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Subject: dice grinding statistical simulation rss

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Paul O'Connor
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Decathlon is a dice-driven statistical simulation of the Olympic event of the same name. It’s a bit of a reach to call it a game, as there are so few decision points. Play consists of rolling specially-numbered six-sided dice, indexing results on charts, and writing numbers down on the game’s log sheet. Whether or not you enjoy the game depends on your tolerance for dice-grinding, your interest in the sport, and the degree to which you can take joy in sports replay gaming.

I like the occasional sports replay game for the story it tells, and if Decathlon is low on game play value, it does appear to be somewhat accurate, and it gives a detailed look into what for me was an obscure sport. The decathlon consists of ten athletic events contested over a two day period. Completing each event earns points for the athlete, and at the end of two days, the athlete with the most points is the winner.

The decathlon is roughly divided into “running events” (100 meters, 400 meters, 1500 meters, and the 110 meter high hurdles), “throwing events” (discus, javelin, shot put), and “jumping events” (long jump, high jump, pole vault). Decathlon uses similar mechanics to resolve each family of events. For the 100 meters and the 110 meters, you simply roll the dice and look up the athlete’s time. For the throwing events, you get three attempts, and can choose a safe, average, or all-out attempt (with growing chances of fouling or suffering injury). The long jump is resolved in a fashion similar to the throwing events, while the high jump and the pole vault see the player rolling dice and indexing results to determine if the athlete clears the jump at each new height, with the event concluding when no one can clear the current height.

There isn’t much strategy or many decisions to be made in any of these events – you’ll want to make sure you lay down a decent score in the long jump and throwing events with at least one safe or average attempt, but the rest of the time you’ll be going all-out (unless you’re trying to avoid injury – one injury impacts you for the rest of the day, and two injuries knock you out of the competition). There is some gamesmanship in seeing what scores the other competitors have set, and then calibrating your attempts accordingly, but as the rules of decathlon scoring award points for performance against an absolute standard (rather than against the other athletes), there’s still incentive to try to improve your score, even if you’re in first place for an event. So, there’s a real aspect of mutual solitaire to these events, with the decision being to weigh the chance of injury against the chance of improving your score in an event before rolling the dice. Unfortunately, because the dice are non-standard D6s, it isn’t easy to tell at a glance what your chances are of rolling any particular event, and most of the time I found myself just going all-out and hang the consequences.

The other decision point is determining when to pass on jump attempts in the high jump and pole vault, as a high number of jumps in these events results in fatigue penalties for the races that conclude each day of the event (the 400 meters on day one, and the 1500 meters on day two). The 400 meters involves generating four separate running times, and adding them together (along with any penalties from fatigue or injuries) to determine your time. The 1500 meter race is more involved, requiring dozens of die rolls while you move a runner marker around a track and track time by hand, but even though all the athletes are running at once, there are no tactics to enact or even endurance decisions to be made – it’s really just a big, dice-grinding finale to a big, dice-grinding game.

The game includes stat charts for seven historical decathletes, and an eighth chart representing a generic competitor that excels in all ten events (the game suggests you name this athlete after yourself for some you-are-there game thrills). There are a couple game boards and some counters, but they are scarcely required – the game can be played almost entirely from the charts and with the log sheet (the spaces of which are maddeningly small for the numbers that need to be recorded). The rules are clear and easy to follow – you can work your way through the game one event at a time, learning as you go.

Overall, I’m glad to have played Decathlon, but I’m not sure I’d ever want to play again. The game taught me a bit about the decathlon and some of the athletes who have competed in the event, and it told a little bit of a story, with different athletes excelling in different events, and a few unexpected records and injury issues adding surprise moments to the repetitive motion of rolling dice and indexing results. The system is fairly clean, but it really is a hand-cranked paper computer; the whole thing would be better enjoyed on a computer, either as a spread-sheet exercise or as a simple statistical sim game with the press of a space bar substituting for all those dice rolls. The game would certainly be improved by faster playing time.

The decathlon is a dramatic event – it should be fertile ground for an entertaining game. Decathlon takes a statistically-driven approach at gaming this subject and succeeds as a replay game, but doesn’t really entertain or offer a wealth of game play decisions. Dr. Kniza has a quick dice game with a decathlon theme that is richer in game play, but it doesn’t have much in terms of authentic feel. There are a couple other decathlon games on the Geek, but from their brief descriptions it doesn’t seem like they have very much to offer, either. And so I am left to hope that some bright game designer will seize on this theme and create a game that does justice to the strategy, drama, and challenge of the decathlon.

Otherwise, I’ll be stuck pulling this game off the shelf every four-odd years, when an actual Olympic games revives my interest in the sport. Which is about the right interval for experiencing this interesting but not terribly entertaining game.
 
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Ryan Olson
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Very nice review.

I agree that while I won't be playing it often, I am happy to own it, and to have played it.

I find Sport Sims very interesting, and I feel this one seems very accurate, even without having many descisions.

I never saw any of these athletes compete, but I felt a good connection with their strengths & weaknesses after playing it.
 
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Paul O'Connor
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Yollege wrote:
Very nice review.

I agree that while I won't be playing it often, I am happy to own it, and to have played it.

I find Sport Sims very interesting, and I feel this one seems very accurate, even without having many descisions.

I never saw any of these athletes compete, but I felt a good connection with their strengths & weaknesses after playing it.


Yeah, this is really more of an experience than a game. Even though the game play is limited, you do get a bit of a story and some insight into what the sport is about. It's kind of like Avalon Hill's B-17 in that regard (though I don't think it's quite as interesting as that game).
 
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