I have a complicated relationship with dice. They have so much allure: the tactile feel of rolling them, the excitement and anticipation of waiting for their outcome, the ability to create randomization with ease. But I like to be in control and dice toe the line between playing the odds and pushing your luck for a reward tied to the risk that you take. That’s not always a dynamic that I enjoy when I end up on the wrong end of a bad roll. It’s true that they can also be used to present players with variable options but without all options being equal there is a whole range of luck to be dealt with (or mitigated). On the other hand it’s uncertainty that makes rolling dice exciting so having totally equal results can greatly diminish that experience. Alright, before this tangents into an article about randomization I’ll get back to the point: I often get excited when I hear about dice driven games but rarely end up enjoying them because dice are fickle. So just imagine my delight/dread when two of my favorite games had dice versions pending release this year (Nations and Race for the Galaxy). I can’t comment on Roll for the Galaxy because I didn’t get to try it out (it does sound great though) but you didn’t come here to read about that anyway, let’s hear about the other culprit – Nations: The Dice Game. I was only able to play one round (of four) so my thoughts are based on that and reading the rulebook.
Nations: The Dice Game looks and feels a lot like Nations but where the latter is long and deep, the dice version is quick and relatively light. These games are visually, thematically, and mechanically similar on many levels but they provide completely different play experiences and strategic offerings. I say this because it’s important not to expect this game to cram the depth of Nations into a much shorter play time. To accomplish this many of the concepts have been simplified (resources, military, war, tile variety) while others have been removed (stability, military units, workers).
Players that are familiar with Nations will feel right at home here, at first glance it is eerily similar in presentation. Each player has their own board representing their civilization with spots for buildings, an advisor, and an under construction wonder. The main board still offers tiles (instead of cards) in three rows that have increasing cost. To the side are player tracks (this time for points and books) along with a tile showing a famine and war for the current round. The game is played across four ages though each age consists of only one turn so there are four rounds in total instead of Nation’s eight. At the start of each age the main board is filled up with tiles from the corresponding stack and a Famine/War tile from that age is revealed.
Now on to the major differences. We’ll start with buildings because they are where the dice come into play (and this is a dice game after all). Instead of providing resources the buildings now grant a specific number and type of dice to use during the round. In fact, dice completely replace resources in this respect and no longer carry over from one round to the next. At the beginning of the round you’ll roll the dice that your buildings show and you’ll be able to use the results to take actions (Stone, Gold, Strength) or save them up to resolve at the end of the round (Book, Food, Strength, Victory Point). During the round Gold is used to buy tiles (Buildings, Advisors, and Wonders) from the main board, Strength is used to conquer Colonies, and Stone is used to construct Wonders. At the end of the round Books move you along the Book track (where you score points for players behind you), Food and Strength are used to gain points by satisfying requirements of the current Famine/War, and Strength determines player order.
When a building is purchased it must be placed on top of another building much like in Nations. This requires you to discard the dice that the old one provided and immediately allows you to gain and roll the dice that it provides. The starting buildings grant white (basic) dice and upgraded buildings allow for more specialized colored dice. Advisors, Colonies, and Wonders provide chits of a fixed resource (instead of a randomized result) that can be used once per round.
That’s Nations: The Dice Game in a nutshell. Play four rounds and then add the points from your current tiles to your score on the track and see who came out on top. It’s short and sweet when compared to the sprawling Nations. But has it been simplified too much for the sake of a quick play time? Does it have the look of Nations but without the soul? Unfortunately I didn’t play a full game but I did get a taste of the decisions facing the players and I’d happily say that it seemed to succeed in implementing a much quicker take on Nations.
I felt that although many of the aspects have been simplified for the dice version it has not totally diminished the interesting decisions that players are faced with. This is, without a doubt, a much more tactical game because you don’t have nearly the same control over what resources you’ll get to use. Instead you’ll decide on what specialization (color dice) you want to pursue. Along with less control there are also fewer decisions to make because you simply get the dice that a building provides rather than assigning workers to them but there is a new design space explored which relates to how you use the dice. To start the game you are given one reroll chit that allows you to reroll any number of unused dice per turn. You may decide to take some of those resources that you’ve stored up for the end of the round and try to get some use out of them for buying better tiles instead. Similarly, Strength (swords) provides an interesting dilemma of being able to spend for Colonies or store up to gain points from the War and improve your player order. Players can also trade any two dice for one Gold, Stone, or Food so there’s additional flexibility in how you use your dice. Purchasing buildings also lets you sacrifice used or unwanted dice for more and improved options. I like that Nations: The Dice Game introduced new concepts and decisions by focusing on how dice are used to represent the many resources from Nations. By shifting production towards tactics and uncertainty they have prevented players from dragging out their turns for too long. It’s a straightforward but relatively unique take on speeding up a meaty game. I was a little taken aback by the simplicity when it was first explained but looking back on it I really like what it has to offer. It has me excited for a full play through and hopefully it will provide the kind of meaningful decisions that I’ve been looking for in a relatively quick dice game.
But I’ve felt hopefully about other thematic dice games in the past and came away disappointed so let me share my main concerns. By it’s very nature the game gives players less control and more dependence on luck. Take that for what it’s worth, it speeds up the game which is exactly what it was designed to do. Like it or not this game is going to get compared to it’s big brother Nations and could appear frustratingly light as a result. However, my main reluctance here is that the specialized color dice have variable facings which means that one player can get strictly better results from the same dice. If you want to make the comparison to Nations where buildings produced equivalent resources, in this game you can get unequal production. This may not be as big of a concern as I think but I could see it seeming unfair when another player is able to get better results from an equivalent building. But perhaps that’s the point, dice represent uncertainty here and when you buy a building you’re guiding your society in a direction rather than telling them exactly what to do. If you invest in blue dice you may get Books or Stone, it’s up to your people (the dice roll) to decide what and how much you’ll get. If they don’t give you what you want you can attempt to persuade them to do something else (reroll) but they still may not listen. This is an interesting idea that could end up playing out better in concept than execution. Given Nation’s strong reputation I’m giving this design the benefit of the doubt and eagerly anticipate my first full game.