When there are dragons to be fought, trolls to be defeated, and villages to be saved from sacking, a hero doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, fully formed and ready for battle. (Well, Hollywood makes it seem that way, but that’s not reality.) No, heroes must learn and train. They must acquire armor and magic items and learn to use them. Of course, they’re always born with certain powers, natural abilities, and heroic traits, but even these must be nurtured until the hero is a model example of strength, wisdom, courage, ethics, and fighting ability.
Enter Roll Player, a game that lets you create the perfect hero. You will build up your abilities and arsenal until you’re ready to tackle any villain that stands in your way. Either that or you’ll flunk out of hero school and go back to being a villager, eagerly awaiting your sacking.
How It Plays
Roll Player is a dice drafting and set collection game that attempts to replicate the RPG character creation experience in board game form. The difference is that instead of creating a character so that you can then turn around and play a game, the character creation is the game. The person who creates the character that best exemplifies his class, backstory, and traits is the winner.
Each player chooses a character sheet, which is where the majority of the action will take place. This is the hero you’re trying to build up, after all! The character sheet contains all of the typical information including race, class, the character’s backstory, alignment (personality and values), and attributes. The sheet is also where you’ll place your dice and purchased market cards.
The main part of the character sheet has six rows of attributes. The attributes are: Strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma. During the game, you will be placing dice in these rows in an effort to build up your attributes, achieve special goals, and take advantage of the attribute actions that let you manipulate your dice or gain other resources. More on this in a minute. First, it helps to understand the cards that occupy your character sheet.
During setup, players are given their class, backstory, and alignment cards. The class card details your “profession,” such as sorcerer or bard. The card also shows your attribute goals (i.e., the total score for each attribute that will earn you bonus points and how many), your special ability, and your player color.
The backstory card details your life prior to beginning your heroic quest. It’s these formative experiences that make you who you are! This card also has a grid showing which dice positions and colors in your attribute rows will grant you bonus points at the end of the game and how many. So, for example, the grid might show that you need a green die in the second space on the strength row. You don’t have to have a die there at the end of the game, but you might earn bonus points if you do. The more of these spaces you match, the more points you get.
Your alignment card tracks your moral perspective. The card shows a grid and you are given a marker to move along the grid. The closer your marker is to the “ideal” traits on the grid’s axis, the more points you will earn. If your marker drifts into the undesirable traits, you will lose points.
There are a few more cards that make this game run. These are available for purchase from the market. You can buy weapons which provide ongoing abilities or bonuses. Armor cards don’t have effects during the game, but you can earn points for collecting sets of armor and for having armor that matches your player color. Trait cards allow you to move the marker on your alignment card in the direction indicated by the arrow on the card. They may also grant you points at the end of the game. Skill cards give you a special ability that when used, allows you to adjust your alignment. Skills can be used multiple times during the game, but once used, they must be refreshed during the cleanup phase before they can be used again.
Finally, there are initiative cards. These are placed in the middle of the table and will help determine turn order and the flow of play. The number of initiative cards in play is equal to the number of players plus one. Dice and gold are placed on these cards according to the setup rules and the number at the top of the card determines player order when purchasing market cards.
At the beginning of the game, each player blindly draws their starting dice from the bag, rolls them, and then places them in the attribute rows of their character sheet. It’s up to the players where dice are placed, but there are a few placement rules. You must place dice in the leftmost open space of a row, attribute actions are not taken during the setup round, and if gold dice are drawn or an attribute row is filled during setup, money is disbursed to those players.
Roll Player is played over a series of rounds, each divided into four phases. A brief overview of each phase follows.
Roll Phase: The start player draws dice from the bag equal to the number of initiative cards in play, rolls them, and then places the lowest value die on the “1” card, the second lowest on the “2” card and so on until all the cards have one die on them. Gold is placed on the card(s) that are neither first nor last in the row.
Dice Phase: In turn order, players select an initiative card and take the die and any gold on the card and place it all in front of their character sheet. The die is then placed in the leftmost available space of any attribute row on their character sheet. If any additional gold is earned as a result of the placement, the player takes the amount from the supply.
The player may now take the attribute action allowed by the row in which he placed his die, but this is not required. Attribute actions generally allow you to change the value or placement of a die, re-roll a die, move the tracking token on the alignment card, or take a charisma token which can be used in place of gold when buying market cards.
Market Phase: Each player has the opportunity to buy a card from the market. Buying order is determined by the initiative cards which where chosen in the dice phase. The person who holds the “1” card buys first and so on. To buy a card, the player must be able to pay the card’s cost and adhere to any hand limits. If an alignment card is purchased, the player immediately moves their tracking token. Skill cards can be used immediately or held for a future turn. If you use a skill, turn the card sideways to indicate that it’s exhausted.
If you choose not to (or can’t afford to) buy a card, you must choose a card from the market and move it to the discard pile, making it unavailable for other players. You get two gold for throwing the card away, however. (There is a friendlier variant in the rules that avoids the card destruction, if you’d rather not beat up other players this way.)
Cleanup Phase: Players get ready for the next round by discarding any unused charisma tokens, returning any unused dice to the bag, drawing a new set of market cards, resetting the initiative cards and their associated gold, and passing the dice bag to the next start player. Players can also refresh one exhausted skill by turning the card upright, making it available for use in the next round.
The game ends at the end of the round in which all players have filled every attribute row on their character sheets. Reputation points are then calculated with players earning points for:
- Accomplishing their attribute goals
- Having dice that match their player color in their attribute rows
- The final position of the tracking token on their alignment card
- Having dice in colors and positions that match the grid on their backstory card
- Collecting sets of armor and having armor that matches their player color
- Trait cards that award points.
The player with the most points has created the most awesome hero and wins the game.
Mighty Hero or Lowly Wretch?
I didn’t quite know what to expect when I bought this game. On the one hand, the theme sounded fun and compelling. On the other hand, it almost sounded too light. But I took the plunge anyway and it turns out I was 50% right. The theme is awesome. Got that one right. But as far as the lightness, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much of a brain burner Roll Player turned out to be. Got that one wrong.
I’ll start with the biggest draw for me and that’s the theme. I love games that take a standard trope or idea and turn it on its head. That’s what Roll Player does. While other games are killing themselves to be RPG’s in a box, Roll Player takes just one small aspect of the RPG experience and turns it into a board game. And because it doesn’t overreach, it succeeds where some of those other games fail. You get the experience of building an awesome, slightly crazy hero from the ground up in a streamlined, focused game. (And your hero will be crazy. You may end up with a Wizard who’s a persecuted lunatic, or a Barbarian who’s a neurotic rift-walker. There’s plenty of humor in this game.)
Yes, I’ve seen the knocks on the game that say, “What’s the point? You create this character and then don’t do anything with it. How is that fun?” While Roll Player doesn’t offer a full RPG experience, those willing to tell the tales of their character, fill in the gaps in backstory, and make up the adventures that this character has seen will have a great time. In other words, if you have the imagination to visualize this person (dragon, elf, orc, etc.) that you’re creating and share that vision with your fellow players, you can sneak in a little of the RPG experience while playing Roll Player.
Here’s the thing, though. If you are into RPG’s, you can use Roll Player as a character creation tool. Take the character you make during the game and port it to the RPG. Even if you’re not into RPG’s, you can use Roll Player as a character generation tool for books or stories, or as a general creativity spark. (I’ve managed to work a version of one character from one of my games into my next book!) In many ways, it’s like a heavier, meatier version of Rory’s Story Cubes. So I don’t buy this idea that there’s nothing to do with the character once you create it. You’re only limited by your imagination.
As far as the gameplay itself, I was blown away by how thinky it was. Roll Player is a serious mental puzzle disguised as an easy to learn dice game. On the surface, you think, “I’m just going to roll these dice and stick ’em in the slots. Yay.” But then you realize that there are several puzzles that need solving, all crucial to your final score. You want to get dice of your player color onto your character sheet to earn bonus points. You want each row on your character sheet to achieve the score that will earn you bonus points. You want the dice to match the bonus positions dictated by your backstory card. And you need to push your alignment into higher point earning territory. Don’t forget the points you can get from buying armor and traits.
You could easily solve all these puzzles if you had absolute control, but you don’t. This is a dice and card game, so you’re going to have to deal with what gets rolled each round and which cards get placed in the market. Further, since your dice choices and card buying opportunities are determined by player order, you’re not always going to get the perfect thing you need, if it even comes up in the first place. You’ve got to solve the puzzles, but you don’t have perfect information on all the pieces.
And you don’t get that many chances to manipulate the pieces. You only place one die per turn. You can only take one attribute action per turn and that’s tied to the row in which you place your die. You can only buy one card from the market per round, so what should you get? A trait for points? A weapon for its ability? A skill to move your alignment token? Some armor to complete a set? What ability or boost do you need right now and what can wait? Or, if someone takes the card you wanted, what can you make do with for now? Maybe you should forget your own needs and deny your opponents a card they need. (More on this below.)
You’re not going to be able to hit perfection on every metric, so you have to choose and those choices get more varied as the game progresses. Maybe you started out thinking you could get a set of armor, but suddenly those cards aren’t coming out. Or you thought you could get all your dice to add up to the bonus points in each row, but suddenly you realize that moving some dice around might net you a better score. You have to be flexible and adjust to what’s before you each round.
To some extent, Roll Player is multi-player solitaire. You’re working to build your character and there’s not too much interference in that process from other players. The meanest interaction happens during the market phase. If you’re paying attention and see that your opponent really needs a piece of armor to complete a set, for example, you can either buy that card for yourself or opt to not buy a card at all, take the gold, and discard that card from the market. (There’s a nicer variant in the rule book if this kind of mean play bothers you.)
You can also practice some denial during the dice phase by choosing a die that you don’t really need, but which your opponent does. Or, you can choose to take the number one initiative card so that you get first pick of the market cards and can deny an opponent, even if the die on that card isn’t that useful for you. So there are ways to slow down an opponent or force them to try a different strategy, but Roll Player isn’t an in-your-face game with lots of blocking or stealing.
Roll Player is the kind of game I really enjoy: The kind you don’t fully get on your first play. I don’t mean that you don’t get it because the rules are bad or convoluted. On the contrary, the rules are super easy to learn and teach. What I mean is it’s a game that surprises you with more plays. The first time you play, you see the top level strategy of the dice in their rows and making use of the actions. It’s as you play more games that you begin to see how all the puzzles fit together and how the choices you make to improve one area of your score affect all the other areas. It’s only through a few plays that you learn to manage everything.
Roll Player also won me over by including both male and female characters. One side of the character sheet shows the male orc, dragon, etc. and the flip side shows the female. It doesn’t seem like a huge deal because the only thing that denotes your character is a small picture in the upper left corner of the character sheet. There are no minis or standees. However, it is very nice to see game developers beginning to be more inclusive. That gets some bonus points in my book.
The other nice thing about the game is that several variants are included that can make the game shorter, friendlier (as noted above), and soloable. There’s also a variant to reduce the randomness by standardizing the starting dice instead of drawing dice from the bag. These variants don’t change the game appreciably, but they do give you different ways to play so you can tailor it to your group or time available.
Roll Player is also very replayable. Each character, class, backstory and alignment combination offers subtly different abilities and goals. Add in the different market cards with their abilities, and the fact that the dice and cards come out differently each time and you have a game that will take a while to fully explore.
As for the negatives? Well, it’s a dice and card game so there is luck involved. While you can reduce that somewhat through the variant and careful play, it’s still there. If it bothers you, there isn’t a way to eliminate it entirely.
Roll Player can also trigger AP in those prone to the disease. There is a tendency to want to min/max everything and some people won’t be able to just make a decision and move on. They’ll want to work through every possible permutation of every action on every piece of the puzzle and you will have to sit there while they do it. There’s nothing to do when it’s not your turn, so AP prone players can cause pain for everyone. It’s not insurmountable, though. I solved this with my AP prone group members with an egg timer.
Finally, the scoring can be a bit fiddly. There are a lot of ways to earn points and you’ll need to do a lot of simple math to figure out the winner. This is helped, however, by the player aid cards which have a score tracker on the back of them, enabling you to count up points without a pencil. (Note that the ending is funny because you’re given a rank based on your point total, with the lowest being, “NPC,” all the way up to, “True Hero.” It’s a minor detail, but it suits the theme and humor of the game.)
All in all, I loved Roll Player. It was so much deeper and accessible than I thought it would be and the potential negatives are either not negatives to me (I like luck in my games) or you can mitigate them (egg timers for the AP prone). You don’t have to love RPG’s to enjoy this and you don’t have to have a ton of gaming experience. All that’s needed is an interest in fantasy in general (although one of the characters is human, so you can give the non-fantasy lover in your group that character), an active imagination, and a love of puzzles and dice.
I won’t quite call it a family game because while the mechanics aren’t difficult to grasp, the subtleties of play will elude younger kids. But for older kids and teenagers? It’s absolutely something they could play and enjoy. Set up is a breeze and it plays in an hour or less, making it a good weeknight or lunchtime game. I highly recommend this for anyone looking for a game with a unique theme, fun yet thinky game play, and something that sparks table talk and imagination. And if you’re a fan of RPG’s and you love rolling up characters? This is a slam dunk for you.