin the game.

There are solutions to this, allowing players to be independent while playing simultaneous real time. The easiest way to reduce cheating would be to increase the time it takes to perform an action. In the board game world, this can be done by rolling dice or drawing cards. These two simple mechanics requires physical movement from the player while giving uncertain results. Lets do cards as an example. Player can be required to draw a certain card out of a deck before they can perform an action. Frequency of the card will determine how fast the player can play, while checks can simply be done by requiring players to place that card in the middle of the table for all players to see.

I would love to see more of these mechanics being utilized, and if you know games at the moment that do them well, let me know!


Classical mechanics in modern games – Go


As board games become more and more popular, inspiring new designers with fresh ideas to take action and publish their own games, I feel that some mechanics are being left behind. We see a lot of the same tried and tested mechanics being utilized in thematic modern games, but I feel some mechanics in classical abstract games have been forgotten. In this article I’m going to talk about the area enclosure mechanic of Go, and how they might be implemented with a modern theme. If you know a modern game that uses this mechanic, please let me know!


The easy to learn, impossible to master game that has become one of the tests for machine learning and AI. It is widely touted by the gaming community as one of the most elegant and best designed game of all time. Why is it then that mechanics like card drafting, worker placement are used until they are tired out and this beautiful mechanic is left in the dust in the gaming world?

I think the main reason this mechanic has not been used is that it is very hard to make a competitive area enclosure game that can accommodate more than 2 players. This seems almost like a requirement for modern games nowadays. Obviously there are exceptions, but the vast majority of the market, especially if it’s a new designer, is to play it safe and design for at least 4-5 players. Games that can play so many people while being strategic will need methods to limit player interaction, simultaneous game play, or a large array of meaningful choices every turn. Go in its most basic form has none of those. You can play a piece, and your plan can be ruined three times over before you can play another piece. There exists a multiplayer version of Go itself, but it has not really caught on.

Area enclosure games in general has this issue due to the incredible amount of player interaction. Every move is played to block another player from achieving their goal, while also furthering your own plan. I think the best way to implement this mechanic into the modern world would be to limit the number of choices, and limit the player interactions involved.

To do this, rules can be created to limit placement. Perhaps instead of a piece at a time, players can play tiles of different shapes, or even multiple pieces at a time. This shortens the game considerably while keeping the general idea of the game intact. Another method is to create rules such as one can only block under certain circumstances, or cards need to be played to directly interact with another player. Another direction to go is to allow the use of opponent’s pieces to aid in your own conquest. Perhaps a limited amount of special markers can be used to temporarily take over a chain of opponent’s pieces in order to capture area occupied by a second opponent? The possibilities are obviously endless, and I would love to see a game that can do area enclosure well while playing multiple players.