Man is most nearly himself when he achieves...
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
Awkward Disclaimer-ish Intro (which you can skip depending on your level of trust)
There are a number of reasons why this can't be a proper review. The simple reason is that I've only played this game once and I really need to play a game more than once to know if it's good (many examples of games I was just wrong about on the first play; I thought I would love Eclipse forever and Eldritch Horror seemed like a fiddly Chutes and Ladders to me the first time I played it). Additionally, I only played the prototype; I did not get to see the final art and there may well be small tweaks before the game is released. Finally - and most importantly - the discriminating reader can poke through my profile and notice that I have exactly three review/first impressions articles and they all are games released by Petersen Games. That reader can be forgiven for assuming that I am merely a shill.
There are practical reasons for this fact, though. I have not felt a need to review many other games I love (at this point does Robinson Crusoe need another laudatory review?). On the other hand, as a Kickstarter backer I had early access to Cthulhu Wars. After I wrote a proper review for that game, I had the chance to attend the Launch Party in Dallas. While I was there, I got the chance to play the Orcs Must Die! The Board Game: Order Edition prototype and offer some impressions on that. A couple of weeks ago, out of being coincidentally in the same city as Arthur (PG point man and frequent commenter here) and Sandy, I also got the chance to play the prototype of Dicenstein. I was prepared to say to Sandy, "You make different kinds of games and this one just isn't for me - and that's cool." However, I did like it quite a bit and find myself in a similar position again. I would love the chance in the future to go to conventions or and play a broad spectrum of games from a variety of publishers, of course.
Disclaimer aside, I have some information that might be of interest to a number of you about a game, Dicenstein, that not many have had the chance to play. I aim here to tell you about the game, where the fun is in the game, what it asks, what it offers and what kind of gaming audience would find it fun -- like I absolutely did.
Meeting The Designers - and I become nervous (which you can skip if you don't care about the personal stuff)
While I was at the Cthulhu Wars launch party I had the chance to meet the designers, Tom McGinty and Chris Fernandez, who were finalizing their deal with Petersen Games. As a simple gamer geek (I've never even been to a convention), it was exciting to see pre-release work being done for a game, a behind the scenes look I had never had before. What struck me at first about Chris and Tom was their distinctive punk rock appearances (they might be the guys who after a gig famously kicked Friedemann Friese's butt in the CBGB's alley which never happened). Chris sported tall hair horns which made him look like demonspawn trouble; I kept my distance. Tom had owlish eyes and a pharaoh beard and spoke in a gravelly voice - like the possessor of dark secrets. I met them sheepishly with the lame awkwardness of a high school teacher out of his classroom and his just-surrendering-to-male-pattern-baldness trimmed head. I was a little nervous. I should not have been.
When Chris and Tom got on the subject of games, they revealed themselves as deep fans and guys I could connect with on any number of titles. They were quick to dissect mechanics and themes. They really lit up, though, when they talked about their baby - Dicenstein. They pulled out their well worn copy of the prototype as though taking a baby out of the crib. They explained the development, the epiphanies, the genesis of the mechanics and why after a year of playing it they still thought it was pretty damn cool. It turns out that after visiting a number of conventions with it, they had had multiple offers to publish the game - but they held out. They ultimately accepted Sandy's offer because in their words, "He's Sandy Freakin' Petersen." As I have long acknowledged this as Sandy's middle name myself, I decided I liked these guys. I liked them even more when Sandy, Chris and Tom spent hours (before dinner, during dinner, after dinner - I am asleep and they're still talking) discussing horror movies. Good movies, bad movies, bad-good movies and good-bad movies...these guys really knew their stuff. I thought I was a fan of horror but I was clearly out of my league. The choice of theme of Dicenstein made sense.
And I wanted to play Dicenstein. The fact that Chris and Tom were so eager for a nobody like me to play it really made me feel good - at that time I had only written the one review for Cthulhu Wars and had no plans to write another. As proud mad scientists, they just wanted to show off their evil creation to anyone who would appreciate it. But during the Launch Party craziness - this came up - and that came up - and I never got a chance to play the game. It was my one regret of the weekend. A couple of weeks ago, when coincidence brought me to the same state as Sandy and Arthur, they both offered me the chance to drive over and have fun building a monster.
How the Game Works (which you can skip if you know already)
The BGG game page lists the game length as forty-five to ninety minutes and a suggested minimum age of fourteen. This might be the first time I saw those numbers actually higher than reality. Just judging by my one forty-five minutes learning session (dangerous, I know), I can't see the game lasting ninety minutes very often at all; forty five minutes sounds about right. As for the minimum age, I could imagine introducing the game to my nine year old daughter with only a little extra explanation needed.
The base game is designed for two to four players, each playing a mad scientist simultaneously trying to construct the most bad-ass monster and also collect the most legendary monster parts (ostensibly for pickling in jars an evil laboratory to gloat and show off to other mad scientists on the home tour). The monsters themselves each are represented by nine special dice, each face of which depicts that monster's head or arm or body or leg. The thematic context seems to be that the most infamous monster graveyard in the annals of evil science has been discovered and the most devious minds in the world have converged on it and rented local lab space to gravedig for the buried monster parts. During the setup phase - if expansions are in play - the monsters buried there will be chosen randomly to make a different set of monsters in play every game. Even if just playing with the base game, to make a unique setup each game, the placement of the dice/monster parts on the board is randomized. Finally, the respective value of the different monster dice combinations (ex. three victory points for any combination of five gill-man and unicorn dice) for victory point turn-ins is randomized, too. The monster claw market is frustratingly fickle, I suppose.
The game begins by each scientist sending out his generic monster marker into the four by four graveyard playing board, each space already filled with different monster dice. The monster marker at the beginning of the game (and later, if you're struggling to build something cool) stands for your flunkie, Igor, whose only resumeable skill is his digging ability. One "digs" by picking up all the dice from the space, throwing them in a bag and drawing out a certain number to keep. When there are a bunch from different monsters in the same space, there is no guarantee you'll get exactly which dice you want (Igor is just bringing you the first three parts he digs out, being a bit dim). He leaves your employment after three turns, but leaving your first haul of monster dice. Once your monster marker is back off the board and in your lab, all your assorted monster dice are rolled to see what Science is able to make live. You might get a head of your vampire and the body of your werewolf - and you hope to be able to get the respective parts to assemble a whole monster.
The fun part of assembling your monster is that, dealing with what different monster parts you rolled, you get to assemble the monster as you see fit. Different particular parts are stronger on different monsters. You want the werewolf's claw. You want the mummy's wrapped beef jerky body. Your personal Mad Scientist Mat has sliders of different abilities (hit points, brain power, digging ability, movement and attack) which are set at the cumulative values of what each part brings. However - and this is really where the game is - no matter which part you use of the monster (which die face you rolled), your entire monster gets the unique special ability of the whole monster. The plant man regenerates damage. The giant mantis lives one more turn after it is killed ("Non Central Nervous System" - I love that one). Your monster, then, is a collection of four different unique abilities with a strong capacity to make some powerful combos. Once built, you then take that monster on the road. That is, your monster marker then represents that monster as you send it back to the game board, ready to kill other monsters, dig for more parts or get up to some other mischief. You'll face other monsters with curious combos, too, and have to negotiate your play through simple combat rolls or avoiding them if you just want to grab some more parts.
The rhythm of the game continues with scientists sending monsters back for more parts/dice to reroll in hopes of creating an even more impressive monster from a larger pool of dice. Alternately, you could "bank" some parts by turning them for victory points in in combinations laid out during game setup (pickle jarred away now). The game continues with players picking some balance of dice turn ins for points or kills for points (four points per kill with a chance to steal a die, too). Once twenty points have been reached, game end is triggered and points are totaled. Secrets points also figure in, represented by points awarded to dice of monsters which were picked semi-randomly and secretly by the players during game setup. The highest total wins; that player is the Grandest Maddest Scientist of Infamy.
Where the Fun is (finally, the information you clicked to see)
In my one four player session, I was on one turn able to make a very fortunate roll of unicorn legs, a gargoyle body, werewolf claws and a vampire head. This allowed me the four spaces of travel of the unicorn and the gargoyle's flying ability to move diagonally. It also gave me a powerful attack in the werewolf's claw (plus an extra die from the werewolf's ability) and the "first strike" ability of the unicorn to gallop up and skewer my enemy before he had a chance to respond. I had really rolled up a death machine on my lab table. I have since learned that most of the other players should have responded to this monster by buffing up their defenses or finding ways to avoid me. Fortunately for me, they didn't. I also later learned that had I not coated the graveyard with gore as I did on one nasty turn, that I probably would have lost ground to my fellow players' monsters who were more balanced for the long game, digging for more parts. Here are the impressions rattling around my brain as I left the table.
The game has elements which remind me of King of Tokyo. Dicenstein is longer and offers more strategy than King of Tokyo, of course, but the game similarly offers a lot of charm for a very small investment of time and rules learning. The theme is engaging; you just want to cackle as you construct your monster and make growling and screeching noises as you send your creation out onto the board to do awful things. The decision points are different, of course, and I would argue also that Dicenstein offers more decisions without a lot of additional game weight.
The combos really make this game. Combos are for me the most fun part of King of Tokyo (one popular variant on BGG even doubles the energy in the game to get more combos in play). However, ultimately the special abilities in King of Tokyo sit on the cards - and can make combos - but they don't seem to "live" as much as they do with Dicenstein. You craft the combos yourself out of your pool of dice and them immediately get to see them played out in 3-D as a monster roaming around the board. My combination of unicorn legs and gargoyle wings made a creature who could hit a monster anywhere on the board. My buddy's combination of the invisible man with a mummy's body made him difficult to damage. Another monster with a plant man's regeneration and a clown's terror inducing ability would make it difficult for other monsters to approach and deal lasting damage at all. A gill man mixed with a robot could ensure you made the most of the dice you dug. At the time of this writing, the twelve base game monster abilities are known but I am very curious to know what expansion abilities would be available to make new kinds of hybrids.
Building monsters is fun. In the aforementioned Eclipse, the most fun part for me was the personalization of the different space ships. I would savor the process of saving up resources, purchasing technologies, and mixing and matching different defensive, movement and attack abilities. I couldn't wait to send my little fleet out into space. That is only a part of the whole game of Eclipse, though. In Dicenstein that process takes center stage. You personalize your monster and then get to see him live very quickly into the game. If he didn't live up to expectations, no worries; you can scavenge the parts, reroll and send your new monster out for the sequel.
The theme holds it all together. Sometimes in deck building and dice building games specifically, the theme appears strained. Marvel Dice Masters didn't grab me though I wanted to be grabbed. Dicenstein doesn't have you purchase dice; you dig for parts. When you roll the dice, you are sifting through your parts, seeing what you can make live on the table. The monster you create, the mix of abilities, is literally visible on the table, legs, body, arms and head. The combos have literally been combined into a shambling ugly, dealing death. I like that.
Questions I still have (it was one session, after all)
The game appeared light, with lots of randomness. This means that it doesn't appear to have a variable tone. Some of the greatest games can be played differently by the differing cultures of different game groups or even different moods of the same group. However, I think if you try to approach Dicenstein with a desire to optimize on one hand, or play as bloodsport on the other, then you likely would be disappointed. There is randomness in the dice drawn from a grave site and the face of each die showing during monster creation, not to mention randomness in combat rolls, of course. It appears that you just have to own that that is part of the experience of the game. That isn't terrible news (or, ostensibly a revelation - "dice" is in the one word title of the game); the game is just unapologetic in the lightness of the experience it offers. I would play it as a last-game-of-the-night game, a family game with my daughter, or a "Dave has had too many ciders" game - and I am happy to say that I have all of these gaming opportunities on a regular basis (sorry, Dave).
I have not made my mind up about the art. I am mostly sold on the art but I admit, a little spoiled by the previous graphics work of Cthulhu Wars, Theomachy and Orcs Must Die! I admit that the CW and Theomachy stylistic sensibilities would have been misplaced in this title and the images do have a certain Scooby-Doo appeal which matches pretty well with the theme.
I will have to see how differing play styles can change the game. As I mentioned, I romped over my opponents in my one game. I later learned from Tom all of the things they could have done to stop me. I also learned some opportunities for player interaction I hadn't even considered, such as blocking a laboratory exit with something ugly and immovable (how mean is that?). What I just won't know until I play it more is how viable and entertaining one half of the game is, the points maximization strategy. I don't know from my one session how balanced that option is and just couldn't without repeated plays. Most players will want to pursue a mixed strategy of some sort, of course; but without more to say about this, my otherwise positive review is limited in information in this way.
I am desperate to have players play different mad scientists. OK, my formatting is breaking down as this is not so much a question as a wish. I would love each playable mad scientist side actually to have some character. They don't need to have variable abilities, but I would love actual mad scientists to be represented - either contrived or from history and literature. There would be Dr. Frankenstein, naturally, but there could also be Dr. Polidori and Dr. Moreau. There could be Ms Shelley, the young woman who wrote the breakout work of fiction that seems frighteningly true to life...Other angles for doctors could be the more venerable Dr. Dee or Dr. Faustus. Really, though, the coup de grace from Petersen Games would be Dr. Herbert West, Reanimator, right? Right?
What will the fall bring? Literally while I was writing this article, an update announced that the Kickstarter campaign was going to be halted and restarted in the fall. The reason was that many backers had stated that they really wanted etched dice. I was among them and felt personally like it was essential. Petersen Games came pretty quickly in their thinking to agree. While etched dice were a stretch goal associated with the baseline funds they'd need to afford it, the stretch goal being reached wasn't assured. The plan as I understand it at the time of this writing is to lay the groundwork in the interim to begin in the fall with a campaign that has etched dice from day one, regardless of the totals reached. It's a nice opportunity to retool after community feedback and - well, one of the reasons I like these guys so much; they're out to produce a quality game and they listen. I'll be there in the fall. It also gives them an opportunity to bake in to the game my demonstrably awesome unique mad scientists idea and my pickle jar theming idea, so there's that.
Conclusion (TL; DR)
I really enjoyed Dicenstein. After one play I can't offer the definitive word on its objective goodness, but I can tell you that I had a lot of fun in my session. It's not going to replace Cthulhu Wars, Robinson Crusoe, Cosmic Encounter or more savory game dishes in my list of favorites. However, particularly if more expansions were to become available, it could very well replace King of Tokyo for me as my go-to light, random game for those moments when that's exactly what you want. At the end of the day it reminds me of those crayon drawings you made when you were in were in first grade of the super-monster -- the monster to beat and eat all other inferior monsters. Then your annoying friend, Dave, had to make his super-duper monster who could beat and eat your precious creation. At which point it was back to the drawing board for you, this time with your Deluxe Crayola set with built in sharpener, dammit, to make that monster to beat and eat his and send him crying home to Mom. There is that kind of silly joy in Dicenstein and I look forward to having it on my shelf sometime soon.
Nick R. Nielsen-Doss
I am so happy to finally read this article Jim!
Your style of review is the type I like to read, and I am not a big review reader anyway. I like the option of easily seeking out what I want and or/need. In your case, I also get the personal flavor that I love because of my valuation of Your opinion.
I'll leave it there and throw a tip too. Well done.
I am glad you enjoyed it!
There is one glaring wrong item of the write up though. You are not a nobody, your a gamer just like us. I love board games and decided to take a shot at making one. I am more flattered that you where excited to try the game we made. We saw you as someone else who loved gaming and wanted to see how you felt about our game.
- Last edited Thu Jul 9, 2015 7:29 am (Total Number of Edits: 4)
- Posted Thu Jul 9, 2015 6:42 am
AON DE GENG!! ALAAF!!
Check my YouTube channel "Boardgame Heaven"!
I love the theme, I love the fact that it has over a 100 dice, big etched dice, and I love the quirky art. If the quality of the components is great as well (we know the dice are etched, so that leaves the board and the cards and laboratory cards), then this is a winner!
Lovely review, I can't wait for it to come out and play it