In five millennia, dice and their use have barely evolved. In 2004, archaeologists at an Iranian archaeological site known as The Burnt City found the oldest dice known to man. The 5,000 year-old stone cubes accompanied a Backgammon set — a game you can still buy today at Target — and used the same dot pattern familiar to modern gamers.
But a handful of game designers over the past decade have injected new life into this long-stagnant, but always reliable technology.
In 2010, publisher Clever Mojo Games Kickstarted a game called Alien Frontiers. The game raised $14,885 on a $5,000 funding goal and successfully made the transition from Kickstarter darling to brick and mortar product based on its novel approach to dice.
In Alien Frontiers, each player rolls between three and six dice at the start of his turn. Then, based on the roll's result, the player assigns dice to areas of the board. In one area, players can only use dice that have a value equal to or greater than the dice already there. In another area, the player must assign two dice of the same value. Their common value establishes the exchange rate between energy (a cheap and common resource) and ore (a less common and more valuable resource) — making a pair of ones the best dice for this space.
"I wanted it to be [that] higher is not always better," said Tory Niemann, the game's designer. "I wanted each number to be useful in a particular way."
This differs from traditional game design where higher is almost always better. A 12 in Monopoly moves players around the board faster than a two, and a six in Risk beats a five. While Yahtzee rewards players for completing some configurations agnostic to individual die values, four sixes still scores more points than four ones.
Even classic games that differ from this formula usually do so only by reversing it. In the World War II game Axis & Allies, players score hits when they roll a number less than their troops' attack value. In this way, the one and the six trade roles.
Niemann's Alien Frontiers up-ends that formula, and he's not the only game designer to do so — nor is he the first.
In 2005, Queen Games published Roma from German game designer Stefan Feld. In this two-player game, players assign actions to die faces, and can only activate those actions by spending a die of the matching value.
Since then, Feld has embarked on a personal crusade to make dice more interesting.
"I really like dice," Feld said, but he wanted players to have control of the game. He didn't want them to win or lose based on simple luck. In most classic games like Monopoly and Risk, that's exactly what can happen, and often does.
Risk aficionados often build strategies around statistical likelihoods. Ardent fans have calculated the likely outcome of every possible attacker-on-defender matchup. An attacker with six armies, for example, has a 64 percent chance of conquering a territory defended by four armies.
But those overall odds fail to matter on individual battles. If the defender in the six-on-four scenario starts the combat round with a pair of sixes, the attacker's win probability drops to 36 percent. If the attacker presses on and loses two more armies, the attacker's chance of winning drops to 5 percent. Worse, the attacker weakened his own territory, and the defender will likely capture it on the next turn. The player fell to this unfortunate and unwanted outcome simply because the dice weren't on his side.
Even games that depart from the higher-is-better framework leave players at luck's mercy. In Settlers of Catan, players roll two dice at the start of their turn to determine which territories produce goods. Players can position their settlements to increase their statistical chance of gaining resources each roll, but luck still determines their actual outcomes.
This, Feld said, is what he wanted to eliminate.
"Sometimes it is hard to control the chaos that dice introduce," Feld said in an email interview. "There shouldn't be bad rolls."
In the past nine years, Feld has designed eight published games that all focus on dice. Each takes its own approach to using the 5,000-year-old randomizers without creating a random winner.
Castles of Burgundy typifies his efforts. In this European-style game, players take the role of French aristocrats who compete to earn the most prestige by creating the most interesting and prosperous estate. At the start of each turn, each player rolls two dice in her color. The sum of the dice doesn't matter, but their individual value does.
In Feld's Burgundy, no die value is inherently different from another. Each die value can either help players gain or place territory tiles — just so long as those tiles are coming from or going to a place with a value that matches the spent die.
When players become completely stuck, they can spend a die to gain two worker tokens — but this happens rarely. When players lack a die that matches an action they want to take, they can spend a worker to increment the die's value up or down by one. Notably, this can modify a six to a one and vice-versa.
While Alien Frontiers isn't as egalitarian as Castles of Burgundy, it provides players with more ways to modify their dice. Players can buy an advantage that lets them increment one of their dice by one. Another advantage allows players to "flip" a die to show its opposite face — a five to a two or a six to a one. This makes it easier for players to achieve their goals, especially if they use a little intellectual gymnastics.
"I wanted to players to feel clever and have those a-ha moments on their turn, not just on a strategic level but on a tactical level," Niemann said.
In addition to high and low values, Alien Frontiers rewards players for building other configurations, including straights and three of a kind. These configurations resemble those found in Yahtzee, but Niemann bristles at that comparison. People who call his game "Yahtzee in space," he said, either misunderstand Yahtzee or they misunderstand Alien Frontiers.
What Feld and Niemann have done is change dice from a mechanic to determine outcomes into a mechanic to determine starting conditions. In most games, players decide what they want to do and roll dice to find out if they succeed. In Alien Frontiers and Feld's games, players roll dice at the start of their turn and use them to make decisions.
Any given turn of Castles of Burgundy, for example, can give players an almost paralyzing number of options. When a player's roll doesn't match the actions he wants to take, he may spend workers to make it match. Or he may spend a die to get workers and ensure that he can take the action most important to him. Or he may conserve his workers, ignore the actions he planned to take, and hope he can do them more cheaply on the next turn.
In the 5,000-year scale of dice history, that's an incredibly new dynamic, but it may be an idea whose time has come. Feld and Niemann arrived at their designs independently. At the time that he created Alien Frontiers in 2010, Niemann had never heard of Feld's work — despite the fact four of his dice games had reached publication. Instead, Niemann said he drew his inspiration from a game called Kingsburg.
Kingsburg excited Niemann because he read that it blended dice with worker placement. But Kingsburg doesn't play the way Niemann imagined it. Players roll dice and assign them to a board, but the effects dice can achieve grow more powerful as their values grow higher. What Niemann expected was a game that played more like Alien Frontiers. So, he made it.
Since the release of Alien Frontiers and Castles of Burgundy, game designers have increasingly taken non-conventional views of dice. In 2012, game design website The Game Crafter held a game design contest that challenged designers to use dice in new and innovative ways. In 2014, French publisher Fun Forge published a game called Quantum that's composed almost entirely of dice, but involves very few die rolls. Instead, the dice represent ships. Their value reflects both their speed and their combat strength. Higher-valued ships move faster, but are easier to destroy.
As the board game hobby continues to grow and attract more designers, those new minds will continue to find novel new approaches to dice. Feld, Niemann and a few others jolted the technology out of 5,000 years of stagnation. Now, others are helping.