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I love dice games. This surprises some people, who are aware that I’m not a big fan of games with high luck factors. But while dice are inherently random, the best dice games give you ways of manipulating things to allow you to succeed more often than fail. Call it Probability Management and it’s something I enjoy quite a bit.
There’s been an explosion of good dice games over the last half dozen years, to the point where it’s getting hard to find fresh takes on the subject. Fortunately, Messrs. Lach and Rapp have come up with something different in the world of dice and implemented it in this very nice push-your-luck game.
Step by Step is part of Schmidt’s Easy Play Line and it fits very nicely in that family. Those who just want to have fun rolling dice can do so and can play side by side with people who want to apply some strategy to their actions. It’s always nice when a game can be appreciated by a wide variety of players.
The game includes 6 ordinary six-sided dice, five tokens for each player, a neutral token, a bunch of chips, and a central game board. The board is two-sided, with one side being used for the 2-3 player game and the other with 4 or 5 players. Each side shows five different tracks of different lengths. The tracks are labelled “2 dice”, “3 dice”, “4 dice”, “5 dice”, and “6 dice”. The more dice associated with a track, the more spaces it contains. The first space of each track is worth -5 VPs, with the later spaces of the tracks worth 0 VPs or more. In most cases, each successive space is worth one more VP. There is also a gap in each track which divides the spaces into a lower portion and an upper portion.
To set up the game, each player puts one of their tokens in the first space of each track. Some of the later spaces have one chip placed on them. The game begins with the first player taking their turn, with turns proceeding clockwise.
Higher or Lower
On a player’s turn, he first selects one of the five tracks and rolls the number of dice associated with that track. After seeing the result, he announces whether he will be trying to roll higher or lower for that entire turn. Let’s say he decides on higher. He then chooses some of the dice, notes the sum of their values, and then rerolls them. If the resulting sum of just those dice is equal to or higher than the previous sum of the rerolled dice, he has succeeded and advances his token one space on that track. He can then stop, or can continue, using the dice just rolled, the other dice, or any combination of them. If at any time, the dice come up with a lower total, he loses all the advancements he’s made that turn and the next player gets to go.
The process is a little unusual, so let me illustrate it with an example. Suppose I decide to work with the “3 dice” track. I roll three dice, which come up 1, 3, 4. Clearly, it makes sense for me to declare I will try to roll higher for that entire turn. The following options are available to me: I could reroll any one of the three dice singly, I could reroll the 1 and 3, the 1 and 4, or the 3 and 4 dice, or I could reroll all three of them. The safe choice for my first reroll is to select the “1″ die, since that guarantees success (any roll will be a 1 or higher). However, if I wind up rolling a high number, the odds of gaining more than just a couple of spaces on the track will be slim. If, instead, I roll two dice, I’ll double my chances of rolling a low number, which might give me better chances in the long run. The decision isn’t cut and dried, but let’s say for the purposes of this example that I choose to roll the 1 and the 4 dice. These add up to 5, so the sum of my reroll must be 5 or more for me to succeed. Let’s say I roll a 1 and a 6: success! Now the dice read 1, 3, 6. I choose to roll again, this time selecting the 1 and 3 dice. I have to roll at least 4 this time and again I succeed, with a roll of 2 and 5. The dice now read 2, 5, 6. Now it’s getting a little more dicey (pun intended), but I’ll give it one more try, this time rerolling the 2 die. It comes up 4, so I get to advance my token a third time. With dice showing 4, 5, 6, it’s time to stop and accept my winnings. I pass the dice to the player on my left.
Note that once I declared I wanted to roll higher, I was stuck with that choice for my entire turn. Low rolls will usually cause me to fail, so as the successful rolls accumulate, the dice values will usually increase. This means the decisions about whether to continue or not get harder with time, making for some tough decisions requiring good judgment on weighing the odds.
Jump Thy Neighbor
There are a few other elements to the game to make the push-your-luck decisions more interesting. When advancing your player token, any spaces occupied by your opponents’ tokens are skipped. So it’s possible to gain a lot of ground with just one successful roll, if the other tokens are all stacked up in front of yours.
If the space you end up in has a chip in it, you occupy the space and keep the chip. At the end of the game, each player gets bonus points for how many chips they’ve captured. The point schedule is printed on the board, but in every case, an additional chip adds 1 or 2 points to your score. So this is a small sweetener that gives you another objective during your turn.
Finally, you aren’t allowed to advance your token into the upper portion of a track until you have moved at least three of your tokens from their starting spaces. Because of the jumping rule, there’s a tendency for players to focus on the same track, to try to make a lot of progress with less effort. The “three started tokens” rule gives the players incentive to go with multiple tracks and gives the game a better flow.
The game ends the moment that the upper portion of all five tracks have at least one token in them. That means that when the fifth upper portion gets its first token, that player’s turn ends immediately and the scores are computed. The score for your five tokens, based on their advancement in their tracks, are summed up and the chip bonus added to that. Highest score wins.
You’ll Not See Yahtzee
The best thing about Step by Step is that the base mechanism really is something brand new: not another “roll three times” Yahtzee clone, nor a game where the sum of the dice is the goal, as in Can’t Stop or Pickomino. The “higher or lower” concept gives the players some interesting decisions, but it still moves fast, which is an essential element of any dice game. Plus, it’s a true press-your-luck game, which always adds to the excitement. For fans of probability management, as well as those who enjoy the thrill of throwing dice, it’s a nice little package.
Something I view as a positive is that many of the choices in the game aren’t calculable. People with a little basic probability knowledge won’t have any trouble with the odds involving one or two dice. But, just as an example, are you better off trying to roll lower than a 13 on three dice or rolling less than 20 on five dice? And even if some savant can figure that out in their head, how do you take into account the greater chance of getting more 5′s and 6′s in the five dice reroll? For problems like these, you need to develop an intuition about the best course of action (just like most players do in Can’t Stop) and in my opinion, that make the game more interesting and less like a math exercise.
One clever touch is that the chips, the presence of the opposing pieces, and the separated tracks give the players some intermediate goals that affects their approach each turn, which lends the game some nice variety and raises the skill level. For example, on one turn, the chip (or the big clump of opponents’ pieces) might be 4 spaces away, while on another one, the top of the bottom half of the track limits your advancement to 2 spaces. A smart player will often play her turn differently in those two situations and that can definitely affect your chances of winning.
I’ve seen a few complaints about the design that I don’t agree with. One is that the game lacks drama and skill, because if you roll several 1′s or 6′s, the advancing is automatic. However, I feel that anyone who views the game that way is missing the point; as I tried to show in my example, you can often do better in the long run if you mix in other numbers with the automatic results, even though you increase your chances of crapping out. It can take just as much skill and imagination to get the most out of a roll with several 1′s or 6′s as it does with more intermediate results.
Another complaint is that the flat point schedule (almost all the increases on the tracks are by 1 VP) reduce the interest in the game. The reason that isn’t a valid point is the rule about jumping over opponents’ pieces means that advancement is anything but flat. Taking advantage of what your opponents have done before you (and trying not to give them too much of an easy target to jump over themselves) is an essential part of the game.
I’ve played this with 3, 4, and 5 players and 4 seems to be the sweet spot. It’s okay with 5, but the board gets a bit crowded and the downtime is a little more than I like. With 3, the reverse side of the board features shorter tracks, so it scales well, but I just found the 4-player game a little more interesting. Still, I can recommend this with 3 or 4 players. I haven’t tried it with 2, but my suspicion is that it would be decent, but not ideal.
I have no problems with the components. The dice are easy to roll and easy to read, not an insignficant issue given that there are six of them. The markers and chips are easily distinguishable and appropriately chunky. The board is clearly laid out and makes pleasant use of color. The whole thing is compactly packaged and has a nice small footprint, both on the table and on your shelves. Dennis Lohausen, one of the busier graphic artists in gaming (his efforts include Hawaii and Village), probably didn’t have to sweat too much to put this together, but a true professional delivers on the easier jobs as well as the harder ones and that’s just what he did here.
Like any dice game, there will be instances where a player rolls so well or so poorly that their fate is sealed no matter what strategy they pursue. My last game was like that, with an opponent making such heavenly rolls that we urged him to buy every lottery ticket he saw on the way home. But that shouldn’t happen often. Step by Step is a nice filler with a unique dice mechanism. It plays fast and gives the players some interesting probability management decisions to make. It doesn’t stack up to Can’t Stop, but then again, what dice game does? It’s a nice alternative for fans of the six-sided cubes which has gone mostly unnoticed so far. If you like games where you get to roll dem bones, picking up a copy is a logical step.