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Board Game Mechanics: Roll and Move

I figured that I would start out this series with one of the oldest and possibly most recognized mechanics known to board gaming; the Roll and Move (R&M).

Self-explanatory as it might be, R&M is as simple as: you roll a die, then move the amount of spaces equal to the number shown on the die. This mechanic dominated the family board game industry for several years, including games like Candy Land, Trouble, Monopoly, Sorry, and The Game of Life. Granted, Sorry uses cards, and Life uses a spinner, but the concept is still the same.

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Pros of Roll and Move

This has to be one of the simplest mechanics in the world to teach. Whether you are teaching a child their first board game or trying to introduce an adult to the world of gaming, R&M can be taught in seconds. Not to mention it’s already the most commonly accepted method of movement. Even if you’re not a hardcore gamer, if you see someone bring out a die and place it on the board even before the rules are read you already have a pretty good idea of what that die is going to be used for.

Cons of Roll and Move

It really is very unbalanced. Especially when you have a simple game like Candy Land, where the only mechanic in the game is R&M. The problem lies in the fact that a game can be won or lost solely based on how the die is landing. It has nothing to do with how you are playing the game or whatever kind of strategy you are trying to bring to the table. If the die lands on the “1” your turn has been a pretty big waste.

It can also be considered to be a very boring mechanic as well.

“What do I do on my turn?”

“You roll the die, and move that many spaces.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Sure, that’s why games have other mechanics involved, but when the only way to get from point A to point B is determined by how well you can roll a die (because, you know, there’s so much skill involved), the journey becomes a little less enticing.

R&M Used Well

There are games that would simply not exist without the mechanic, and for the most part, they use it very well. Let’s talk about one of the most popular board games in existence for a moment: Monopoly. The game with a million faces, this game utilizes the R&M mechanic as the primary focus of the game. Whatever that die says, you go that many spaces; no more, no less. It would simply not work if not for that method. Being forced to stop on your opponent’s property is the only way the game advances, even if a single game can take up the better part of a week to finish. Of course, luck plays a huge part in Monopoly, but at least there is strategy in deciding what properties to buy and how you are able to negotiate with your frenemies. We all know at least one person who is legitimately good at this game.

Another, much newer example would be Formula D. In this racing game, you are rolling a die and moving that many spaces, trying to be the first one to cross the finish line. When described like that it sounds super dull, but they use specialty dice to do it with. Every time you “shift up” in Formula D, you are given a better die that has bigger numbers on it, allowing you to move faster. It’s even more technical than that, as the minimum number you can roll on the dice gets higher and higher as well (for example, the fourth gear die has a minimum of 7, and a maximum of 12, so you will always be moving that many spaces in fourth gear). The game also keeps you from just staying in the highest gear and rolling the highest numbers available by requiring you to stop so many times around each corner. Some corners require you to stop at least twice within so many spaces, and if you don’t, your car will take damage. If you take too much damage, your car blows up and you lose the game. That’s one way to take a “boring” mechanic and make it exciting.

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Dice used in Formula D – Courtesy of Knights of the Cardboard Castle

Roll and Move Used Poorly

Clue. Clue is one of those games that I absolutely love. I love the information sharing mechanic in it, and having to deduce the answer by comparing everything based off of your guesses throughout the game. Even the theme is fantastic, and you really do feel like a detective while you are going room to room, accusing your friends of horrendous crimes. It’s getting to the rooms that is just painful. You have a single pawn that you control, and in order to do anything, you have to be in a room. That die officially has way too much power over your gameplay.

I know the who, what, and where! All I have to do is get to the room to make my accusation and I will win the game… and I keep rolling ones! I could have ended the game 4 turns ago, but because I have to move based on the die, we have to sit here for ten minutes longer.

The Game of Life is another one that I just can’t get over. I loved it as a kid, but let’s be honest, it’s really more of a simulation that you have to manually do all the work in. The game plays itself. Spin the spinner, move your car, do what the space says. No strategy, no real choices (Oh, yay, you chose to go to college instead of going straight into the workforce, good for you), and we top it off with even more random events with the life tiles. There is a reason that they made The Game of Life Twists and Turns. You actually get to make decisions that, for the most part, actually have consequences. This version still uses R&M, but the directions that you choose have more obvious benefits. It’s not really a better game, but that’s more due to the imbalance of the different avenues.

My Feelings as a Gamer

Honestly, I don’t really mind it. I’m not saying that it’s my favorite mechanic, but I grew up playing games that used it, and if it wasn’t for those games I never would have gotten into board games in the first place.

As far as moving forward, I will always give a game I’ve never played the benefit of the doubt before refusing to play it all together, but I might not be as excited to give it a try if R&M is the main moving mechanic.

I do find it to be very anticlimactic. When a game is over, I don’t feel like I’d ever had enough control in order to fully accept either victory or defeat. After all, it’s not my fault that I rolled poorly. Even if I rolled fantastically, I can say that I did great… but did I really?

However, I find myself being a tiny bit more forgiving if I am controlling multiple pieces. If I’m playing Trouble for instance (which I don’t see happening anytime soon at all), I can choose one of four pieces to move, and that choice can make every difference. The problem is at the end of the game when I only have one piece left. I’ll find myself taking multiple turns in which I did absolutely nothing.

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How I feel on a streak of rolling ones – Courtesy of On Death’s Wings

My Feelings as a Developer

Overall, I’d say that R&M is a dead mechanic. While it has brought us some iconic games, and even paved the way for more modern games, I feel like it has already served its purpose, and doesn’t have much of a place in today’s games. I myself have used it in most of the games I have been developing since I was in high school, but the more my friends and I played them, the more I realized that it was taking way too much away from our ability to strategize our turns. Of course, I used the caveat of allowing everyone to move up to the amount you rolled, stopping whenever you liked in between, but that still only helped so much when it was a race to get somewhere quickly, and all you can manage to roll is a one or a two.

Many games have tried to rectify the lack of strategy within R&M with different additives, such as roll two dice and pick the one you want, but I honestly only see that as more of a desperate stab at trying to make an obsolete mechanic fresh again. It still relies too much on luck for something that really should be a little more predictable. After all, movement in a game is supposed to simulate moving in real life. Well, if that’s the case, when I walk to the kitchen to get a beer, I know roughly how long it’s going to take me to get there. If it was ever a matter of “I’ll be back in 2 to 60 seconds, my wife would probably take me to the emergency room.

The mechanic itself does not necessarily destroy the playability of a game, but maybe if you’re developing a game and you are using R&M, maybe there is some other more creative method you can employ to spice it up a little more: like asymmetrical character stats where each player has a set movement total or even a resource mechanic where you have to choose to spend said resource in order to move. Maybe it is the only mechanic that makes sense, and that’s okay! There have been many new developments in modern board gaming recently, and if you want your game to shine it’s going to be in your best interest to bring something fresh to the game table. I just don’t think that R&M is going to cut it anymore.

Final Thoughts

This is only my opinion on the subject. As with any opinion, there is always room for discussion. I like to think that I have an open mind, so if there is something about R&M that you feel I am missing, I would love to hear it. Do you have another example of a game that needs R&M in order to be awesome? Let me know! I’ve probably heard of the game already, but I can’t talk about every game that uses it… you all still have other things to get done today.

Kcody Dansereau
Kcody has been making board games since he was in his single digits. Thankfully, he’s entered the modern era where he discovered his design gateway, “Little Big Planet”. While he still makes board games, his talents now include video game design.

Kcody Dansereau
Kcody has been making board games since he was in his single digits. Thankfully, he’s entered the modern era where he discovered his design gateway, “Little Big Planet”. While he still makes board games, his talents now include video game design.

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