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Designer Diary: The Strategy of Designing a Dice Game, or The History of Alea Iacta Est

Jeffrey Allers
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Though dice games have been earning a little more respect lately in strategy gaming circles, they are still overwhelmingly known for the unexpected twists of fortune and frustration they can include, due to those "small cubic luck bringers". I wouldn't label it luck, however, just as I would not attribute to luck the design and publishing process of a dice game from Bernd Eisenstein and myself – Alea Iacta Est – though there were plenty of unexpected twists that made it as interesting an experience as any game...

It Began as a Friendly (Design) Competition

Back in 2006 I heard about a game design competition on the Internet for two-player games using components that were common in every household (playing cards, dice, pawns, poker chips etc.). Each year, the competition organizers also had a theme for the competition, and that year it was "dice games". Since I had been designing games with Bernd, I thought it would be fun to challenge him to a "contest within the contest" to see what each of us could come up with. Because they were two-player games, we could easily playtest our ideas. I came up with two different games, and Bernd came up with a cool take on Tug-o-War using dice and pawns.

One of my games was titled Castles and Crownsdescribed in detail on my Berlin Game Design blog – and involved placing groups of dice in order to win various cards: Castles which were worth a set amount of points, and Nobles who were worth more as sets. There were also special dice, such as Mercenaries, Captains, and Traitors, that had special functions along with each player's eight Knight dice.

Castles and Crowns

I missed the deadline for the competition, but it must have been discontinued anyway, as no results were ever posted. I put the idea to the side while I worked on other projects, but after a year, I came back to it. I began thinking of more dimensions I could add to the original framework. The idea of making a full-fledged board game out of it became exciting to me, especially when it combined two of the hottest current mechanisms in gaming at the time: dice and worker placement.

The important thing in developing the game further was to provide enough placement options to players so that they could do meaningful things with any dice roll. My next prototype was called Feudal Dice and included a board with three different areas where dice could be placed. The battlefields, where Castle Cards were awarded to the player with the most dice in each, were similar to my original idea. To that, I added a Court, where lower dice would be more valuable in winning Noble cards. The Nobles were worth points, however, only when housed in a castle of matching color. A maximum of two nobles could be housed in a castle, one male and one female.

Feudal Dice

There were also special nobles who provided end-game bonuses. This added a set-collecting element to the game. The third area for dice placement was the Market, where dice of different numbers could be placed on various stands to earn money. This was important to give players another option when they rolled dice of different values. The money earned from the Market could be used to pay for extra dice (the Mercenaries) or as bonus victory points at the end of the game.

After several playtests, I felt that there needed to be further uses for the money in the game, and I also wanted cards that allowed player's special rule-breaking powers when rolling and placing their dice. I created a fourth area of the board, the Building Site, where two special buildings were up for sale each round, costing one die each and an amount of money (which decreased each round as the buildings could not be used as often when built late in the game).

The Die Is Cast...with a Publisher

I sent the game to a German publisher, who liked it very much, but their program was so full at that time that they recommended I shop it around for a few months and possibly enter it in the Hippodice competition. Another German publisher playtested in for half a year, and it just missed their final cut, so I took it to Nuremberg, where I showed it to Stefan Brück of alea.

He was very interested, and even suggested we change the game to a Roman theme and name it Alea Iacta Est to go with the publishing company's title. But I had to move back to the U.S. for six months, and Stefan likes to work closely with his designers. I asked Bernd whether he would be interested in becoming my co-designer since he was familiar with every iteration of the game and had participated in its development from the start. He gladly accepted and worked hard together with Stefan in fine-tuning the game and playtesting it extensively.

Stefan Brück (second from the left) and Bernd (second from right) playtest the final prototype

A Triumvirate: Three Heads Are Better than One

The first thing to go was the money, as the dice were the real "currency" in the game. Instead, the nobel cards that offered special end-of-game bonuses were moved to the market area of the board (renamed the "church"), where "straights" of dice would continue to be placed. The winner there chose from three face-down cards, however, so that the other players would not know which bonuses were in their opponents' hands.

The special dice – the captains, mercenaries, and traitors – were also removed from the game. Forty dice was the maximum that Stefan could include, and that was just enough for the eight dice per player in a five-player game.

The battlefields, which previously held one castle card each, were reduced to one battlefield where the winner had first choice of the face-up cards, second place could choose next, etc. This increased the competition considerably.

The court went through several iterations, ranging from guaranteed seats for each player to the final mechanism of the lower dice pushing the higher ones out the back door! The court also awarded players who were placing dice later in the round, which provided a nice balance to the battlefield, where it was advantageous to place dice early in the round.

And finally, Stefan thought that it was too frustrating for players to invest large amounts of their dice on the board only to come up empty-handed, so we added "re-roll chips" that could be used by players later in the game or turned in for bonus victory points at the end.

At the end of the summer I was also able to test the game in its current form with a couple of different gaming groups in South Carolina. They were very gracious in trying out a prototype from a complete stranger! This allowed me to develop the Senat cards further, increasing their number to 19, and to bring my own feedback to Bernd and Stefan as I prepared to return to Berlin in October 2008.

Then in November, Stefan came to Berlin for two days of intensive playtesting. We had finally decided that the building cards, which had provided special actions when rolling or placing dice, added too many rules without enhancing the game play significantly. But we needed a fourth area for dice placement, so Bernd and I came up with four different options to try. They were all interesting in their own right, but in the end, we did not use any of them because they detracted from the heart of the game. Instead we developed a fifth option during playtesting that we decided to use in the finished design. In any case, there are plenty of ideas for expansions!

And of course, we finally made the changes in the theme so that the battlefields were now the barracks or "Castrum", the court was now the Forum Romanum, the church became the "Senatus", and the market became the "Templum". Putting everything together gives us the following summary of game play:

Players take on the role of Caesar and compete for the most prestige points. This happens by clever placement of their eight dice, which are placed on five different buildings. At the Castrum (barracks), new provinces can be conquered, while patricians can be recruited at the Forum Romanum to be sent to those provinces. At the Senatus, cards can be won for bonuses that will be kept secret until the end of the game. The Templum awards prestige points directly from the Goddess Fortuna.

Each die that does not win a spot at any of these locations finishes the round at the Latrina, where it provides its owner with a "repete!" chip, which can be used to re-roll dice or traded in two-to-one for prestige points at the end of the game.

Each building has special rules as to how the dice can be placed, allowing many tactical possibilities with any roll of the dice. Each round ends when one player has placed her last die, and after five or six rounds, depending on whether you have 4-5 or 2-3 players, the patricians are organized in their provinces, the senate cards are revealed, and the scores are totaled. The player with the most prestige points wins!

Rules Summary

Each round, players take turns rolling their dice (of which they have eight to start) and placing one or more of them in one of the five buildings. When one player places her last die, the round is played to its completion, then the five buildings are scored. Each building has different placement rules:

Templum: The first player to place here places one die of any value, then takes one of the face-down prestige point tiles (worth 1-3 points each), looks at it, and places it face-down in front of him. The second player to place here must place exactly two dice, which must have a higher combined value than the first die placed. That player takes two tiles from the Templum and looks at them in the same way as the first player. The next player to place here must place three dice with a total value exceeding the two previously placed dice, and that player takes three tiles, etc. Note: A player who already has one or more dice at the Templum simply adds a die or dice to make the correct amount. At the end of the round, the player with the most dice at the Templum keeps any two of his tiles and turns them face-up. All other players with dice there keep one tile each.

Senatus: A player places any "straight" of dice here (for example: 3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4). You may not place a straight that is identical to one already placed. At the end of the round, the player with the most dice in a straight draws three Senate Cards from the stack and chooses one to keep, face-down. The player with the secondmost dice chooses one card of the remaining two. If there is a tie in the number of dice, then the tiebreaker is the highest value die in the straight. (For example, if a player already has 3-4-5, you may place 4-5-6 or 2-3-4-5, each of which is higher.) The Senate card offers end-of-game bonuses, such as allowing patricians to be sent to provinces that do not match their color, or giving a player a one-point bonus for every province tile, etc.

Castrum (barracks): As many province tiles as the number of players are drawn each round. Here, the players place one or more dice of the same value. A player may place more than one group here during the round (but only one per turn). Again, you are not allowed to place a group of dice that exactly matches an opponent's group that was already placed here. (For example, if an opponent has 5-5-5, you may place 5-5 or 5-5-5-5.) You may also reinforce a group you placed earlier with more dice of the same value, provided you do not match any other group. At the end of the round, the group with the most dice (tie-breaker: highest value) brings that player first choice of the province tiles. The secondmost player is awarded second choice, and so on, until all province tiles for the round are taken or all dice groups have been awarded. Note: Since one player is allowed to place more than one group during the round, it is possible for a single player to win several province tiles. There are six different colors of province tiles, each worth 1-4 points, but they are worth 1 point less if there is no patrician of a matching color in that province at the end of the game.

Forum Romanum: There are 5-7 patrician tiles drawn from the pile each round (depending on number of players). They are each worth 1-3 points and are male and female. A player may place one die of any value or two dice with a total value of 5 (1+4 or 2+3) in the Forum Romanum. The lower valued dice are more valuable here, and a die is always placed to the left of any dice equal to or higher, shifting the other dice to the right. There are only as many spaces for dice as the number of patricians (5-7), and when a die is shifted off the board, it lands in the Latrina (see below). At the end of the round, the die farthest to the left awards its player first choice of the patricians, the next die awards second choice, etc. The patricians are worthless at the end of the game if a province of matching color is not found for them. A player may send a male or female to a province, or send one of each as a pair, but both have to match that province's color.

Latrina: All dice not used by players at the end of the round, and dice that fail to win a province tile, patrician tile or senate card are placed here. Each die here awards its owner with a "repete!" or re-roll chip. These chips allow a player to re-roll any number of his dice during a turn, or they can be saved for the end of the game, where two chips are worth 1 prestige point each.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Editor's note: This preview first appeared on on February 13, 2009.
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