Why Roll and Move is a Bad Idea
That might sound like a weirdly simplistic subject for a Kickstarter/game design blog, but stick with me here. Every week I see a handful of Roll and Move games released on Kickstarter, they tend to fail pretty badly, but they keep coming. Generally, I write them off as being people who haven’t done enough research into games, or Kickstarter, or anything really. Then I got involved in a BGG thread from a creator who was about to put out a roll and move game, they were pretty adamant in their position and despite some pretty solid arguments to re-consider left with the intention to go ahead with their game. Which got me to thinking, Roll and Move is probably the single most pervasive mechanic outside of hobby gaming that you’ll see, those of us in the hobby talk about it as though its totally outdated, but that’s hard to back up when its still so currently universal. There are very few areas where something like this happens so totally, so I thought it would be worth actually laying out the qualities, for and against, of Roll and Move. Yes, there are some for, but also I want to say why, despite any points for, it remains a bad idea for a Kickstarter design.
What is it?
Roll and Move is any game where a random determination is used to designate how far a player pawn moves in the game area on a given turn. Most typically this is one or a set of dice and generally the end location of the pawn designates the player’s fate for that turn. Most usual examples would be Monopoly, Cluedo and Game of Life. It can also be called Spin and Move (such as in Game of Life) and I imagine ‘Flip and Move’ for cards must exist, though an example currently alludes me. Examples of games that use this mechanic and are actually good games for a modern designer or hobby gamer to look at are Railway Rivals and Heimlich and Co.
Why is it a good idea?
Yes, there are reasons it’s a good idea. Hobby gamers might not like it, but that many people are rarely 100% wrong. Here are some pros:
Its familiar. Gaming is a relaxation activity, and there is a mode our brain goes into during relaxation activity where we’re not operating at our best. This is a good thing, you need mental downtime to avoid burning out. The more parts that you can make a game out of that are familiar the easier you make the game on this less than full function version of our brains. Which is to say, that a game made up of parts like roll and move which would still manage to offer at least one or two moments of real brain tickling strategy would most likely be a more skilled and strategic game than one that offered real choices all the way through.
Think of it this way, if there are two tennis games being played, one by two players who are chauffeured to the match and one by two players who have to run there from three miles away, which is going to be the better more skilled game? A board game that offers tough choices every single turn will most often be won by the player who makes the fewest mistakes over that marathon of choices, or the one with the brain least steeped in its shutdown mode. A board game that offers one or two tough choices in the middle of a series of processes is more likely to be won by a moment of genuine strategic brilliance. However, making one or two moments where there is a real chance for genuine strategic brilliance is really hard as a designer, its far easier to make a block pusher death by a thousand cuts and to cause your winner to feel smart.
Its easy to learn. Slightly different from being familiar, because roll and move is easy to learn the first time you ever come across it. No one ever needed an FAQ to explain the rule ‘you move as many spaces as you roll’. We can dismiss the idea of a game being easy to learn (the phrase ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ is such a marketing slogan now that it pretty much guarantees that I won’t be buying/backing a game) but it is a seriously good thing for serious games. How often have you played a hardcore game and had someone at a disadvantage because they either didn’t remember, didn’t know or didn’t realise they could do a certain thing? There is a point where tactics come from seeing certain options, but they are usually at their best when all options are clear but the choice between them is not. Again, no one ever lost a game because they didn’t realise that they could move to the space six spaces away after rolling a six.
Its easy to enact. We all hate analysis paralysis. There are periods of downtime which are acceptable, as other players knock through their moves at speed, its needed and we get to watch things happening. Analysis paralysis where one player sits, staring silently at their cards and options half way through a move while everyone waits is universally horrible. Roll and Move has no analysis paralysis, everyone knows what is needed, everyone knows what will happen. It’s a good spectator sport and cuts out dithering.
Its fair. As Heath Ledger’s Joker once said, the thing about chaos is, its fair. Which is to say, its not always nice, it doesn’t even always feel fair, but it is. If the dice always come up one for you and six for your opponent its horrible, but things that are horrible can be fair. Unfairness implies agency, the dice are not picking on you, they just are what they are. They might not be just, but they are fair.
In short, roll and move done well is a good thing. Its really hard to do well though and half the problem is that most of the time when it is done, its done really badly.
Why is it not a good idea?
Which is not the same as why it is a bad idea. Reasons that you might wrongly think it’s a good idea are not the same as reasons that it’s a bad idea.
Because its familiar to you. Picking something because it is familiar to your players is good. Picking something just because its familiar to you is bad. You are the designer, its your job to go out and educate yourself about the wide world of game mechanics and return to the player, wide eyed and trembling, to proffer up to them the fruits of your investigations. One of the things that people pay their experts for is to know more than them and introduce the things they don’t know into their lives. Become familiar with all methods of moving around a board and then pick the best, if that’s Roll and Move, all to the good.
Because its easy. Roll and Move is super easy to balance, you can put anything you like on the board and its fair because everyone has an equal chance of getting everything, no-one can complain. So long as the things that happen on each of the spaces are in some way fun or funny, the game can’t have any flaws, ipso facto. The issue with this is that people don’t really want to pay you to do something that’s visibly very easy. A flat roll and move race game is literally so easy a child could do it, and they often do, that makes it a hard sell for people.
Because its accessible. I hear the accessibility of Roll and Move touted often, and I agree, accessibility is a good thing, I’ve suggested so above. But accessibility is best thought of as a budget, and its only a good thing if you spend it on something. Parts of a game that are accessible buy you complexity in other parts of the game, if all you have is accessibility then what remains is snakes and ladders. Accessible is rarely challenging, ideally a game should be equal parts accessible and tricksy, with clear avenues and twisty turny alleys in equal measure. Accessibility is not a good in itself, a wide-open door isn’t a good thing if there’s nothing of interest on the other side of it. You need to make sure that the accessibility of your game ends in something worth accessing.
Retro cool. Retro is a thing, Roll and Move is not retro, its just old. Something can’t be retro if it’s been largely mainstream consistently for the whole of its existence. Rum Babas are retro, bread is not. A long form flat box is retro in boardgaming, Roll and Move is not. No one sees a Roll and Move game and thinks “Hey, remember those?”. Because of course they do, Monopoly has been employing it in five new editions every year since 1933.
Why is it a bad idea?
Honestly, for fewer reasons than you might think, but they are big ones.
Disempowerment. This is the big one really, its why any randomness in a game needs to be handled very carefully, its why card-based games have mulligans and dice rolling games have re-rolls. Risk management is good and interesting in games, the simplest bit of risk and reward gains a lot of come back in player enjoyment, and it generally requires some level of randomness. However, random events lead directly to some degree of player disempowerment. People play games to feel empowered and in control, sometimes to feel safely out of control, but generally to feel a degree of control over a chaotic world. For randomness to be meaningful it needs to steal that control from the player, which is a bad thing, so every time it is used it must be balanced, mitigated and signalled so that it never leads to a disempowered player. With Roll and Move the randomness is generally central, forced and unmitigated leading to not only disempowerment but disengagement.
Front loading randomness. The reason that players dislike Roll and Move separately from just randomness in games (plenty of players dislike all randomness, but far more dislike Roll and Move) is that it front loads the random events. In any given game turn there is, hopefully, some form of decision tree, if/then options and choices. If the first step in that tree is a free choice then I can believe that every part that follows, however random, was in some degree my choice. With a Roll and Move the first step is always random, the menu that I’m handed is arbitrary, and so no matter how well I choose afterwards, or how controlled my options are, they will always feel like fruit of the poisonous tree, tainted by the original sin of lack of control. One random step followed by ten non-random ones will always feel less satisfying and controlled than one non-random step followed by ten random ones.
Why is it not a bad idea?
People can be quick to take the position that what they do not like is the same as what is bad. This is largely untrue. These are not reasons that Roll and Move are bad. Just because Roll and Move isn’t Euro, isn’t hobby or is in Monopoly is not a reason to take against it.
Why is it a fatally bad idea for a Kickstarter?
This is the real point here. You can put Roll and Move into your game, its your game and it might be great. But please, for your own sake, do not put Roll and Move mechanics into a game destined for Kickstarter. If you’re not sure if this is good advice, follow ten Roll and Move based games on Kickstarter prior to launching your own.
The issue with roll and move on Kickstarter is perception. I know that people want to push against perceptions, subvert assumptions and combat prejudice, and generally I’m all for it. On Kickstarter, in relation to the qualities of your tabletop game product, is not the place to do it. For the vast majority of backers all they have is their perception of your game, it might be a bad idea to judge a book by its cover, but if that’s all you have to go on then that’s all there is. You can put up print and plays, video playthroughs and online mods of your game, but only a very small percentage of backers will look into them. They all want to see that they’re there, but most won’t check them out. Kickstarter has 580 tabletop projects up at the moment, people need to filter that down fast and one of the ways that a lot of them use to filter out the static is that they hear or see Roll and Move and they walk away. That’s a bad thing, they shouldn’t do that, bad them, they’re not being ideal consumers, but they do it and its not good for you.
The perception of Roll and Move is that its lazy, outdated design. If Jamey Stegmaier or Reiner Knizia or Eric Lang put out a Roll and Move I’d give it a chance, because I know that they know what they’re doing. I don’t know that you know what you’re doing, and lots of people launch on Kickstarter who are lazy and don’t know what they’re doing. From a distance it’s not possible to tell you apart.
The second main issue is that it indicates a genuine lack of concern about product design. There are game designers that get annoyed when actually asked to change their game based on what players might like or want, as though their game is a higher art form just for them. Those designers are fools, but far more designers get annoyed when asked to change their game for backers, or buyers, or consumers. The only players you’re going to have are going to also be consumers of your game. You need to change your game based on what’s going to attract consumers, and that means making game design changes based on product design realities. There are alternatives to Roll and Move, every single one of which will help to sell your product. If, knowing that, you still put Roll and Move into your game it indicates either that you are totally unaware of one of those facts, or that you don’t care about one of those facts, either of which is a real problem for backers and a legitimate reason for them to be put off.
I know that this week’s blog might have felt like a discussion of what’s wrong with kinetoscope in relation to modern cinema to some hobby gamers, but Roll and Move makes a showing on Kickstarter far out of proportion to its popularity in the hobby, so somebody needs to read this blog. Are there any mechanics that you see recurring regularly on Kickstarter or other sites that you don’t understand why people continue to use?