by Stuart Urback
For some Americans who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the roll and move mechanic represents games at their worst: boring affairs that make the prospect of putting cardboard and plastic on a table seem bleak. Culturally dominant games like Monopoly, Clue, Parcheesi, Sorry!, and Aggravation feature the roll and move mechanic where players would roll dice and then move a piece around a board based on the rolled number.
At a rough level “roll and move” means that a player rolls a die and then uses the result to determine how many spaces they can move. In a game like Candyland they don’t have much control over what they do with the results, but in Backgammon players have a lot of control.
The games themselves are considered unfun and unfair luck-driven affairs. And for that reason, the mechanic has also mostly fallen out of vogue in modern board game design which features tight feedback mechanisms, catch up features, and dramatic endings. Playing Machi Koro: Legacy got me to reconsider that belief.
We tend to grade board games today in terms of the aesthetic they portray and how much they compensate players for their skill. Skill compensation is the concept that a game will reward players for their abilities to make better decisions than their opponents. For example, in a sport like basketball, there’s high skill compensation because a team that is more athletic will be more likely to win than a team that cannot. However, if those same teams were to play the card game War against one another the outcome would be random, regardless of teams’ strengths or weaknesses.
Especially with board games, it’s easy to create an instrumentalist view where a mechanic that increases skill compensation is good and a mechanic that decreases it is bad. It’s easy as an enthusiast to treat Monopoly like an inferior version of Catan. But this is a short-sighted viewpoint. Snakes and Ladders represented the lack of control of our lives and the role that karma had to play shooting us up or down the ladder on our quests for enlightenment. Candyland, a game sometimes derided for its lack of player autonomy, originated in polio wards to allow children suffering from polio to offer them some easy escape.
Players have plenty of reasons to play games and the ritual of the game can be more important than the skill of its outcome. It’s shortsighted to say that mechanics that reduce skill compensation are “bad” and mechanics that increase them are good. I tend to like games that compensate player skill, it’s worth noting that’s not the only point of games. The questions become: what benefit does roll and move provide? and (given the current moment) can they be a part of a game that compensates skill well?
I think rolling and moving is a delightful and cozy mechanic that draws players into the game. Rolling and moving tells a complete story. You roll a die, move a tiny piece of plastic across the board, and then adjudicated the results of it landing. It’s a great moment of small suspense and payoff (a quick, encapsulated story). Roll and move also pushes the game towards the end (each turn the dice will be rolled, and the narrative will move forwards) and provides support to players trying to make decisions. In Monopoly, when you land on an unused space and buy it, you’ll feel like you’ve taken a satisfying turn even if you didn’t end up making a single decision.
I think what makes roll and moves so great is the fun of operating a machine and seeing it unfold. The enjoyment of being the machinery of the game without needing to make decisions about it. This is the physical variant of games like The Sims or more recent entries like Loop Hero where you make decisions and then see what happens. While it can’t recover an otherwise unplayable game, it was a fun moment of delight that could be deployed more effectively in other titles.
Brief Machi Koro: Legacy spoilers below
I wouldn’t recommend playing Machi Koro: Legacy. For those who aren’t familiar, the original Machi Koro takes Catan and asks “what if we used cards instead of a map?”. Players purchase cards that give them coins based on the number of dice rolled each turn. Machi Koro: Legacy complicates this by creating a 10 game campaign that changes the cards that can be purchased and the special goals each game, while adding some additional mechanics and storyline. It does not solve Machi Koro’s underlying problems. Dice rolls cluster: 6-10 are way more likely to be rolled than any other number. Players tend to win if their cards get activated the most. But there’s one component of the game I found delightful: the visitor’s dice. This dice, rolled on every round, had a face for a sea turtle, an oni, and a princess. Depending on which one came up, the corresponding figure would move around and either dish out coins or cause chaos.
I liked that Machi Koro: Legacy separated out the roll and move elements from the rest of a player’s turn. Other parts of the game felt like bookkeeping, but the visitor’s track consistently felt like the moment with the most tension and delight. When the sea turtle landed on your property it felt warm and fun. Unlike Monopoly or Candyland, the roll twisted player’s turns lightly, either providing a slight boost or a challenge. It was like a fun side show during a larger game. It was also the closest the game got to telling a story during play.
Having the roll and move mechanic happen every turn without being the core of the game felt like a nice balance between competing concerns. It added a dynamic plot point without overwhelming the goal of the game. But does that mean roll and move can’t compensate skill at all?
The short answer is yes, roll and move can be a skill compensation mechanic. The longer answer is: It depends on how you want to do it.
Backgammon is a game that rewards skill compensation. While it might not be as challenging as a game like Chess or Checkers, no one would argue that players don’t get rewarded for their ability to make good decisions. But because players have so many options on any given turn the decision becomes a matter of which piece they choose to move given the roll of the dice. Other games like Railroad Ink or Ganz Schon Clever use roll and move like mechanics to create a game.* Here the “move” means making a mark on paper rather than moving a figurine around the board. The skill of the game is in figuring out the correct order to fill out your board.
The difference is the relationship between the roll and move and the game. I think one of the reasons that Monopoly and Clue feel dynamic is that the roll and move connects to the aesthetic of the game. The games I talk about above add skill compensation but remove the connection to the narrative of the rolling and moving. In Monopoly, you’re the wealthy elite strolling the boardwalk deciding what to buy. In Clue, you’re a detective slinking around a house. As Machi Koro: Legacy shows, it’s hard to both capture the narrative of roll and move and also compensate for skill.
However, there is a game that manages to both compensate skill and also capture the feel of roll and move. That game is Formula D. In Formula D you are a race car driver trying to make your way around the track as fast as possible. The skill of the game comes from the gear your car is in (i.e., the size of the dice you’re rolling). Higher gears mean you can move faster but if you move too fast you’ll take damage going around turns. It’s the perfect combination of capturing the aesthetic of the roll and move and allowing players to feel control through their skill.
I think Machi Koro: Legacy offers an interesting direction forward for roll and move mechanics. By distancing themselves from the centerpiece of the game it allows them to create a narrative (the “visitors” moving around town) and also be a complexifier for the game (players have to respond to the results). Machi Koro: Legacy’s biggest problem is that the complexification doesn’t change the game enough to be meaningful. By the end of the games the visitor dice became a side effect that wasn’t enough to shift the outcome one way or another. It would be fun to see what happens if the result of the visitors move became central to the outcome of the game.
* You could argue here that if “Roll and Write” games are “Roll and Move” that games like Machi Koro or Catan are also roll and move. The distinction I try to make here is that in Roll and Moves you can’t manipulate the results of the outcome but have to deal with them as you build your strategy. In both Machi Koro and Catan, the rolling exists purely to distribute resources.** This is a tenuous difference, but I don’t think it ultimately weakens the argument I’m trying to make.
** You could absolutely argue that roll and move or roll and write is also resource distribution, but I think decoupling resources from the dice creates enough of a separation that I’m happy with where it landed.
The opinions in this post are expressly the views of the author and do not reflect the views of their employer(s) or any entities that they might otherwise be affiliated.