How did the roll and write genre get so popular all of a sudden? Yahtzee is an okay game, but I don’t remember any roll and writes beyond that until the past couple of years where now everyone and their cat has designed one. I understand the appeal of roll and writes–they’re typically relaxing, gentle games of progression and push your luck. They are usually easy to learn and there’s something nice about notating your score or your progression as you go along. But culturally, why did this happen now? Why not 20 years ago? Or 10? I have no clue.
Diving headfirst into this fad is acclaimed designer Stefan Feld. He and co-designer Christoph Toussaint have created a roll and write version of the delightful Castles of Burgundy. It’s called the “dice game” which makes sense, because, you know, dice. But it also feels a bit odd because the original Castles of Burgundy was already a dice game.
Utilizing the much aligned art assets from the original CoB, the dice game somehow makes them seem more muddy and dour. Now I don’t really have as much of a problem with the art as others, but I have to admit that this presentation of it is not attractive at all. The paper it’s printed on darkens everything and makes the simple depictions of French country living look like French country living with depressing rain clouds overhead. Additionally, the size of the paper necessitates that all of the hexagons in the primary play grid be smaller and more cramped. This was necessary so that the pads of paper could fit into a small box, and believe me, I’m all for games using boxes appropriate to their size. But even a slightly larger pad would have given everything more room to breathe.
CoB:TDG is essentially a solo game that can accompany multiple players. The only bit of interaction possible between the players is over who fills out each color first for bonus points. This is carried over from the original game, but that was the most insignificant bit of interaction they could have transferred. The original, especially at two players, has a drafting tension sorely missed in the dice game. There is no fighting for certain tiles or jockeying for turn order in order to block key point-scoring components from your opponent’s strategy. In fact, it’s entirely possible here that two players end up with the exact same game board at the end of the game. The number of branching choices available make that unlikely, but the fact remains that everyone is playing the same game simultaneously without much regard for anyone else.
While I wish there was more interaction between the players and I fully admit that I’ve enjoyed the game much more as a solo experience rather than a competitive one, that doesn’t mean the game itself is bad. In fact, I find it quite fun. It maintains the core mechanism of attempting to fill in color-coded regions on a hexagonal map those familiar with the original CoB will know all about, but simplifies and twists the proceedings in subtle ways.
Gone are the yellow knowledge spaces that provided certain victory point bonuses and passive efficiency benefits, in are uniform purple monasteries. In fact, everything in the game is significant only in terms of its color. Farms are just farms instead of potentially containing up to 4 different kinds of animals. Buildings merely give points instead of 8 different bonuses depending on which specific building you place.
The result is a more abstracted game that emphasizes the geographic features of the play area rather than which specific tiles you obtain. Opening up more options for yourself, especially towards the beginning of the game, is more important here. Interestingly, the point schedule reverses incentives compared to the original game. In the board game you want to finish smaller regions early because that gives you bonus points for finishing any region early. In the dice game you get more points for finishing regions early, but the larger regions have the biggest point losses as the game progresses. In fact, single-hex regions are worth the same number of points regardless of when they’re completed. This incentive is counterbalanced by an incentive to finish regions so that you can get whatever one time use bonus they generate (changing a die face, getting a 2nd action, and other things you’d expect from a dice game are available).
The bonuses are important because your options are limited by dice rolls, and at least a couple times a game those rolls are going to provide zero viable options. In those cases if you do not have any ability to manipulate a die, you are forced to pass your turn and take a die-manipulation ability instead. This makes the game a push-your-luck balancing act that feels similar to the other roll and writes I’ve played. You want to try to maximize your points, but you also want to set up some flexibility to hedge against poor dice rolls. At its best, this dynamic creates an exciting game of trying to carefully toe a line. At its worst, if you’re simply trying to beat your high score, you go along hoping for good rolls and ignore the games that don’t work out.
That seems to be a problem with any game of this kind without a lot of interaction with opponents. It only really works as a puzzle if you’re trying to get the consistently highest scores. The moment you shift into a binary “beat this high score or fail” mindset the push-your-luck elements turn into luck-or-bust. High scores require high risk, but a game in which you simply find out if you get lucky in your risk-taking quickly becomes boring and rote. CoB:TDG, paradoxically, feels like it ought to be solo game, but from a competitive standpoint it needs other people to weigh your risk-taking against. In this sense it feels like it’s in conflict with itself.
However, I don’t really care to play it as a competitive exercise. I play it to wind down from a tough day, or to see what kind of interesting choices I’m confronted with within its austere hexagonal grid. There’s something nice about that rhythm–roll, then write. It’s calming. I’ll take it.
+Plays very well as a calming solo game
+Decent balance between randomness and mitigation
-Doesn’t look great
-Very little interaction