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Subject: No Dice: A fast-playing, clever abstract rss

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Geeky McGeekface
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[This review originally appeared in Counter magazine.]

NO DICE (Decipher, 1987)
Designed by Jim Winslow and Tom Braunlich

I’m not a big fan of abstract games. There’s all sorts of reasons: lack of interaction, lack of theme, strategic rather than tactical thinking. The biggest factor is probably that abstracts tend to have very simple mechanics. This is by necessity: without a theme to hang a story onto, it’s very difficult to include many subsystems. For example, you could probably create a Chess variant with “realistic” supply rules (and I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t tried it), but they would seem very awkward in a game in which one moves generic pieces around a grid. One of the main advantages of a good theme is that the rules for complex subsystems can be made quite palatable (and even straightforward) if they tie into the story. And it’s these multi-layered, richly designed games that I like. I realize that fans of abstract games call their rules “elegant” and I wholeheartedly agree. I also believe that Go and Chess and Shogi are among the world’s great games. But I’d rather play a good eurogame any day.

The abstracts I’ve cottoned to tend to be short and have unusual mechanics. I got into Abalone for a while for just those reasons. But the only abstract game I play with any frequency these days is a little known game called No Dice.

No Dice is a two-player game that was published about twenty years ago by what then was a small company called Decipher. Decipher’s catalog tended toward gimmicky items in those days (their initial release, a jigsaw puzzle also called Decipher, came with an offer of $100,000 to anyone who could solve it). No Dice’s gimmick was its slogan: “Pure strategy...but you’ll swear it’s luck!”. This was clever and reasonably accurate, since No Dice is a race game in which the pieces move variable amounts, similar, for example, to Parcheesi. But, as the title states so clearly, the game includes no dice.

The heart of No Dice is the board upon which the pieces move and this is very much a case where a picture would be worth at least a thousand words. Since no illustration is forthcoming, I will attempt to describe the board in some detail.

The No Dice playing area is a backwards S-shaped 26 space track. There are eight spaces on the bottom row of the S, followed by an in-between space on the far left that connects the bottom and middle rows, followed by eight more spaces in the middle row, followed by another in-between space on the far right that connects the middle and top rows, and finally followed by eight spaces on the top row. The in-between spaces are called *traps*, for reasons that will soon become apparent. Since the spaces follow an S curve, movement on the middle row is in the reverse direction of movement on the bottom and top rows. The players sit on opposite sides of the board, so your bottom row is my top row and vice versa. The first space on each player's bottom row has a special symbol and is called that player's *recycle space*. Each player has four pieces and begins the game with three of them in play, on the second, third, and fourth spaces of their bottom row.

The spaces on each of the three rows are aligned to form eight columns. (Note that the two traps are not in any of these columns.) Each column has a number of thin vertical lines running it. Beginning with the column on the far right that contains the recycle space, each of the eight columns has the following number of lines: 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1.

Each player, on his turn, moves exactly one piece. The number of spaces the piece moves is equal to the number of lines that go through its space multiplied by the number of pieces, friendly or enemy, in its column. When moving, only open spaces are counted, so if a space is occupied by a piece belonging to either player, it is skipped.

For example, let's look at the potential beginning moves of a game. Suppose Sheryl moves first. She can move the piece in the fourth space of her bottom row three spaces (it has three lines through it and has one piece in its column--itself) to the seventh space in the row. She can also move the piece in the third space two spaces (2 x 1) to the sixth space (only counting the fifth and sixth spaces, since the fourth space is occupied). Finally, she can move the piece in the second space two spaces (2 x 1) to the sixth space, skipping over the occupied third and fourth spaces. If she chooses to make this last move, her piece will now be in the same column as her opponent's piece in his third space. If on his move, he chooses to move this piece, it will move four spaces (two lines multiplied by the two pieces in its column) to the eighth space (skipping over his occupied fourth space).

Since there are no lines through either of the two traps, you'd expect that a piece landing on one these wouldn't be able to move (multiplication by zero and all that). The rules provide for a slightly better fate for such a piece, but only slightly: it is moved to that player’s recycle space. If the recycle space is occupied, it is placed on the first available space on the player’s bottom row. Thus, getting past the traps is one of the games major goals. Unfortunately, the layout of the board is such that this isn’t easy.

If a piece’s movement takes it past the last space of the upper row (that is, the opponent’s recycle space), it is removed from the board. The object of the game is to get all of your pieces removed in this fashion, so that you have no pieces remaining on the board. This requires that a minimum of three pieces exit the board (these are the three pieces that begin the game in play), but as we will see, it is possible that you might have to have a piece exit the board four or more times.

One further rule makes this objective even more difficult. It states that a total of no more than three pieces, of either side, can be on the middle row at one time. If, at the beginning of a player’s turn, the middle row is so occupied, the player must make a move that doesn’t move a new piece onto the middle row, even if that means moving a piece onto a trap--as it frequently does.

In addition to moving a piece, a player usually has another option. If the player’s own recycle space isn’t occupied, she can place one of her pieces that is not currently on the board on the recycle space. This is her entire move. The “recycled” piece can be the one that began the game off the board or one of the ones that has already exited the board. In either case, this means that there is one more piece to move around the board, but the addition of this extra piece may nonetheless improve the player’s overall position. If the recycle space is occupied, by either player’s piece, this option cannot be taken.

There is one final rule, which only comes up rarely. If a player makes a move that places three of his pieces in the same column, he may immediately take an extra turn. This may happen once every three games or so, but can certainly be useful to the player that pulls it off.

Like any good abstract game, No Dice has simple rules and deep gameplay. With only four possible moves to choose from a turn, planning several turns ahead is relatively easy (and essential). The reasoning quickly becomes complicated, though, making this game a very accessible, but very real challenge.

The first thing that must be realized is the importance of the traps. The construction of the board makes it impossible for a single piece to get to the middle row on its own. So coordinated play, either between your own pieces or with the help of enemy pieces, is essential. Once you get a piece onto the middle row, you can usually use it as a multiplier to spring another of your pieces past the first trap. All of this requires planning, of course, and can often be disrupted by your opponent's actions. And then you *still* have to get past the second trap.

The middle row becomes the main battlefield in the early part of the game. Since no more than three pieces can be there at any one time, there is a race to be the first player to move two pieces in. Once this is accomplished, the player ideally will delay having a piece exit the middle row until her opponent is not in position to move a piece in there and she is. This is difficult to pull off and the players often take turns holding the upper hand in this critical area. Timing is very important in these battles and entering a new piece simply to gain the proper tempo is not unheard of.

Similar to some other race games (Cartegena is one of them), the most important pieces in No Dice are the trailing ones. It does you no good to have a couple of your pieces zoom ahead and exit the board if your last piece is still languishing on the bottom row. Thus, pieces often stick around to assist their slower brothers. This is yet another aspect of play where planning is important.

Reentering pieces is one of the more interesting aspects of play. It is not necessarily a sign of weakness or poor planning. Very often an extra piece will improve a position. If your pieces are jammed behind a filled middle row, a reentry can be preferable to, for example, moving a well-placed piece into a trap. Sometimes it fills a specific need--you may have a piece on the last space of the middle row and the only way to avoid moving it into the trap is to reenter one of your pieces, allowing the first piece to move two spaces into the top row. Experienced players probably reenter pieces in at least half of their games. This practice is so prevalent that keeping one of your pieces on your opponent’s reentry space, and therefore blocking him from reentry, is a viable strategy.

In fact, No Dice is a race game in which defense is just as important as offense. It's always satisfying when one of your moves can upset an opponent's carefully laid plans. The most common way of doing this is to move a piece into (or out of) the same column as an opponent's piece, thus altering the number of spaces it will move. Sometimes the same thing can be accomplished by filling a space or leaving a gap in an enemy piece's range of movement--the addition or subtraction of a single space can often be critical. Of course, such defensive plays are often made at the cost of hurting your own position (and if your opponent is any good, that's exactly the choice you will be left with). Balancing the offensive and defensive aspects of play is probably the most important skill a player can acquire.

Games of No Dice usually only take fifteen to twenty minutes. There are lots of interesting decisions crammed into that time, but with only four possible choices each turn, downtime is pretty limited. The game has a different feel than any other game I’ve ever played--lighter than most other abstract games, but no less challenging. All in all, a game that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking two player games, even if they aren’t usually fond of abstracts.

The components aren’t bad for a game that only cost $12 when it was released in 1987. The graphic designer did a good job with the board, presenting the information needed to play the game in both a clear and attractive fashion. It’s mounted on hard, but thin material that buckles more than it should, but doesn’t really detract from the play. The pieces are nice translucent cylinders that come in an stylish cloth bag. The box is pretty bad, though, a very shallow (you’ve got to cram the components into it) one piece affair made of flimsy cardboard, which only opens at the ends (requiring that you pull the board out of it). The board and pieces do make for a pleasant playing experience, however.

No Dice was created by a pair of veteran game designers named Jim Winslow and Tom Braunlich. Winslow’s is a name that frequently pops up, with submissions to Games Magazine and the like. Most of his designs are firmly in the abstract genre. In the late nineties, he worked to place some of his games with German companies and had at least half a dozen published, most of them children’s games. The title of his that would probably be most familiar to Geeks is 2001’s Sumo!, although that’s probably best known for its amazing components.

In an exchange of emails, Braunlich told me that No Dice was principally Winslow’s creation and that his own contribution was mainly refining the design and selling it to Decipher. Even if his role in the game’s design was a small one, it is yet another title to add to an already impressive resume. Braunlich helped to develop Pente in the early eighties and the game inspired a minor craze and is still very popular today. Ten years later, he and his longtime design partner Rollie Tesh began concentrating on what was then a brand new type of game: the collectable card game (CCG). In 1994, Decipher released the Star Trek CCG, their first such effort. The design was notable as the first CCG not to follow the Magic paradigm that focused on combat; instead, it was based more on mission-solving, which fit the Star Trek universe far better. Full of innovative ideas and featuring an excellent graphic design, the Star Trek CCG was an instant success and for a while threatened to do the unthinkable--unseat Magic: the Gathering as the #1 CCG. But some missteps by Decipher (including some card distribution snafus, delays on the expansions, and an enormous delay on a Starter deck that was playable out of the box) dampened the game’s momentum and a falling out with Star Trek studio Paramount almost led to its demise. But Decipher and Paramount kissed and made up and the Star Trek CCG, with expansions that now include all four television series and one of the movies, is alive and doing very well today. Braunlich and Tesh continued their highly successful collaboration with Decipher and created the Star Wars, Young Jedi, and Austin Powers CCGs for the company, among others. Such was the pair’s impact on the industry that in a poll of the readers of Scrye magazine, the Star Trek, Star Wars, and Young Jedi games were chosen as, respectively, the second, third, and fifth best CCGs of all time. It would not be unreasonable to rank the Braunlich/Tesh team as the world's second most proficient designers of collectable card games, trailing only a fellow named Richard Garfield.

No Dice was not a terribly popular game--Decipher was quite a small company at the time and small game companies rarely make large impacts. But the company had some big ideas and leveraged its licensing rights to the lucrative Star Trek property (originally acquired for a series of “How to Host a Murder”-style VCR-triggered board games set in the Trek universe) into an entry in the infant CCG field. The success of that game led to an agreement with Lucasfilms to produce a Star Wars CCG and suddenly Decipher was one of the big boys, arguably second only to Wizards of the Coast as a producer of collectable card games. This success came too late to help No Dice, but it’s still nice to see that a company’s eventual fate can sometimes be predicted by the quality of its earlier productions. As for me, I’m glad the company had sufficient foresight to release the game, which has provided me with a great deal of enjoyment in a very real, non-abstract way.
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