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Designer Diary: DiceAFARI – A Safari-going, Photo-taking, Dice-rolling Extravaganza & a Kickstarter Secret

Chris James
United States
Queen Creek
Arizona
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Dice games are hot, no question about it, so in 2010 I set out to design a dice game, doing something that I don't usually prefer to do: Start with game mechanisms and discover a theme later on. For example, in Eruption, for which I wrote a designer diary in June 2011, the theme came first and the mechanisms sort of magically fell into place. With DiceAFARI, an abstract dice game emerged first, which was then complemented and greatly improved by a fun and appealing theme.

Game Overview

DiceAFARI (dice + safari), a photo-safari-themed game for 2 to 4 players, employs a unique combination of dice-rolling, two types of area control, and set collection, with a game length of about 15 minutes. How can so much be packed into such a short game, you ask?

The secret is that DiceAFARI is not just a dice game. In actuality, it's a light board game that uses the rolling of five custom dice as its primary game mechanism. The board consists of 18 tiles, each of which represents one of several different terrains commonly found in Africa: mountain, jungle, marsh, savanna, scrubland, or desert. At the beginning of the game, these tiles are arranged into a map resembling one of the provided animal-shaped templates, or any other shape of the players' choosing. A token representing a photo of a lion, elephant, giraffe, or gorilla is then randomly placed between each tile.

Sample game featuring prototype artwork

On each turn, the current player rolls all five dice, four of which contain symbols representing the terrains (Safari Dice), and the other containing the numbers 2-4 (Bonus Die). The Safari Dice can be held and re-rolled up to two additional times, but the Bonus Die cannot. Each of the Safari Dice represents a single tile on the map that can be claimed with a token of that player's color, showing that the player visited that area during the safari.

Not just any tiles can be visited on a turn, however, as the tiles must form a valid route consisting of two to four adjacent tiles in a straight line or square. After claiming a route, an additional tile can be claimed anywhere on the map if the number of tiles in the route is equal to the number rolled on the Bonus Die. Once a player's tokens have been placed, he may collect one photo that lies between his own tokens.

On subsequent turns, a player can revisit the same tiles as a previous player by replacing the existing tokens with his own. The game continues until all available tiles have been claimed and each player has had a minimum of three turns. The remaining photos are then distributed based on the location of each player's tokens. A variable amount of points are scored for sets of photos collected, as well as one point for each of a player's tokens remaining on the map.

DiceAFARI scoring options (subject to change in the final version)

A visual tutorial of the rules can be found in the Kickstarter video:



Features of the Game

1. Modularity – The various map templates included with the game have a definite effect on game play. Each map offers a different experience due to the shape of the map and the number of photos available to collect. Since route selection is limited to certain patterns, the shape of the map greatly affects the available choices and the difficulty of visiting tiles in certain locations. Tiles that are clustered together, such as those in the torso area of the gorilla map, will be easier to claim because of the high number of possible routes. Tiles that are more spread out, such as those in the arm areas of the gorilla map, require more specific dice rolls and are harder to claim.

Some of the maps offer a high amount of clustered tiles, while others are much more spread out. In addition, any custom map shape can be created by players, which can be a fun exercise in and of itself for families and younger gamers and will help them decide what features they like the most in a map. Also, the random arrangement of tiles into the map shape all but guarantees that even when using the same template, no two maps will be alike.

2. Interaction and Balance – The ability to revisit areas on the map previously visited by other players offers interaction and balance to the game. The tiles and photos that belong to a runaway leader may be specifically targeted in order to balance the final scores. However, the first player to reach an area and take a photo renders that area slightly less appealing to revisit as one less photo is available. This helps to prevent constant back-and-forth revisiting.

Paying attention to which sets of photos other players are going for adds an additional layer of interactivity. If Bob needs the last giraffe photo on the board to complete a full set, Susan might want to take that photo first, rendering Bob's potential seven-point set as a mere three points, which could affect the outcome of the game. Since players may keep their photos hidden, the other players must pay close attention to which photos are being taken if they wish to use that information in their own photo selection decisions.

3. Dual Area Control – Extending one's influence by visiting as many tiles as possible is an important aspect of the game since points are scored at the end of the game for the number of tokens of each player's color remaining on the map. However, tokens that are spread out are not nearly as advantageous as those that are clustered together since photos can be taken only if they are surrounded by two tokens of the same color. Since sets of photos are usually the largest portion of the final scores, not only must players try to control as many tiles as possible, but they also must try to cluster them in order to maximize their control of the photos between tiles.

4. Game Clock – The use of the Bonus Die allows a player to break the route selection rules by visiting an additional tile anywhere on the map. However, the tile that is visited using the bonus must not have been visited previously. Since the game ends when all available tiles have been visited, claiming a bonus accelerates the conclusion of the game. This ability also offers players a means of visiting hard-to-reach areas of the map that are unlikely to be revisited and offers additional strategy on which route to claim on a turn.

Ending the game often comes down to a strategic decision as to whether or not the current player is in a good position to win. If a player decides that ending the game by claiming the last available tile is a good idea, the Bonus Die often makes it possible to do so.

5. Strategy – The simple rules and short game length allow beginners and younger players to have fun without much trouble at all. However, for players wanting to gain a strategic advantage, there are several key decisions to be made on each turn:

• Which photos should I go for to maximize my score and minimize the other players' scores?
• Which route should I go for to maximize my control of the map and give me the most/best photos?
• Which dice should I hold and re-roll in order to maximize my chances of getting my desired route?
• What alternative should I choose if my dice rolls are unsatisfactory?
• Should I try to claim the bonus? Which tile would be best to visit using the bonus?
• If I am able to end the game now, should I? Or should I let it continue so I can try to improve my chance of winning on my next turn?

Game Overview

The original prototypes of DiceAFARI, which didn't have a title at the time, looked and played quite differently than the current version. The core concepts of tiled maps and dice-rolling were there, but otherwise it was a very different game.

Originally, each tile contained a number from 1 to 6 and was red, yellow, or blue. Tiles were arranged in a rectangular formation. Four standard D6 dice were used, as well as a colored die that served as a wild. Each player would roll the dice in hopes of rolling the numbers contained on two adjacent tiles on the map, say 4 and 6. If they did so, they could place a token on the space between the tiles and score the sum of the two numbers, in this case ten points. However, if they were able to roll two 4s and two 6s, they would earn double that amount, in this case 20 points. The colored die could be used as a substitute for any tile of the indicated color. Each space could be claimed only once. This continued until all of the spaces between tiles were claimed.

There were several problems with this game. First, the game required little strategy, as it was a no-brainer to go for the highest numbers for which a space was available on the map. Second, the game became less interesting as it progressed, since the higher numbers were already taken and players were basically competing to roll the lowest scoring spaces on the board. Third, players had no incentive to pay attention unless it was their own turn. Finally, the game lasted too long.

At one point, I introduced a "betting" mechanism in order to keep players interested between turns and introduce a sort of bluffing strategy. Each player was given cards numbered 1 through 6, and after the current player had rolled all of the dice once, the other players were given an opportunity to lay down a card to guess one of the numbers that would be selected by the current player. If they guessed correctly, they earned a bonus of two points. The current player could try to decide which number might be guessed by the other players and go for something else in order to prevent them from earning a bonus.

This initial version was a good start, but something was clearly missing.

Fun with Software

I soon realized that arranging the tiles in a shape other than a rectangle made the game more interesting by limiting the number of spaces between tiles and placing some tiles in better positions than others, so I set out to see what sorts of interesting maps could be created using only 18 tiles. As an abstract number game with no theme to give me direction, it proved difficult to come up with more than a few simple patterns. For inspiration, I used my software development background to my advantage to write a program that would spit out millions of combinations of 16 to 18 contiguous tiles.

A screenshot of the map-generating software used in the development of DiceAFARI

After tweaking the algorithm to hone in on what I believed to be the most interesting arrangements, I ended up generating nearly five million unique PNG images, which totaled about 40 GB of data. I believe this is nowhere near the total number of possible combinations, but I will leave it as an exercise for a math geek to determine the specifics. The generated images were archived into folders based on the number of connections (spaces between tiles) and whether the resulting map was symmetrical or asymmetrical.

Generating the images was the fun part. The tediousness came in when I had to go through them. If I were to spend just half a second looking at each one, it would require almost a month of continuous work. This was obviously out of the question, so instead I scrolled through the thumbnails at a rapid rate for as long as I could bear to do so. Some shapes stood out as being either an interesting pattern or a recognizable object, which I would then refine and archive for later.

Maps that were hand-picked after scanning millions of generated images

A Theme!

I discovered that a relatively high percentage of my hand-picked maps resembled animals. Many animals have unique shapes that can be easily recognized with just 18 or fewer monochrome pixels (tiles) of information. With this realization and with the help of playtesters, the idea for a safari theme was born!

With the new safari theme, a lot of things fell into place with this game. The numbered tiles and dice were replaced with symbols representing the areas to visit on the safari, which made the choice of what to go for less obvious. The spaces between tiles were a great way to introduce photos to collect for points. The ability to claim routes of up to four tiles both shortened the game and made the use of different maps even more interesting, and coming up with additional maps resembling animals found on a safari was a breeze.

Once the new theme and rules were in place, we iterated over five additional versions of the game that were thoroughly tested by local game design groups and Stratus Sphere club members all over the U.S. Each version brought new improvements, such as the scoring of sets and the taking of a photo on each turn (as opposed to collecting all of the photos at the end of the game).

A Slap in the Face from Kickstarter

Stratus Games had been considering making the jump to Kickstarter for awhile, and DiceAFARI seemed like a natural choice to debut on the site. After doing lots of research about the Kickstarter platform, we set to work putting together the video, reward levels, project descriptions, marketing and production plans, etc. Once everything was in place, we launched the project on November 14th for a short-but-sweet 35-day campaign. We then got to work promoting the campaign to our networks.

What we didn't learn in all of our research is that the "New & Noteworthy" list on Kickstarter doesn't necessarily include new projects, as one might think. We quickly began hearing from people that they couldn't find our project listed anywhere on the site and could access it only using the direct link. We contacted Kickstarter about the issue and we received the following cookie-cutter response:

Quote:
What gets featured on our site is an editorial decision, and we pay particularly close attention to fun projects that showcase the system and have compelling videos and rewards. Even for projects that make the homepage, most of their funding comes from their own outreach. The best way to get your project funded is by spreading the word.

They failed to mention why DiceAFARI failed to make the cut.

We now understand that the "New & Noteworthy" list includes only those projects that are hand-selected by the Kickstarter editors, which we believe to be deceiving and against crowdfunding principles. Those who are looking for new projects are likely going to this list and thinking they have seen everything, when in reality a myriad other projects have been condemned to die a slow and painful death due to the preferences of a Kickstarter editor using ill-defined criteria. Why not feature all the new projects as they are launched in order to give them an equal chance to be discovered by those browsing the site?

Of course, one's own marketing efforts are not to be taken lightly, but it's no secret that one of the reasons Kickstarter is an appealing platform is the opportunity to reach a much larger audience than could otherwise be reached through the usual channels. The powers that be at Kickstarter have severely crippled this project and many others right from the get-go, but we believe this is a worthwhile pursuit and we will not go down without giving it our all.

We sincerely appeal to the BoardGameGeek community for any assistance you are willing to offer to support this project by backing it or spreading the word to others who might be interested in it. The campaign ends on Monday, December 19th.

The game rules (PDF) and a free print-and-play package of the latest beta version of DiceAFARI are available for evaluation and are also linked to on the project's Kickstarter page.

Thank you,
Chris James
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