Chuck Dice and Handle Management

Unscheduled and sporadic board game rambles, baby. This blog is dedicated to talking about the games that are board, mostly review- or research oriented. The mission, should I choose to accept it, is to add something to the conversation.

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Dice Games Properly Explained – examining Reiner Knizia’s book on dice games

I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again here – it kind of feels trite for me to explain exactly who Reiner Knizia, the author of the book I’m taking a look at, is. Doctor of maths, former financier, currently a board game designer with over 600 titles in his portfolio, and a writer (among other things). Considering the immense scope of his output, odds are very slim that you haven’t come into contact with something he’s authored if you’ve spent even any amount of time in the board game hobby. One thing that I personally enjoy greatly is that there’s a certain je n’est ce quoi to work authored by Knizia, and this book on dice games helps put his own design ethos into perspective. We’ll take a look at the book first, before seeing how this shines a lens on his own design work.

The book itself is Spartan in some senses while being maximalist in others. Knizia doesn’t spend time (some would say waste, though I personally enjoy spending time on) examining the cultural or historical background on most of these dice games, and instead zeroes in on the fundamentals – what type of game is it, what do you need to play, what are the rules, and sometimes he talks odds or strategies too. What you do see happen though, even if it happens more between the lines rather than overtly, is exactly when he’s touching on games that he finds particularly exciting. He’s a gambling man, this mister Knizia, though he prefers to play for rounds in bars rather than high sums of money. He recognizes the folk nature of these games, and the fact that they would be played in bars. Grimy taverns in which coins would be chucked on tables for the privilege to roll the bones and play your odds – but where players would walk out with arms around shoulders even after losing horribly. They are games of chance, yes, but they are not dangerous. They are played for rounds, or tabs, or meals in some cases – Knizia does not talk about ruining livelihoods with these games. He’s also a family man, describing the games that are played around tables or in caravans while on holiday with parents and kids. These games are silly and tend to favour big moments over deep strategy, having kids draw thunderclouds or putting chips on numbers after being blessed by the random number generators they are wielding. It’s wholesome, it feels warm, and safe, and welcoming.

But, he also shows his scholarly side. The book is laudably thorough, with an index that names 141 individual games. Each game, then, also has its variants or brothers/sisters catalogued and evaluated. The readers are given strategy tips on how to approach certain games in ways that favour them mathematically – Knizia is, after all, a mathematician. Chapter 3, called the theory of dice, was an early favourite of mine because he plainly explains just what the actual odds are of rolling certain results on one die, or pairs of dice. Did you know that the odds of rolling any one number on a six-sided die are the same as rolling any pair on two six-sided dice? It makes sense when he explained it to me, and I’ve just been dropping that bit of info into casual conversation ever since (fun fact, I have invariably been met with either “duh” or utter disinterest – it’s been a coin flip in that sense). He also lets some distaste for casinos shine through in the book, partially because they misrepresent odds and partially because they purport fairness when that isn’t there. It comes with the field, I suspect – once you know the nitty gritty of how something works, it becomes all the more annoying to see your knowledge be exploited for gains taken from people who don’t know better.

What struck me the most though, is how pleasantly the book was written. If you’ve read any Knizia rulebook, you know what to expect. It isn’t anything flashy, but it is clear. There have been literally zero instances where I did not know how any of these games worked after reading the instructions in his book. I’ve currently got 23 games marked with tiny sticky notes that I’m excited to try out with others, ranging from gambling games like Craps (a game I only really saw in movies but now finally understand) and Macao (which sounds amazing) to a bluffing game called Little Max (which is basically Perudo played with one cup and two dice) and Barbudi (which is stupid and I love it). The writing doesn’t get in the way of itself, instead focusing on being clear, sharp and transparent, allowing you to (theoretically) just read out a paragraph of rules to get a game going in the pub or at Christmas dinner with the family. It’s functional, admirably so, and just wants you to have fun as quickly as possible.

I’ve always been very skeptical of dice games because the only dice games I ever played were variants of Yahtzee that took too long and did nothing exciting. What this book demonstrates though is that there is a veritable ocean of games that you can play with dice that are extremely exciting. And the arcane thing is that the book very rarely tells you something is exciting (other than a few superfluous adjectives in some introductions here or there). The game rules themselves provide that excitement in the potentialities they describe – the energy stems from the future fun you’re going to have now that you’ve read this book. I feel fully embarrassed even having written that sentence but it’s staying in because it’s true. When I got to the section in the book that talks about Yahtzee-like games (chapter 7 – category games, subsection on dice combinations) I found that there’s a Yahtzee-like game called Killer that sounds absolutely mental. There’s a rule in its progenitor General that just lets you instantly win the game if you ever roll ‘Yahtzee’ in a single throw. There’s seven games that are all essentially Yahtzee with little variations and he talks about all of them. Like, it’s awesome. This man got me excited to just throw some dice.

The thing that becomes most apparent though, is that Knizia understands why these games are exciting. He understands that the joy lies in the fact that the games tend to be simple, to the point, and that there is excitement in leaving things up to chance. I’m not usually one to tout this fallacy, but you have to admit that there has to be a reason why the humble D6 has survived millennia as a tool for play. It is exciting and direct, and it gives players the feeling of agency in situations in which they are actually powerless. Many of these games are exciting if only for the fact that they create moments through very simple means.

And in this I see why Knizia wrote this book. Many of the Knizia games I’ve played do not feature dice (except for Pickomino, which I despise for unimportant reasons) but do have the same ethos as most of the games described in his book. They tend to be simple, if not elegant, in their design, with rule sets that get out of the way of the game that is being played. They are evidence that there is excitement in maths, and in understanding the wiles that govern us, and in making it difficult enough for us to get everything we want. One other aspect of Knizia’s design ethos you see in this book is a willingness to iterate, to take aspects from something you like or elements from a previous design and improving upon them with simple tweaks. It is a part of Knizia’s design ethos that does not always get met with uproarious applause, but it is admirable at its core. In that sense, Knizia seems to have decided to embody this geographical/generational iterative process that these games have gone through, which I honestly find commendable if only in its ambition. And honestly, in that sense the book is a lot like Knizia’s design bibliography. You could argue that finding 23 hits out of a collection of 141 is a matter of numbers – I would argue that I’d gladly suffer through bad and mediocre if I’m left with five absolute bangers. It’s not just a matter of volume if the top is truly stellar, there has to be a spark.
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Mon Nov 22, 2021 12:09 pm
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  • Mon Nov 22, 2021 12:09 pm