Buzzworthiness: Dice Town

Time for another review:

image by BGG user stofke
image by BGG user stofke

Dice Town is a game from 2009 that was designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc.  Asmodee publishes the game in the US.  The game is for 2-5 players and takes around an hour to play.  The idea is that you’re playing dice in the Old West, trying to earn money and control portions of the town.

Each player has a set of five poker dice (that is, dice with 9-10-J-Q-K-A on the faces) and a rounded cup.  In each round, players simultaneously roll their dice under their cup, then choose how many they want to keep.  Everyone reveals their choice at the same time, then pays.  You can keep one die for free, and each additional one costs a dollar (everyone starts with $8).  It also costs a dollar to keep none of the dice you rolled.  This repeats until someone has locked all five of their dice, at which time everyone else gets one more roll, keeping all dice from that for free.

After the rolling phase, you resolve what each player has.  Whoever has the most nines gets one gold nugget per nine.  The most tens gets to rob all the money from the bank (money paid for dice goes to a stagecoach, which goes to the bank for the next round).  The most Jacks gets to draw one General Store card per Jack, keeping one.  The most Queens gets to look at one card from another player per Queen and keep one.  The most Kings gets to be Sheriff – the Sheriff makes the final decision as to who wins ties (bribes accepted), and also gets five points at the end of the game.  The best poker hand gets to take the first card from an array of property cards, plus one per Ace in your roll (up to three total property cards).  If anyone did not win anything in this round, they get to go to Doc Badluck, which could allow them to protect a property card, draw a General Store card, steal money from others, or steal gold from others.

The game continues until all property cards or all gold nuggets have been taken.  Points are totaled from General Store cards, property cards, gold nuggets (one point each), and money (one point per $2).  The player with the most points wins.

COMPONENTS: Dice Town comes with some unique components, particularly the dice and cups.  Poker dice aren’t new, but they are definitely not as widely used as those with numbers.  The die sides are color-coded to help you differentiate them since they are sometimes difficult to distinguish at a glance (though not impossible).  The cups are short and rounded, fitting easily in your hand.  This helps with hiding the dice as you decide what to keep (don’t want to tip anyone off).  The art on all the cards is quite well done, as illustrated by the great Pierô.

In terms of functionality, the components work well to help remind you what things do.  The board is laid out in such a way that you can remember what each combination of dice will get you.  It’s a narrow board with a layout of the town, gold mine on one end to Doc Badluck on the other (and all points in between).  The board is really only there for the purpose of reminding you of the scoring – it’s not strictly necessary, but it is definitely useful.  Additionally, the backs of the property cards help remind you of the order of poker hands in case you can’t remember if a straight beats a full house or not.

I only have two little quibbles with the components.  First, the sheriff’s badge is just a card that you’re supposed to put up on a plastic stand.  It’s not terrible, I just think an actual badge would have been better, though probably not as cost effective.  The other is that the game uses paper money.  To be fair, it’s probably the thickest paper money I’ve ever seen, but it’s still paper money.  This is a game that could probably have benefited from poker chips (and that makes sense with the theme).  This two things are really just nitpicks, and easily fixable – get a plastic star from a toy store and your own poker chips, and you’re set.  Overall, the components get a big thumbs up from me.

THEME: Dice Town is set in the Old West, and the theme, while present, is kind of weak.  Sure, the poker feel matches the theme, and each location has sufficient relation to Old West stuff (gold mining, bank, general store, saloon, and so on).  But it’s not a very immersive theme – you don’t really feel like a cowboy.  It’s not a game that lives or dies by its theme, just know that this is not the ultimate Old West game you’ve been waiting for.

MECHANICS: The most prominent mechanism in this game is dice rolling.  It’s a variation on the Yahtzee mechanism, where players get exactly three rolls.  Here, you could have as few as two and as many as you can afford.  The payment method is a good way to keep people engaged and adds some resource management – sure, you can spend four dollars to keep all five of your dice after one roll, but then you may not have enough money next time.

Having everyone roll simultaneously adds some strategy as you need to look around, see what others are doing, and decide whether or not you want to continue pursuing your current path.  I’m saving 9s, but Jim currently has one more 9 than I do.  Do I want to continue? Or start trying for 10s, which no one has saved yet?  Doc Badluck may play into your decision, as not winning anything lets you go to him, and that can be very powerful to protect your property card that is valued at 5, or to make some quick cash off your opponents.

My favorite mechanism in the game is the Sheriff’s ability to break ties.  It’s going to happen throughout your game – two players roll thr same number of a face, and the Sheriff has to decide which one gets it.  And so the bidding war begins – cards, money, gold nuggets, it’s all fair game (I usually house rule in that meta gaming deals are not allowed – no promises to clean someone’s bathroom, or buy them dinner, or even to allow someone the right to NOT sleep on the couch).  I like the extra negotiation aspect it adds, and I especially like when the Sheriff has to choose a successor.

To sum up – I don’t have any complaints about the mechanics of Dice Town.  It players very well.

STRATEGY LEVEL: As I mentioned before, one of the main strategy points you have is looking around at what others are doing, and deciding if you want to keep on your current path.  The General Store cards add some more tactics to the game as you have to decide the best time to use them.  There is definitely luck in the game – I for one am terrible at rolling good poker hands.  However, there is enough to mitigate the luck that it doesn’t feel like a lucky game.  It’s not a game of bluffing, as in real poker, but it is a good game of trying to get the best cards you can to meet your particular goals. The game is not the deepest experience, but it has enough strategy to keep it interesting.

ACCESSIBILITY: Dice Town is a gateway level game. It takes a very familiar game (poker) and adds a number of modern board game elements. The familiarity of poker plus the novelty of dice added to the Old West theme will draw people in, and the game beyond that is simple and straightforward enough that anyone can play and enjoy it. It’s one that all types of players.

REPLAYABILITY: I think this game is very replayable. Your hands will be different every time, which means you’re going to be forced to use different strategies as you go. I think the expansion adds even more replayability. It adds a second option for each result that the winner can choose between, with second place taking the other. It adds a new level, but the game is perfectly fine and replayable just as it is.

SCALABILITY: This game is for 2-5 players, but I would say that you probably shouldn’t play with 2. 4 is my favorite number, but I think 3 and 5 work well too. With 3, it’s a lot more difficult to get to Doc Badluck, and 5 muddies the waters a little too much. But I would recommend the game with 3-5.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I love Dice Town. It’s fun, it’s simple to understand, it has great art, and it’s a strong system that keeps everyone engaged throughout. If you’ve never player, I would definitely recommend you check it out.

Programming note: I’ve been doing two posts a week all year so far, but this is going to be the only one you see this week. I’ll be back next week with a new edition of The Eleven and another review. Thanks for reading!

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