The Case Study: Cards v. Dice

The playtesting project involves playing a lot of Over the Next Dune, which means setting the game up over and over. Unfortunately, OtND’s setup is a bit lengthy. I’ve been looking for ways to cut that time down, and one method under consideration is replacing the searcher movement cards (which have to be shuffled, a process which many find lengthy and somewhat challenging) with dice. For example, instead of drawing a searcher movement card players could just roll a die–on a 1 the searcher turns left, on a 6 it turns right, and 2-5 it would go straight ahead.

Facts: Currently, OtND uses a deck of 60 searcher movement cards to determine whether each searcher turns during the search phase. The deck has seven left turns, seven right turns, and 46 straight-aheads, which results in about an 11% chance of each turn and about a 77% chance of moving straight ahead. In testing, these odds have produced enough turns to add an exciting danger of the searchers turning without rendering their movement completely unpredictable.

Beyond controlling the searchers’ movement the cards provide information on how the searchers have already moved. As a result, players are able to make more informed judgments as the game progresses as to how the searchers will move in the future.

While it is not their intended function the searcher movement cards also serve as a perfectly good game clock. If the turn marker has become unreliable (e.g., because the table was jostled or there is some question as to whether it was moved when it was supposed to be), one can still tell when the game ends by when the searcher movement cards run out. Six cards a turn taken from a 60 card deck means that the deck runs out in 10 turns, which is also when the game is over.

Searcher movement cards are also occasionally handy to keep track of which searchers have already moved in a given search phase. If there are 23 discarded cards, the players know that this is the fourth search phase (six cards per search phase for the previous three turns), and that searcher number six is next to move (the five extra cards mean that searchers one, two, three, four, and five have already moved).

Although they are working well once the game begins, the searcher movement cards do add to the game’s setup time. In addition, some players find shuffling the cards inconvenient or even difficult.

It is possible to replace the searcher movement cards with dice, and to retain approximately the same odds of turning. For example, the odds of the results of two dice summing to five or 10 are each about 11%. Writing the rule as “roll two dice; if the sum is five the searcher turns left, if it is 10 the searcher turns right, and if the sum is anything else the searcher goes straight ahead” would produce almost the same rate of searcher turns as the current system.

However, using dice would make it impossible to predict the searchers’ future behavior from previous turns. The odds of the searcher turning would be the same for each individual roll, instead of changing as cards are used from the deck.

In addition, dice would not be able to imitate the game clock and which-searchers-have-moved functions that the searcher movement cards can serve.

Issue: Should dice replace the searcher movement cards as the means of determining whether and in which direction searchers turn?


1. Decisions players make should be interesting throughout the game.
2. As a corollary, players should start making those interesting decisions as soon as possible.

Thinking it through: Switching to dice has some pretty serious costs. I very much like how the cards reward players for staying invested and revisiting the odds of various turns as the game goes on. Losing that would be disappointing to say the least. After all, such information-tracking was important enough to justify making the discard pile available to the players.

From the game design ivory tower keeping track of turns and which searcher is about to move is a lesser blow. However, in practice I’ve found that it’s easy for a momentary distraction to result in players losing their place in the game. That isn’t anyone’s fault or a criticism; it’s natural for a group of friends to pause their game as they chat about something, or for a parent to need to give attention to his or her child, or for other interruptions to occur. Having an easy way to get back on track is very valuable in the real world.

Using dice is only justified, then, if the greater ease of setup outweighs everything else. I just don’t think that one advantage can carry the weight. It’s true that it gets one to the meat of the game faster, but the time gained is minimal. What’s worse, the meat ends up being less satisfying, since one no longer gets the added interest of working with the changing odds. Players eat sooner, but the meal’s not as good.

It’s common, in law, for different rules or parts of rules to pull in different directions. Sometimes the only thing one can do is balance them out as best one can. For the moment, I feel that the balance is in favor of the searcher movement cards. If that changes, I’ll mention it, and if you disagree, feel free to let me know in the comments.


One thought on “The Case Study: Cards v. Dice

  1. Since my background is software development with an interest in simulations I can’t help asking – do you ever write computer simulations to test any of how your rules would play out statistically via Monte-Carlo type simulations? I know that doesn’t capture the human element which is important as well (things like setup time, frustration, etc.) but I feel like game design nowadays can be really information by such simulations.

    I happen to be working on a simulation of Hearthstone and it’s alot of fun to play with the different mathematical possibilities.

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