Dice vs Cards
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
ROLLING A DIE AND DRAWING A CARD?
MAYBE MORE THAN YOU REALIZE.
The article below is originally posted in League of Game Makers site by Scott Caputo. It’s reposted here, with permission, with my own remarks and comments.
I chose to post it here, as it happens to describe very well why did I choose cards instead of dice in Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift and should I have had to write the whole text again, that would have taken quite an effort. These questions have been asked countless times over the years we’ve been
working on Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift. And I think you all ought to know why we did these decisions. We’re open to comments and feedback. Don’t be shy.
Scott: In my day job, I design casino games, so I spend a lot of time around cards, dice, and other instruments of randomness. Rolling a die is a classic example of picking with replacement, meaning the pool of possible outcomes remains the same from pick to pick. Drawing a card is a classic example of picking without replacement, meaning the pool of outcomes dwindles with each pick. This difference alone leads to many benefits and drawbacks for dice and cards. The next time you are trying to choose the right mechanic for your game, here are some things to consider:
DRAWING A CARD
ALL OUTCOMES ARE GUARANTEED TO HAPPEN AT SOME POINT AND OCCUR WITH EXPECTED FREQUENCY
If you have a killer card in your deck, you know it’s guaranteed to appear in your hand eventually. That’s a big difference with a die. If your killer move is on a die face, that die face may never be rolled.
• And that is exactly the reason for choosing small decks for each Hero in Perdition’s Mouth. Outcomes are predictable, easy to memorize and allow tactical options.
THE REMAINING ELEMENTS IN THE DECK MAY BE EXTRA
Ever play Dominion and realize you haven’t seen your best cards yet? As the deck dwindles and your best cards still haven’t appeared, you realize your next few hands will be epic. That can provide a lot of anticipation as you draw each new card into your hand.
• As in Dominion, so in Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift. In the Response deck we chose to include a ‘shuffle deck’ card to limit the usefulness of card counting. However, as the distribution of cards is known even the most basic counting of possibilities will yield infinitively better estimation of your chances than dice would ever allow.
OFFERS GREATER POSSIBILITY OF VARIABILITY — PUT ANY NUMBER OF DIFFERENT CARDS IN THE DECK THAT YOU WANT
Designing a card game offers tons of flexibility compared to a dice game. You want to add a new outcome type — just throw a new card in the deck. You can easily add and remove cards.
• Even if we design Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift with 12 card decks, this flexibility in deck sizes has been tested. There are means for deck sizes to vary. We do intend to provide an additional 13 th card for each deck. But similarly, we have prepared additional cards for a few of the decks, which add flavor without causing balance issues. Those might be provided as promo cards or by other means. This sort of flexibility would be virtually impossible to reach with dice.
EASY TO CHANGE ODDS ON THE FLY — GAIN ANOTHER CARD IN YOUR DECK
Want to make something more frequent in a card game you are designing? Just throw another card of that type into the deck. You can fine tune the odds of various cards by changing the numbers of various cards and increasing or decreasing the overall deck size. That sort of fine tuning is much harder to do with dice.
• We had specifically this in mind when we began the game design. We intended to make the decks unique, yet
allowing them to evolve (Wound cards & Victim cards). This also allows us to make later additions without
RULEBOOK vs. CARDS
• I’d like to also point out that cards allow superceding rulebook in a way that dice can never do. One can write a card which breaks the standard rules, if the rulebook says (like it does in Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift) that card text is always correct in case of a conflict between card and rulebook.
STREAKS ARE NOT POSSIBLE
If you have one Super Attack card in your deck, there’s no way you can draw that same card three times in a row. Once you play it, it’s in your discard pile, so you cannot get the super streaks like from rolling a die.
• I don’t see this as a disadvantage, but a huge benefit. If a given Hero can perform the very same miraculous feat on every turn, how miraculous is it really? In my view point, this only adds plausibility, which I personally enjoy. If you are more for ”let my Hero be a superhero every turn” then you might have to stick with some other game, as we do not provide that. On purpose.
LESS RANDOMNESS & POSSIBLY EASIER CHEAT
Ever been to a magic show? How many card tricks have you seen where a magician alters a deck of cards in some way to make something surprising happen. Yes, cards can be more easily hacked than a die.
• Then again, do you intend to play with card sharks that actually cheat on a board game? Yes, you can cheat with dice, too. We chose not to take cheating as a major concern in our board game design effort.
MAY BE HARD TO GROK THE ODDS OF ALL THE POSSIBLE
Ever play a new game with lots of unfamiliar cards? Maybe you’re asking yourself — how frequent is this card or that card? Even if you examine a deck of cards to a new game, it’s not easy to get a sense of how often various outcomes happen and that gets truer the larger the deck of cards.
• A very fair point. Memory for most of us is limited. We tried with varying deck and hand sizes and noticed that the current numbers allow the vast majority of players to remember their own deck pretty much instantly. If the deck would be 20+ cards the ability to remember and calculate the odds for the whole deck rapidly declined.
THE REMAINING ELEMENTS IN THE DECK MAY BE EXTRA
If you just had an epic hand with all your best cards, you know your next hand is likely to be much less exciting. In fact, the remaining cards in your deck may be downright awful and there is nothing you can do about it until you shuffle your deck again.
• And this fits the horror theme nicely. If you know that you have wounds in your deck but those have not been
drawn yet, that is giving you a strong indication to do ”Rest” action and force a shuffle of discard and draw piles
and hope for a favourable outcome.
MITIGATING THE LUCK OF THE DRAW
The larger the hand size, the less impact randomness will have on the game. But once hand size gets too big, players might start to get AP issues. It’s also hard to hold lots of cards in your hand.
• Indeed, this took some balancing as our hero decks, hand sizes and Hero abilities had to be balanced as totals, not each one separately.
Instead of drawing cards randomly from a deck, players could build their hand by choosing from face up cards such as in Ticket to Ride or Taj Mahal.
• This has been asked by several players during beta stage and found very hard to implement with wound cards (and related ”negative deck building”) as no sane player would ever choose a wound card in their hand if they’d be given the choice.
In some games players can get cards not just by drawing them, but also by stealing them like Settlers of Catan, or taking the top card from the discard pile, like Evolution Progress of Technology. By expanding the ways in which players get cards, it’s more likely they may get what they want.
• This is very much true and implemented in Perditions’ Mouth: Abyssal Rift on more than one level.
Dominion and its brethren games let players choose what type of cards to add to their decks and how many of each type of card. Players can fine tune the odds of individual cards coming up based on their deck size and composition.
• Most often deck building is for having a better deck – this we kept as baseline in our design efforts, but soon we noticed that preventing ‘negative deck building’ became an equally essential part of the chosen game mechanic in Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift.
It’s all the game design rage to have cards with lots of potential uses, a trend started by Glory to Rome where each card can be used in four different ways. Usually this involves having multiple attributes on a card and the player decides which of the attributes to tap.
• Being a huge fan of the aforementioned Glory to Rome, this multiuse aspect was part of the design ideology. It’s implemented with the simple ability to discard any card as numeric value of ‘1’ and the rather versatile aiding ruleset.
ROLLING A DIE
• Yep, one could write comments below as well, but I think all of the reasoning below is sound and explains well why we didn’t choose dice, but cards. Dice are nice, tactile and work well for certain game types. I do not actively ‘hate’ dice even they often seem to hate me. But value tactics that you can design based on skill and the current luck situation, rather than pure die luck. In Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift you can easily calculate how many Action Points you need to spend for a given action to certainly succeed. But as points are limited, you can commonly either choose to do two actions with 60% chances of succeeding or one at 100%. That is a then a question that a player has to choose, which is more beneficial? I didn’t find means to produce the same outcome with dice. One day someone might teach me where my thinking process went South, but until then we’ll
continue down this avenue. – Timo
STREAKS ARE POSSIBLE
Yes, you could keep rolling double sixes! Ever play craps? It can be crazy fun if the current shooter is on a hot streak. It’s hard to get that “hot streak” feeling from cards.
MORE RELIABLE RANDOMNESS
Cards have to be shuffled to be random, but a die is instantly ready. There are no questions about whether the die was “shuffled enough”. Try this test. If someone offered you a 50/50 chance to win $100, would you rather roll a 1, 2, or 3 on a die, or draw a red card from a shuffled standard deck? Probably, you would choose to roll the die. Who knows how the cards were shuffled? How well do you trust the person who shuffled the cards? Are there any cards missing? The die just comes with less baggage.
EASY TO SEE ALL POSSIBLE OUTCOMES AND THEIR RELATIVE ODDS
Want to know what outcomes you can get on a die? Just pick it up and look at every side. If a symbol appears on
multiple sides, you can easily understand the better odds for that outcome.
ROLLING CAN BE MORE FUN THAN DRAWING
For some cards just don’t have that same level of physical appeal. It feels like you have a better chance at controlling your destiny by rolling a die than simply drawing the next card from the top of your deck.
WHO DOESN’T LOVE CHUCKING A HUGE WAD OF DICE?
• Me, for instance. But basically that’s what most dungeon crawls are still built with. Yes, it’s nice to have a bucketful of dice and it can be gratifying to see a pot luck shot to work out. However, having played a lot of dice driven games it drives me crazy that you can’t base your game on skill, but luck in dice. We aimed to change that, even if it meant losing the physical appeal of a bucketful of dice. – Timo
NO OUTCOME IS GUARANTEED TO HAPPEN, OR MAY OCCUR AT AN UNEXPECTED FREQUENCY
Ever had a night when the dice just didn’t go your way? While it’s fun to roll double sixes six times in a row, it’s equally frustrating to roll snake eyes consistently. Dice can frustrate gamers to no end if they played perfect strategy but the dice consistently went against them.
NUMBER OF POSSIBLE OUTCOMES IS LIMITED TO THE SIDES OF THE DIE
The standard die obviously only has six sides, so there are only so many outcomes you can get from a die. You could certainly change the die you are using to a D10 or a D20, but the sides will get smaller and smaller, so custom dice with so many sides would likely be impractical.
THE OUTCOMES ARE BAKED INTO THE DIE AND IMPOSSIBLE TO CHANGE
Want to change the odds of certain outcomes happening mid-game? That’s hard to do with dice given their fixed nature. You would need the help of other components.
A DIE CAN NEVER OFFER MORE FAVORABLE ODDS
A die can never be in a “juiced” state where better outcomes are more likely. That’s because a die has no concept of previous history while a deck of cards does.
MITIGATING THE LUCK OF THE DIE
Yahtzee is the most famous dice game where you get up to 3 rerolls on your dice before your dice are locked. That mechanic has been used far and wide, most notable in games like King of Tokyo.
EARN MORE DICE
Games such as Roll through the Ages and To Court the King let you earn more dice over the course of the game. Obviously, the more dice you roll, the better chance you will get what you want.
ADJUSTING A RESULT
Don’t like the way dice rolled? There are lots of games that allow players to modify the die result, usually be +1 /-1. A game like Eldritch Horror allows players to gain equipment and allies which automatically improve dice rolls. A game like Castles of Burgundy let players spend a worker to change a die roll by 1.
In some games, a pool of dice are rolled and players take turns drafting from that pool, such as Yspahan. In other games, you can choose which custom dice to add to your pool of dice such as Quarriors. In Formula D, you can choose which type of die to roll (D6, D10, D20, etc.) and that affects how fast you go, but also how likely you are to crash your race car.
In some games, there are many uses for a given die, some requiring a low number and others a high number. In this way, any roll could be a good roll as it could be good for at least one kind of action. I like how many ways dice can be used in the Castles of Burgundy and higher or lower numbers are not necessarily better.
The original article:
Mechanics Face Off: Dice VS. Cards
For more discussion on dice vs. cards, see Brad Brooks’ piece:
Transmorgify your Mechanics
For more information on probability, see James Ernest’s piece: