Review: Reiner Knizia's Dice Monsters20 Nov 2015 0
This review of Reiner Knizia’s Dice Monsters will largely focus on the criticism that the game feels random. That's not very insightful. After all, the title of the game has the word "dice" right in it. But that visceral negative reaction, that a game “feels random”, is actually sort of puzzling. Most of the games I enjoy have substantial randomness to manage, and games which give players lots of choices can still evoke that reaction. Fortunately, I was trained as a philosopher [you don't say? Read on... -ed.], so I'm always attracted to an opportunity to gaze deeply into my navel and extract a clearer meaning for something my gut has told me on several occasions is naturally fuzzy. Perhaps this will help: if you read on, we’ll mostly be talking about responsibility, that beloved topic of mom speeches and after-school specials.
If that doesn't get you to jump past the break, I'm not sure what else I can do.
First, the game: you roll two dice repeatedly. Each time, you assign each die to a monster which has its own requirement you need to meet in order to defeat it. Usually, these are poker hands to beat or totals you need to exceed or, um, the opposite of exceed*. Most levels show you three monsters at a time, but require you to defeat more, so you must defeat one of the three visible monsters to see what the next challenge will be the first time you try the level. Monsters can also have special abilities, like cancelling the first die assigned to it or ignoring all results of a particular value. Free-to-play monetization craps all over everything, with ads, an admittedly generous energy meter (in this case, “lives”), and consumable power-ups you earn slowly through normal play or by watching ads or otherwise depositing your soul in the coin slot.
The first thing I noticed when reflecting on what it means to say that Dice Monsters feels random is this impression is almost the complement of feeling responsible for my outcomes**. In general, the following qualities reduce responsibility:
- Limited options. If you don't get to make many choices about the operation of a game, it feels largely out of your hands. This problem is particularly irksome on tabletops when there are lots of physical actions completely dictated by the rules. The phrase “the game plays you” brings to mind a tiny boss making players do all sorts of busywork and come in on Saturday.
- Homogeneity. Games which offer many options are, other things being equal, less random than games which offer few choices. But the variety of those choices also matters--when it turns out that Door Number One leads the same place as Door Number Two, we are outraged at the fraudulent suggestion that we had a choice. I have long suspected that game show hosts hide many such facts, which I mention now because I expect my readers to trust a game show conspiracy theorist, I guess?
- Opacity. Even if a game offers many choices and different options have widely varied impacts on the outcome, if there’s no way to estimate those differences beforehand, playing the game feels like navigating a GeoCities website from before web design progressed past unlabeled, cryptic images as navigational aids. For those too young to have had this experience, it was a dark time.
To summarize, you are responsible for the difference in the foreseen outcomes between the option you select and the other options available to you. A neat corollary is that we gain responsibility not only by gaining the power to do new things, but also by developing our ability to foresee consequences--developing skill at many games consists entirely of doing so. This is also something for which we are able to take responsibility, and want to--the extent to which we try to develop the skill of predicting possible futures helps determine how quickly we learn, and that’s often the most rewarding element of the control we exercise over a game. Also, predicting possible futures sounds sort of science fictiony and cool, which makes our jumpsuits seem more appropriate.
Most of the time, Dice Monsters isn't actually too bad on any of this. Obviously, the emphasis on dice cues an expectation that important things will be beyond your control, but you have lots of choices which let you set yourself up to be able to succeed across all the probable rolls, so putting in the effort to learn how to do that and to apply that knowledge reliably pays off. For example, you usually don't have to defeat every monster to pass the level, so you can dump less useful rolls on a monster you intend not to defeat. You can also make sure that you can use a low roll by working on getting three or more of a kind of ones or twos with a given monster, or the like. Knowing when it's worth using a consumable, and when you should just give up and try again, is also an interesting decision (and adding the cost of losing a life to giving up does increase the tension of that decision, though energy meters have a pretty terrible reputation around Mount Hexmap ever since the bathroom incident at Owen’s debutante ball). You're constantly making and adjusting plans to adapt to what the dice give you, and looking for better ways to do so in the future.
That's not exceptional, but it’s a solid foundation for a simple way to pass the time, and my respect for Reiner Knizia’s other designs leaves me hoping that he isn't responsible for the periodic, infuriating abandonment of it. This is most pronounced during the rare boss battles, but not uncommon elsewhere. The problem is that the game increases difficulty most often by making strategic play less beneficial, or even less possible. When you suddenly have to defeat every monster in order to proceed, the tactic of dumping less useful rolls becomes unavailable and the habits of mind you've developed to make you better at the game start to hurt you. When monsters only have three slots for dice, rather than five, you have fewer choices to make, and are more dependent on good rolls and less able to mitigate the consequences of bad ones. Even when there exists a sequence of plays you could make which would let you win, you have no way to learn it, so many plays have equally good expected values.
The accusation that a game feels random usually results from making players feel like they have less power than they expected. Many of us want games which offer the opportunity to learn, develop skill, exercise greater authorship, and take more responsibility for our struggle with a challenge. Dice Monsters not only becomes less strategic at its climactic moments, making the skill you’ve developed much less relevant, it doesn’t make that fact clear when you’re deciding how much to try and work on that skill. Because of the use of monetization shenanigans, that feels like a deliberate attempt to push players to be more committed to the game so that, when their carefully-developed Dice Monster expertise no longer avails them, they’ll shell out for some extra boosts. It’s like the twist ending of Frankenstein, in which you discover that the real monster is the creator.
* Exceed has no established opposite in English. I was flabbergasted to learn this.
** Among games, that is. An activity which was completely deterministic could also have no choices, but it would be difficult to characterize it as a game without randomness. Eenie Meenie Miney Moe probably comes closest, but the whole point of that activity is to manipulate the horizon of our prediction of deterministic processes to simulate randomness. You might call this epistemic rather than metaphysical randomness.
Dice Monsters was played on an iPad Air for this review.