Ah, the roll-and-move mechanic. Is there anything more ubiquitous in classic American boardgames, anything that more clearly defines a boardgame as such? It’s such a staple that entire children’s games have been constructed around this simple mechanic – for example, both Chutes and Ladders and Trouble are built from it, with one or two twists added on top.
Perhaps no other mechanic so directly translates an action taken by a player into a clear effect in the game. You roll the dice (or flick the spinner, as the case may be), and move your plastic avatar an equal number of spaces. It’s a concept that is so concrete and simple that even very young children can grasp it. It is well-placed in certain games, but it has been overused to the point where its inclusion in some cases is illogical or lazy. I can practically hear the conversation in the design meetings:
GAME DESIGNER: This is a trivia game where players have to correctly answer questions in a variety of categories ranging from history to pop culture, to sports. Trivia games have a broad appeal across many demographics, but the real strength of this game is its potential as a cash cow; we can release innumerable other versions with questions dealing exclusively with TV shows, movie franchises, and boy bands.
WELL-INTENTIONED, YET CLUELESS CEO: I like it! I think we should have the track that the pawns move through be round, and should players roll one or two dice to see how far they move on their turn? Also, we should have matching colors for the pawns and pie wedges that the players have to collect. Chromatic synergy will really draw people in!
GAME DESIGNER: …
Off the top of my head, I can think of three classic games where roll-and-move is a poor or unnecessary inclusion, and I’m certain that many more exist. However, rather than just being an exercise in bagging on old-school boardgames, I’ll suggest alternative mechanics that can help improve them.
A casual stroll through Murder Mansion
The inclusion of roll-and-move in Clue is somewhat forgivable, as the pawns and the board represent the characters moving through the various rooms of the mansion. But it does beg the question of why the characters’ movement speeds can vary so wildly from one moment to the next. Does Miss Scarlet break a heel and have to take a moment to remove her shoes? Does Col. Mustard have a trick knee that sometimes acts up? More importantly though, it mainly serves as a tacked-on mechanic that does nothing to enhance the core gameplay: putting together clues and using logic and deductive reasoning to solve the mystery (or alternatively, making false accusations to lead the other players astray).
The Solution: One time during my childhood, my father adroitly demonstrated how much better this game is without using dice for movement and simply allowing players to move from the room they’re currently in to an adjacent room on their turn. You can’t go directly from a room on one side of the board to a room on the opposite side (unless they’re connected by a tunnel), but getting there by moving from one room to the next using this method takes no more time, and probably less on average, than using dice to get there. Plus, since you spend every turn in a room, you get to make an accusation on each of your turns – that is, actually playing the game. Most people don’t mind graciously waiting for their turn to come around while the other players take theirs, but missing out on one or more turns because you didn’t roll high enough to get to the next room is just frustrating.
The questionable triviality of roll-and-move
Roll-and-move in Triivial Pursuit entirely superfluous. Trivia is fun. Roll-and-move can be fun, but not when it’s so utterly and completely disassociated with everything else in the game. The core of Trivial Pursuit is answering trivia questions. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the words “trivial pursuit?” At what point does rolling a die to push a pawn around a board enter the picture?
It’s fine that the goal of the game is to correctly answer a question from six different categories. But, similar to Clue, it becomes exceedingly frustrating having to waste turns waiting for the correct number to come up on the die which will finally allow you to move to a space so that you can have a shot at answering a question from that one category you need.
The Solution: There are many ways to make this game better. Instead of it being a race, which is what is accomplished by the inclusion of the random movement element, make it a more traditional trivia game by scoring points for answering questions correctly. Or skip the points and have the goal remain getting a correct answer in each of the six categories. You can even roll the die to randomly choose the category. It will still be aggravating waiting for that last category that you need to come up on the die, but it will be less so than trying to get the exact number you need to land on a wedge space on the board.
Removing the movement aspect of the game makes it exclusively about answering trivia questions… but isn’t that the point of playing trivia-based games? Young kids enjoy counting spaces on the board and moving pawns around; anyone old enough to actually know the answers to the trivia questions will find this aspect of the game tedious.
A monopoly on randomness
Of my three examples, roll-and move is most justifiable in Monopoly, as there needs to be some randomizer to determine when players owe rent, and to whom. Unfortunately, while there are some strategies and tactics that can be employed, the gameplay leans too heavily on this mechanic, and too much of the game comes down to the fickle whim of the dice gods.
The solution: The fix here requires approaching the game through the lens of verisimilitude. Think about it: If the players are all wealthy real estate moguls, why are they staying at someone else’s hotel, and spending so much money that it potentially bankrupts them? Rather than representing the players, the tokens represent vacationers visiting Atlantic City* and looking for lodging. Suddenly, using dice to randomly move tokens around the board makes more sense, as it’s simulating tourists choosing to stay at in different locations.
Property would still be acquired the normal way, and trades could be made, but rather than players paying each other, rent money would just come from the bank (not really representing an actual bank in this case, but the collective wallets of the hotel guests). The winner would be the first player to accumulate a certain amount of money. This would preserve existing strategies (for example, the statistical chance that someone lands on a given property), but it would also remove the player elimination aspect of the game. Nothing’s worse than going bankrupt in the first hour of Monopoly and having to sit around waiting for the game to finish. The rules as written say that normally the game ends as soon as one player is eliminated, and the winner is the person with the most money and property, but every game that I ever played always went down to the last man standing. There are some minor tweaks to gameplay that would have to be made in order for it to all work, but I think this would be a refreshing new twist on a classic game.
Roll-and-move is a valid mechanic that has its place, another tool in the box of game design. Like any other mechanic, there is nothing inherent about it that will make a game more or less enjoyable; how enjoyable a game is depends on a number of factors; choosing the correct mechanics and skillfully implementing them in a way that conveys the experience that the designer is trying to achieve is just one of these factors.
*Or Middle Earth. Or Springfield. Or the Death Star. Seriously, the verisimilitude only holds up if you play the original game and not one of the other entries on the interminable list of re-skins.
I mentioned it in passing earlier, and it seems somehow remiss to not discuss the game that probably best epitomizes the roll-and-move mechanic, distilled down to almost pure form: Trouble. Honestly, when I first started writing this essay, it hadn’t even crossed my mind to write about this game, much less come up with a solution to improve it. One reason it didn’t occur to me to include it is that Trouble doesn’t merely include this mechanic, it is this mechanic; I can’t really label something as being superfluous when removing it would mean gutting about 90% of the gameplay.
My daughter received a copy of Trouble this past Christmas. I was somewhat dreading the inevitable request to play – not because I don’t love sharing all facets of tabletop gaming with her, but because my now decades-old memories of my last time playing it are of sitting with my sister and cousins in a room in my grandparents’ house, not really having anything else to do, but still getting bored waiting for the coveted “6” to come up so we could get on with things. Furthermore, at five years old, she already has some experience playing games that have significantly more depth (King of Tokyo and Formula D, for example), and playing Trouble at this point seemed akin to getting stomped on by an opponent’s pawn and being sent back to start. However, one afternoon shortly after New Year’s, it occurred to me that giving it a try might make for a nice diversion and be a quick and easy way to get in some family time, so I actually ended up asking to play.
Unbeknownst to me, my daughter had been given an updated version of the game which includes several new additions that leave the simplicity intact but also make it a much faster-paced, tactical game (yes, I did just use the word “tactical” to describe Trouble). There are new spaces which give the player an extra die roll (or pop, in this case) and warp spaces which allow a pawn to skip half the length of the track. Perhaps the best new rule is that rolling a one results in not only that player immediately ending their turn, but, in a brilliant example of game design, allows each of the other players to move one of their own pawns from the start position onto the track. In the past, the worst part of Trouble was having only a 1 in 6 chance on your turn of being able to move a piece from its starting position and getting it into play. Now there’s a 1 in 3 chance that somebody will get to put a piece into play on a given roll.
The end result is a much more crowded board – which means that there are more situations that occur in which decisions have to be made – and much more frenetic gameplay; it’s almost like playing an entirely new game. This is not to say that hardcore gamers will want to pick up a copy to bring to their next game night, but it is a game that hardcore gamers who are parents can enjoy with young children and which can potentially be a stepping-stone to becoming serious gamers themselves. A few simple tweaks revitalized this classic, and I couldn’t have thought of any better improvements myself.