Rolling Along

Posted on Jul 11 2012 by pomomojo in Board Games

I recently read a discussion of the popular family game, The Game of Life, which criticized the way the game presented the choice of whether or not to go to college.  Oddly, going to college seemed to actually limit your career choices in the game even though the jobs would likely pay more than the ones you could get without a degree.  Of course, it would be difficult to simulate in a board game the opening of new possibilities that a college education represents.  For me, then, the more interesting aspect of this game about work and family was the decision to represent the myriad experiences and choices of an average life as a series of paths one ineluctably moves along, always at the mercy of the spinner that tells the player how many spaces to move.

This mechanism of moving along a path a certain number of spaces has come to be known as roll-and-move.  Often one rolls a die or dice and then moves the corresponding number of spaces.  In modern strategy games it is an almost hated mechanism due to the lack of choice the player has and the association with simplistic games.  Although I agree that game design has moved beyond such a simple device, the fact that so many games have utilized the idea should be a reminder to hardcore board game strategists that board games are often played merely for the social experience.  The Game of Life is not really a game at all, but a story being told about each player.  Allowing too much influence by the player on where to land would eliminate the shared drama that we watch unfold.

That being said, even the simplistic roll-and-move has potential depth and variety to it.  Players roll to move from room to room in Cluedo, but there is no proscribed path that anyone must take.

Monopoly does contain a single path that players must follow but because the board connects to itself, players continue to encounter the same obstacles and properties again and again.

Trivial Pursuit replicates the never-ending path of Monopoly but allows players to travel it in either direction, thus adding choice to a still very simple mechanism.

Backgammon, however, could be considered the pinnacle of roll-and-move as this very strategic and deep game has been designed almost entirely around it.  Instead of just moving a single piece around a board, backgammon players have several checkers and must decide which to move each turn in order to block their opponent and make the most progress.

Games employ numerous mechanisms and components, but even the simplest of these can be interesting to study.  What does the popularity of roll-and-move, especially in family games, say about our ideas about life and progress?  What does it reveal about the role of board games?  What depths and entertainment can be drawn from the simple act of rolling a die or spinning a wheel?  Even a mechanism that requires so little thought can give you a lot to think about.

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