It’s Wednesday! This time, I remembered. Let’s do this. Let’s get a rule I’m not pulling from a game specifically (though I do have one in mind) but from a vast array of games out there in the world. Let’s pull a mechanic straight from Board Game Geek’s list of mechanics:
“Roll / Spin and move games are games where players roll dice or spin spinners and move playing pieces in accordance with the roll.”
By and large, I don’t like “Roll to move” in board games. Obviously, there are some where the rolling is a central conceit of the game: Snakes and Ladders comes to mind, as does Monopoly, games which are entirely about moving forward on an unthinking, unbranching path, in which the natural variance of the dice is a meaningful part of the game or (in the case of Snakes and Ladders at least) the only meaningful part of the game. S&L takes it roots from Game of the Goose, which is really just a betting game, and it shows.
Elsewhere… ugh. Recently I played Touch of Evil, which is one of my favorites from Flying Frog–it’s my wife’s favorite, I prefer the competitive aspect of Last Night on Earth, but both suffer from the same design element so it’s all moot. There is a map, there are locations on it, they are not all in a line but branching away from one another, and the players have to move their avatars from point to point to react to the dangers about them, but they may only move as many spaces as they can roll on a six-sided die.
The benefits of a roll and move system? Well, primarily, it adds a level of definite uncertainty; a play does not know, for instance, whether or not she can make it to the Windmill on time to start a showdown with the villain this turn, or if she must risk waiting another. I can’t know for sure if I will make it away from the zombies surrounding me, or if I will just have to stand in place and fight for a round. Variance it thrown into the game mechanically, and from that variance comes tension. Likewise, from a narrative/representational standpoint, sometimes people who try to run don’t go very far; they trip, they get hung up, they are blocked in by one thing or another. Sometimes the ground is clear and they get further than they expected. Rolling to move acknowledges that the notion of a character always being able to move five yards in a turn (or however one wants to register the spaces on the board in “real space” is artificial. So that’s… that’s fine then.
And yet I don’t like it. I usually avoid talking about mechanics I don’t like, but this is a pervasive one. Obviously, it’s not present in all board games, but it remains trapped in the cultural subconcious as an element of board games, the sort of thing that people have to purposefully think away from. There is no such thing as a truly blank slate in any sort of design–every school of thought is stained by ideas so common as to seem almost essential–and in board gaming the notion that “obviously you roll to determine how far you move” is one of those stains which one has to willfully wipe off. Or, as the case may be, not.
It simulates random tripping and bursts of speed and delays… poorly. It’s not so much that the variance is too high, it’s that it’s too REGULAR. In a game like Monopoly this regular variance is fine, because you aren’t actually representing movement through space, just wiggling about an average. But people aren’t moving about an average evenly… they generally have one runnign speed, sometimes go quicker, sometimes slower, and rarely trip up entirely. The die for this might be numbered 0, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6; most of the time you’re moving, sometimes extra fast, but every so often BOFFO, things suck for you.
Of course, that hits up the secondary problem of reduced player control; there is little worse in board gaming than rolling a 1 to move. Touch of Evil tries to remedy this by awarding an Event card, but that worsens the problem of control; they argue that it represents the player opting to take time and note their surroundings as they move, but I didn’t want to note my surroundings! I wanted to get to the damned windmill! Rolling low is punitive, without having a good call for BEING punitive. If another player drops a card to stall me, that’s competition. If I try to move extra fast and that stalls me, that’s risk/reward (see the trains in Fury of Dracula). If I need to get twp spots away but can only get one… well what’s up with that shit, huh? Not cool, bro. Not cool.
But I suppose more than anything else, my problem is this: rolling to move means that I have to roll a lot. Every turn! That’s all well and good if a game is about movement (see Formula D, which is all about racing and has a lot of mechanical tweaks to “Roll and Move”), but something like Touch of Evil isn’t, really, about movement, it’s about investigation. Last Night on Earth is about movement for the zombie player, but for the humans its about finding stuff and using it. Moving from place to place is incidental in these games, a thing you gotta do in order to be in a new place, but not the focus of the game in and of itself. So why does it become an event every turn? Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend the time, energy, and emotional beats on something relevant to the central feeling of the game? Roll to investigate, or roll to scavenge? Roll for the core concepts, and let the periphery take care of themselves for a smoother, streamlined sort of game experience?
Me, I think it would. I still had fun, but it was always tainted by a little bit of frustration and a desire to enact some houserules that have been floating around in the back of my head.
(Bonus: Unplaytested houserule for movement in Touch of Evil and Last Night on Earth: You may either: move one space and draw an Event card (in ToE) or search (if indoors in LNoE), OR move three spaces, OR move six spaces and roll a die–on a one you draw a Mystery card (in ToE) or trip and fall, moving no spaces (in LNoE).)