Are Big Numbers Best?

I don’t like to bash other games, but I recently played a new skirmish game and there was an aspect of it which irked me and I want to examine.

One of my design principles for the game is “lower dice rolls are always better.” I actually introduced this design principle fairly late into the design process, when it became clear that the most elegant way for the combat resolution system to function was if low numbers were hits and high numbers were misses.

Because of the prevailing convention in wargames, having high numbers be misses is initially slightly counter-intuitive. However, the pay-off, in terms of the elegance of the combat system versus the ships stat blocks was well worth the effort and so I tried to consider how to reduce the cognitive load of having to mentally adjust to low numbers being desirable.

Back to this other game I played recently. In this game sometimes I want to roll high, and sometimes I want to roll low, very often on sequential dice rolls. I realise it’s not a particularly strong criticism of the game but it feels a touch lazy, and highlight something which I worked to ensure was deliberately crisp in A Billion Suns. That sometimes I want to roll high, and sometimes I want to roll low is, in my opinion, a bad user experience. It creates unnecessary cognitive overhead. 

This user experience is particularly poor as it occurs in sequential series dice rolls, such as saving throws (I want to roll high) and wound rolls (I want to roll low). In the vast majority of situations, I want to roll high, but in a handful of places, I want to roll low. This means I am required to mentally reorient myself multiple times per turn to read six-sided dice in the right direction. 

As I was iterating the combat system for ABS, I ended up in an unsatisfying place for a while, where the dice rolling felt clunky and confusing. In pulling apart what made it feel like a chore to resolve attacks, one thing that became clear is that the combat system alternated between asking for low numbers to hit and high numbers for saving throws. 

The reason I feel slightly like this other (unnamed) game feel a touch lazy in its design is that if I was designing it, I know for damn sure that after getting to the point where I had to winch a little each time I explain the flip-flopping dice rolling rules to someone I would want to change it, just as I did with ABS. Surely the designers must have noticed this cognitive overhead the inelegance introduces? It happens multiple times every turn.

There is actually a similar UX issue in Gaslands, which I have never fixed. It is the only rule I have to stop and think about, and often explain incorrectly during demos if I am tired. When you Wipeout, you have to roll equal or over your speed to stay in control. Because I’m so often coaching new players to use the trick of using the flip effect to gain a sneaky movement boost, rolling UNDER your current gear, and flipping, is often what I would consider “success”.  It still conforms with the “higher dice rolls are better” pattern Gaslands has, but I wish I had found another way to write the rule to make the outcome you want need the higher roll.

I’m really pleased with the dice-rolling system in A Billion Suns, and particularly pleased with this disgusted note I got from one of my game design heroes, when he looked a draft of the game over:

Heh, heh.

As a quick note, the game is now due to be released in August, due to some production issues. I cannot wait for people to play it!