As I mentioned in my review of Welcome To… several weeks ago, roll and write games are having a moment in the sun. Ganz Schon Clever was just nominated for the Kennerspiel award. It didn’t win, but it shows how far these little games have come from their roots in Yahtzee and the like.
I place Noch Mal along that evolutionary spectrum. Released in 2016, it’s the spiritual, if not literal, predecessor to Ganz Schon Clever. They even share the same publisher. While they don’t share the same designer, they both sport a well-known designer pedigree. Noch Mal was designed by Inka and Markus Brand, designers of the well-received Exit games, Village, and Rajas of the Ganges, among others. But a good designer doesn’t always make for a good game. So is Noch Mal deserving of a place in the pantheon of good roll and writes, or is it just more of the same?
How It Plays
Noch Mal is a roll and write game, meaning you are rolling dice and recoding your rolls on your scoresheet. The difference between this and a game like Qwixx is that it’s not the numbered dice you’re recording, exactly. You’re using a colored die and a numbered die to cross off colored boxes on your scoresheet. The goal is to be the first to finish columns and colors and earn the bonus points for those areas so you score the most points and win.
Each player gets a scoresheet at the beginning of the game. The sheet shows a grid of colored boxes. While all of the boxes on the grid are colored, only a few have stars in them. Pay attention to these because any starred boxes not crossed off at the end of the game cost you points.
The columns are lettered across the top. The letters only really matter at the beginning of the game because everyone must begin in column H. After that, the letters are only for ease of tracking. Below each column are two numbers. The higher value represents the points that the first person to mark off all the boxes in that column will receive. The lower number is what all subsequent players to complete that column will receive.
There are also places on the sheet to mark when you’ve used a joker die, and to track completed color bonuses. The color bonuses are tracked on the right hand side of the sheet. The first player to cross off all the boxes of a color receives the higher point value, and all subsequent players to complete that color receive the lower value.
There are two kinds of dice in the game: Black numbered dice, and white dice with colored crosses on them. The black dice also have one side with a question mark, and the white dice have one side with a black cross. These are “jokers” and can represent any number between 1 and 5 (black die), or color (white die) that a player wishes.
On the active player’s turn, she will roll all six dice. The roller gets first choice of one number die and one cross die. She then marks off the relevant spots on her score sheet. You must begin with a space in column H, and each box checked must be adjacent to an already checked box. (Only orthogonally adjacent, never diagonally.) So, for example, if you chose a pink cross and the number three, you can cross off three pink boxes, as long as they are adjacent to one another and connect to another already checked off box (of any color).
After the first player has chosen, other players choose pairs from the six dice and mark their own sheets accordingly. They can choose dice that other players have chosen; there are no restrictions. Players can also pass without choosing anything.
Once everyone has chosen and marked, the next player becomes the active player and rolls all six dice. Players repeat the choosing and marking process. After the first three turns, the pair of dice that the active player (the dice roller) chooses are removed from play. The remaining players may choose any pair of the four remaining dice, even if other players have also chosen that pair.
You must check the exact number of spaces indicated by the number die you choose, and you can’t split the number value among two different color blocks. If you choose a three, you cannot mark off only two boxes, and you can’t check off two boxes in one block and one in another. However, you don’t have to fill in a color block completely on one turn. If a color block has four spaces and you use that three you rolled, you can fill in the last box on a later turn. Jokers can be useful for filling in holes, but you only get to use eight per game (that is eight total, not eight of each color or number joker). When all eight are used, you cannot use any more.
Players keep rolling and marking their sheets, trying to be the first to mark off all the spaces in columns or colors to get those bonus points. The game ends when a player has checked off all the boxes of two colors. Each player gets one more turn and then points are tallied. You will total all of your color bonus points, plus your column bonus points. Each unused joker is worth one point, and each unchecked star costs you two points. The player with the most points wins.
Again, or Never Again?
Noch Mal means again, once again, or once more in German, depending on usage/translation. In any case, you can see why the name was chosen for this game. Ideally, the designers envisioned it as a game that would have people shouting, “Again!” when one game ended. Did it work? Is Noch Mal fun enough to be deserving of its name? Spoiler alert: Absolutely. (Provided you like roll and writes, that is.)
What initially attracted me to Noch Mal was that it wasn’t your standard number-oriented roll and write. Instead of writing numbers on a sheet, Noch Mal is more spatial. The numbers you roll still determine how many boxes you can mark off, but you don’t have to worry about numerical sequence, total, etc. Noch Mal feels like a regular roll and write fell into bed with Tetris and produced this colorful love child where it’s the colors and columns that matter most.
The decisions in this game can be agonizing, especially given how simple it is. If there’s a lot on the table you can use, what do you do? Do you work on a column or a color? Should you try to get some stars marked off to keep from losing those points at the end? If there are jokers present, is this a good time to use them, or should you save them for when you really need a bail out (but then hope someone will roll one when you really need it)? Do you make a move that’s optimal for you, or do you make a suboptimal move knowing it will slow down an opponent? Even if there’s not a lot on the table that you can use, you still have to puzzle through the best of your limited options. Rarely will there be nothing at all that you can do. (When it does happen, it tends to be toward the end of the game when the options are fewer.) Mostly there will be a lot you’ll want to do, but making the right choices is key.
At first glance the game seems very multiplayer solitaire. The first couple of games, everyone is watching their own sheet, marking things off and trying to get those bonuses. But after a couple of games you realize that you can (and should) be paying more attention to your opponents. This is because after the first three turns, the active player can deny dice to other people at the table. Since the active player’s dice are removed from the choices, what you choose when you’re the active player can benefit you, hurt your opponents, or both. For example, if you and your opponent are both close to finishing a column and you both need yellow to do so, you can use the yellow and take it out of the pile, meaning your opponent will have to wait a little longer to progress on that column, while you make some headway.
I find it sad that this one never got the attention of some other roll and writes. To my mind, it’s superior to many like Qwixx, Qwinto, and Dice Stars. I’d even argue that it’s as good, if not a little better in some ways, than Ganz Schon Clever.
Oooh. Controversial opinion there, right? Hear me out. Both Noch Mal and Ganz Schon Clever (GSC) are good games. But to me, GSC feels a bit more bloated than Noch Mal. It’s as though someone said, “Noch Mal was great, but what if we took the row and column scoring mechanisms and threw in some scoring mechanisms from Qwixx and Qwinto where you have to write down numbers in order, as well? Oh, and let’s add some more player interaction with the ‘serve the dice up on a platter thing.'”
The result is certainly a “clever” game, but not one that’s as streamlined as Noch Mal. If you like “more” in a game, then GSC is certainly a good choice. But if you’re looking for a simple to teach and play roll and write that still offers some agonizing decisions and has that, “there’s so much I want to do but which choice is best,” feeling, then Noch Mal is the better choice.
As far as replayability goes, Noch Mal isn’t necessarily any more re-playable than most in the genre. The challenge over repeated plays becomes in not only defeating your opponent, but getting a higher score than the last time. What makes Noch Mal stand out from some, however, is that there are “expansions” available that can help keep it fresh. These are score sheets which are arranged in different patterns. They don’t necessarily make the game more difficult (maybe a little more), but they do force your brain to think a little differently when you can’t rely on colors being located where you’re always known them to be. I suppose you could give each player a different sheet if you wanted an added challenge, but I’ve never tried it.
Most of the potential negatives of Noch Mal are tied to the genre of the game. In other words, if you hate roll and writes because you don’t like luck and you think they’re too light, Noch Mal isn’t going to change that for you. It isn’t a heavy game, and it involves rolling dice, so of course luck is present. You can manipulate it to some extent by removing dice from the pool when you’re the active player and by making smart use of what does come up, but what comes up will always be known only to the fate gods ahead of time.
If you are otherwise up for roll and writes, the only negative to Noch Mal is that the end game can sometimes bog down because there’s no other way to end the game other than someone finishing that second color. There is no “punishment” for passing your turn, and no one gets ousted if they invoke too many wilds. As a result, the end of the game can devolve into players simply rolling and passing while they wait for the one color they need to come up (and stay out for them to choose). It doesn’t happen every game, and even if it does the end still usually comes fairly quickly because people know what they need and turns keep moving. However, it is something that can happen and if it’s going to ruin your day, then Noch Mal may not be for you.
Other than that, the major bummer is that this never saw an English release. The components are all language independent, but you’ll need to download a translation of the rules. (There are unofficial ones on BGG, but sadly the publisher never put an official translation on their site.) The good news is that even if you import Noch Mal from another country, it’s fairly inexpensive. There are also some sellers on Amazon who charge reasonable prices for both the game and the shipping.
Because I prefer my games to have a little meat without a lot of complexity, I prefer Noch Mal over Ganz Schon Clever (too much going on) and Qwixx/Qwinto (not enough going on). Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you’re looking for a thinky roll and write that doesn’t sport a lot of bloat, Noch Mal may be the perfect choice for you. Also, if you feel like you have too many roll and writes that focus on writing down numbers and you want something that feels a bit more like Tetris, Noch Mal is a great choice. This one will be staying in my collection, along with some of the expansion sheets for added variety. It definitely lives up to its name, because I always want to play it again.