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Designer Diary: Dice Masters (No catchy title, just a basic title that describes what's being talked about)

Mike Elliott
United States
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Board Game: Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men
Dice Masters started as a bet with Eric M. Lang that we could make a game that would be so popular — but only right before the launch — that demand would be underestimated and we would get to see exciting allocation times like the old days of Magic: The Gathering when sets like Legends were released. Eric didn't think we could do it and has since paid me the one dollar he lost on that bet. My master plan is to use the winnings from betting Eric to put my son through college.

Of course the bet would not have been possible without our previous collaboration on Quarriors. The basis of Dice Masters was the Quarriors buy-and-field engine, but we wanted to capture the back-and-forth of a traditional two-player trading card game. I had worked on Magic: The Gathering for almost ten years and have designed about a dozen trading card games, and Eric has played over a dozen games of Magic, so we had a solid basis for our Frankenstein experiment. Because of the wide variety of cards and dice in a system like this, we wanted to take away some of the common resource decisions that occurred in every game and were not overly strategic. As a result, the basic sidekicks are free to field and there is a tension on many dice between the base cost and the fielding cost, where the better stats you get for the price, the harder the dice can be to field. The game has a lot of resource management choices, and we tried to make the choices interesting while also eliminating some of the terrible turns in which you got several characters and no energy to field them, or lots of energy but you missed with your big character die roll and got energy with that, too. [Those not familiar with Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men, the first Dice Masters release, can check out my game preview on BGGN. —WEM]

Board Game: Trains and Stations
Eric had recently worked on a game for WizKids called Trains and Stations in which you rerolled dice several times, keeping the ones you liked in Yahtzee fashion. Since Dice Masters is a dice game in which you randomly roll things, we expected that most people buying the dice game would dislike the random element intensely — who actually reads game titles? — and we thought that adding the reroll would cut down on the randomness of the dice. The game still has dice, so it will never qualify as a Eurogame, but most of the playtesters were happy to get a second shot at their good dice. You can still get the occasional bad roll, but if you are targeting anyone other than hardcore chess players, you typically want to have some amount of luck in a game and this seemed to strike a good balance. We didn't want crazy combo turns, so once you passed the reroll step anything you later rolled you had to stick with, with the exception of ability effects that might allow later dice manipulation.

A lot of people are making base comparisons of Dice Masters to Quarriors. The system Eric and I created for Quarriors involves buying dice from a table spread, rolling them, and fielding them if certain sides come up. Typically dice you buy also give you the potential of extra resources as well. This system can be the underlying support for a number of distinct games, similar to how deck-building and card buy is the basis for many different games. Even in Quarriors, you can play the base game, the base game with the advanced buy rules, the base game with the advanced culling rules, or the base game with the advanced buy and culling rules. By just toggling a couple of rules, you essentially get four games with different game flow. Thunderstone had a similar thing with many variants, including solo play and the epic variant (written up by Richard Launius) which in many circles was more popular than the base game rules. The Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game was yet another take on the engine, and Dice Masters is yet another take.

If everything goes according to plan, we will be doing different takes on this system with properties other than Marvel. While all the games in the Dice Masters family will be compatible, there will be some elements unique to the particular properties as we will strive to capture the full flavor of the property whenever possible. It was recently announced, for example, that we will be doing Dungeons & Dragons Dice Masters, which ideally will be coming out at the end of 2014. Eric and I are both diehard Dungeons & Dragons fans. Like many gamers from my generation, I grew up playing in high school and college in the dark ages before personal computers and decent console systems. Our gaming group in high school would often get together at a friend's house and play from Friday night to Sunday morning with occasional sleep breaks. All of the Dice Masters games will be compatible, but each version will have elements that are unique to the particular property. We are both very excited about the D&D version because it was such a huge influence for us in gaming.

Board Game: Battle Spirits: Trading Card Game
Board Game: Battle Spirits: Trading Card Game
Board Game: Battle Spirits: Trading Card Game
Sample Battle Spirits cards
Game design decisions are often influenced by the technology of the times. Back when I designed the Duel Masters trading card game, I was stuck in a mindset that you had to give your opponent a chance to react to your plays and I felt attacking the turn you played stuff out detracted from that. Later, I did another trading card game called Battle Spirits in which I decided to test out what would happen if you didn't have to wait around to attack. Turns out that it just makes for a different set of strategic decisions and often leads to a quicker back-and-forth gameplay pattern. While Battle Spirits was never strong in the U.S., it has been going for about six years in Japan and the lack of summoning sickness — a game designer term for creatures that can't attack the turn they are played — has not hurt the game at all.

While we briefly looked at both options, Eric and I quickly agreed that the game was much better if you could attack with the stuff you rolled and did not have to wait unless you chose to do so. In a game with no "hand", this also creates hidden information decisions as players have to anticipate which dice the opponent might draw and what might potentially be attacking the next turn. I have won a lot of games by realizing that my opponent can't get a heavy hitter out the next turn, which means that I can afford to attack even when I am very low on life — and thinking about what I have coming up often helps me decide whether to block or take a few points of damage.

The Dice Masters system is designed to allow multiple brands to use the same underlying game engine. The first version of the game worked on by me and Eric was actually designed using the Yu-Gi-Oh! brand, and we hope that this version will work its way through the process soon. Because we got to do two completely separate base sets, the dice costing got a lot of playtesting and balancing. Some of the more astute players may notice that on the back of the rulebook it states that "Assign" means to commit your monsters to attack. This is not because we hate superheroes. We love superheroes. I think Eric owns six capes and four masks and some sort of utility belt thing. This was merely a carryover from the previous version that we missed on proofing.

One of the things I always try to push in games is a catch-up feature. While I was working with WizKids when they were in Seattle in 2007, I worked on a couple of miniatures games in which I added features that let you catch up when you were starting to lose. One of the projects was a game called HeroClix Alpha, which I worked on with designer Seth Johnson. One of the goals of the game was to make a version that was easy for beginning players to learn to play, and we stripped out quite a few of the rules, including the tokens and the pushing mechanisms. The game had a reinforcement mechanism in which if you lost a figure, you got to bring in an even better figure from your starting area. This avoided one of the issues I felt existed with many miniatures games, namely a player who starts losing heads toward a slow spiraling death until the game ends. I learned, however, that for HeroClix, the players were very happy with the original rule system, so HeroClix Alpha faded away into the night with no heroes to save it.

Board Game: Halo ActionClix
Board Game: Halo ActionClix
Board Game: Halo ActionClix
Figures from Halo ActionClix
I did a similar type of catch-up feature for Halo ActionClix, which also failed to get any real traction. (Some people had reservations about paying $250 for a single mini. These days, the Scarab would be a Kickstarter project and would probably have done fine.)

Undaunted by the lack of success on these previous projects, the idea of having your characters in Dice Masters go to the prep area, where they get rerolled during the next roll, serves as both a catch-up feature and encourages players to attack and block as it decreases the downside of making a bad attacking or blocking decision. This in turn helps to eliminate stalemates and makes Dice Masters a more dynamic game.

There are a lot of strategic decisions in Marvel Dice Masters. Many of these occur while you are putting together a force and before you even bring your dice to the table. Figuring out which spread of characters to bring and which utility characters to have available in case you run into particular opposing strategies can be a long analytical exercise for many players. (As a caveat for my comments on strategy, you should generally not listen to designers tell you about the strategies for a game. The ranking typically goes top-level players beat playtesters, playtesters beat developers, and developers beat designers. Sure, I can beat Eric 100% of the time, but that really does not make me an expert.)

In many cases, your strategy is a reaction to what your opponent is playing and the game is a lot more reactionary than a typical trading card game because of all the open information. You can immediately see all of the possible options your opponent has available during the game and quickly do the thousands of possible permutations in your head to determine which dice you should buy to give you the optimal chance of winning. Each die your opponent buys forces you to adjust your strategy. If your opponent is picking up a lot of cheap aggressive characters, you might want to look at what you can do to get some defense in place to avoid getting run over.

One of the interesting features of the game is the way we incorporated the basic action aspect. In addition to specific dice that have various effects when the faces are rolled, we also added in the global effects. These are basically effects that each player can play at any time and these effects give you a reason to save up resources beyond your turn or in many cases give you an option to spend unused resources to potentially get a positive effect. Because you can use these abilities without having the die out, we ended up making it so that both players could always use any global ability.

The global abilities are printed at the bottom of the cards, and the custom we adopted is to turn any character cards that you have with global abilities to face your opponent so they can read them, since you presumably already know what your cards do. This solved the issue that a player could bring a card with a die on it and just use the global effect without ever having to field the die, and if it was one-sided, this could be fairly unbalancing. We could have required you to have the die out to play the ability, but then they would not be nearly as useful and would be more like attack effects or existing field effects. Doing them as globals that both players can use allowed us to use a lot more design space for the effects, and we could throw a wide range of global effects on cards and not unbalance the game. It also allows us to do effects that make them one-sided with a little effort.

Some people may notice that a few of the characters have burst symbols on the dice and no burst effects on their versions. Was this part of Eric and Mike's 11th-dimensional Chess plan? (Much more fun than 10th-dimensional Chess because 11.) Maybe — or maybe we had to lock the dice down long before we locked down the character card abilities and maybe we had to strip out an effect after playtesting and didn't want to replace it with something completely untested at the last minute. Maybe some of them will have alternate versions later. It's a mystery. No, really — I asked Eric and he didn't know anything about it either, and I ended up having to explain the rules to 11th-dimensional Chess again.

Board Game: Marvel Dice Masters: Uncanny X-Men
Marvel Dice Masters: Uncanny X-Men is due out in September 2014
Many people have strong opinions about the collectability model. There is a long thread with several hundred replies, flames, and much more that I encourage people to go read if they want to explore that aspect and I won't really touch on it here except to say that as more sets come out, I expect that the issue will become less important. While WizKids certainly won't support this position for tournament play, I played many games of Magic with a Plains with the words "Black Lotus" written in large black marker across the art. Because of the supply shortage, Eric and I will probably not get real samples of MDM: AvX until the third printing at least, so the only games I have played with real cards are at stores using other player's decks and at home I am stuck with my proxy set. I will also add an apology if anyone was misled by me on the rarity scheme on this product. I have been discussing this with WizKids to see whether we can make some adjustments in the future. I know it is a hot button issue for many people and it might be possible to do a few things that will help. As with game design, the technology of collectible games is constantly evolving as well, with new modern TCG-in-a-box games like Android: Netrunner putting pressure on the random collectible games to be easier to obtain.

As with most games I work on, Dice Masters is a sandbox-style game with tons of variants. You can play with different numbers of cards and dice. You can play to different life totals. You can play two-on-two. You can play star style free for all. You can do draft style games. My personal favorite is to shuffle all the character cards that one player owns, flip up eight cards (ignoring duplicates that use the same die), then draft with the first player picking one card and the opponent next picking two, then back and forth; you then repeat this process for the next eight cards with the other player starting. You can have variants to this where the first cards drafted are restricted to one or two dice, which can balance out some strong picks, while the remaining draft cards can have up to the maximum allowed number of dice. You can do a sealed style in which you randomly get two actions, then use whatever you get in five packs or the same system in which you also start with a random starter character. There is even a draft format in which you open the packs from a booster display and lay all of the dice out on the table. You then take the cards — after flattening them out of course — and deal out sets of around eight cards to each player. The players take a card, reveal it, take the corresponding die from the center to their keep area, and pass the remaining cards clockwise. Everyone knows at the beginning the distribution of the dice, and you can see who is going for what dice as you draft. The options are pretty wide open.

You can also tailor your gameplay by altering the starting life total or the number of cards and dice you can bring. There are a number of options suggested by the rulebook, but if you want to play a game with 30 life, or with a dozen characters but only one of each die, these are also viable game options. While the rulebook does not discuss any multiplayer options, I am sure several will appear, and Eric and I will probably share a few of our thoughts as well, possibly in a later rulebook. And of course once other brands are available, you will have the possibility of crossing the streams. While there may be various aspects of each brand that are unique to that brand, the intent is for the systems to be fully compatible.

Are some characters stronger than others? Yes. I have been doing trading card games for over fifteen years, but these types of asymmetrical games are difficult to perfectly balance. One of the nice things about having eight characters is that you can bring some that are situational against certain opponents' strategies. In many games, you will purchase only four to six different dice, so you have some space for a few defensive options. The nice thing is that both Eric and I are great at "retroactive" balance. Basically this involves putting out a few characters and actions that make it easier to deal with certain strategy types, restoring the balance to the force. (This isn't a game term, but I figure if I use it enough it might catch on — or some large company with a rodent logo will send people to talk to me.) Basically the goal is to allow a lot of different types of builds to be around and competitive.

There was obviously an issue with the quantity of starters at launch, which Eric Martin amusingly described as all part of the plan. (It wasn't.) WizKids has been kind enough to post a PDF of the starter action cards and hopefully the issue will be resolved soon and the one million or so players that want the game will be able to get it. (My estimates, YMMV.) WizKids also delayed the start of the organized play program to allow players more time to get their hands on dice. While the PDF will not help you in official organized play, it is a way to enjoy the game until you can get a starter. Again, all of us apologize for the shortage.

We are hard at work on future sets, and both Eric and I hope to keep the game fresh and exciting to play. Also, I promise not to make any bets with Eric on the next set, other than who will win the most games head-to-head, but is it really a bet when everyone knows the outcome ahead of time?

Mike Elliott

Board Game: Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men
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