This game of mythic quests hands players custom dice with pop-off plastic sides. It looks impressive, but is there more to Dice Forge than a flashy, tactile gimmick?
Designer: Régis Bonnessée
Players: 2 – 4
One of board gaming’s biggest draws has always been its raw tactile appeal. Think of the satisfying clink of Splendor’s plastic poker chips, or the manic joy of brandishing a foam firearm in Cash ‘n’ Guns.
But while designers have taken advantage of this kind of physical allure for decades, one recent release takes the idea to rarely-seen levels.
Dice Forge, the latest game from Seasons designer Régis Bonnessée, comes with customisable dice whose sides can be popped off and replaced during play. It’s a concept that will appeal to anyone who spent their childhood messing around with Lego. But does it create exciting new possibilities for gameplay, or is it just a hollow gimmick?
I got it to the table to find out.
Dice Forge drops players into the battered leather sandals of heroes competing to earn the favour of the gods. Which gods, exactly? I’m not sure, it’s never really specified. But impress them with your valour, cunning and courage and you’ll be anointed as their champion. Along the way you’ll befriend mythical creatures, defeat hideous monsters and track down an assortment of enchanted items.
It’s a tall order, but fortunately you’ve come prepared, armed with a pair of those upgradeable dice. You’ll roll them throughout the game in the hope of gaining gold, sun and moon crystals – valuable resources that can edge you steadily closer to victory.
Gold lets you make offerings to the gods, who turn out to quite enjoy having their egos stroked. They’ll reward your devotion with new faces to add to your dice, replacing the low-powered ones you’ll be stuck with at the start of the game. It means that with each passing round your dice will become more powerful, eventually showering you with cash and crystals.
Speaking of crystals, they’ll let you complete some of the game’s heroic feats, represented by cards placed around the central board like some sort of vaguely Greco-Roman buffet table. Pay any of their crystal costs and you’ll be able to claim them, triggering some intriguing effects.
Some grant you extra resources on your turn, or let you hold more stuff than your rivals. Others let you re-roll dice, or convert excess gold into victory points, or force your opponents to lose some of their hard-earned treasure.
But while these effects can be pretty powerful on their own, things really get interesting when you start putting together different combinations of feat cards and dice faces.
Pick up a card that lets you trade gold for victory points, for instance, and you’ll want to cover your dice in icons that add gold to your stash. Grab a card that lets you re-roll a die to gain resources, and you’ll want to load all of your best upgrades onto just one of your dice to ensure that you always end up with something good.
Not all feat cards come with snazzy special powers attached, though. Some simply net you massive piles of points when you claim them. They’re among the most expensive in the game, but while they come with a high crystal cost, they lend Dice Forge a brilliant sense of pace.
The cheaper feats – the ones you’ll be able to complete in the first few rounds – won’t win you the game by themselves. But pick them up early and they’ll let you take small, incremental steps towards victory.
Pricier ones, on the other hand, can completely turn the tide of the game, shooting you from a trailing position into a commanding lead. Pulling that off means hoarding your resources over multiple rounds and hoping your opponents don’t snap up the cards you’re after. It leads to a kind of hare-and-tortoise tension, and it makes for some dramatic come-from-behind victories.
There are quite a few of these card-and-dice combinations to discover, and once you’ve worked out the most powerful synergies you’ll be able to keep things fresh by mixing and matching the two sets of feat cards that come with the game. But perhaps Dice Forge’s greatest strength is the way it actively encourages you to play around, experiment and adopt different tactics from your rivals.
Take a duplicate copy of a card that’s just been claimed by an opponent, and they’ll get a bonus dice roll, picking up some extra resources. It means that everyone around the table has an incentive to go off in their own direction, and the result is that you end up with a new and very personal strategy every time you play.
But while there’s a lot to like about the game, there are a couple of places where it falls flat.
First, while its Lego-like dice are a fun novelty, they don’t really add any innovative gameplay. Customising them feels similar to playing deck-building games like Star Realms or Dominion, where you start out with a handful of unimpressive cards and refine it into an well-oiled machine.
Then there’s the fact that no matter how carefully you craft your dice, there’s no guarantee that you’ll roll the results you’re looking for when you actually need them. You can combine resources and scoring opportunities to build a brilliantly efficient little engine, only to watch in frustration as it fails to fire over and over again.
To be fair, though, there are ways to mitigate the randomness. And besides, this is a dice game. It even has the word “dice” in the title. If you’re after something that rewards coherent, consistent planning then you’re probably looking in the wrong place.
Order and chaos
A more valid criticism is that the game really doesn’t do justice to its theme of monsters, gods and epic quests. There’s no element of risk to its supposedly heroic feats. You just gather resources, pay resources and take cards. The result feels less like a legendary adventure than a divinely-inspired trip to the supermarket.
That said, though, I enjoyed Dice Forge. Its dice-crafting system may be a gimmick, but it’s a fun gimmick, and it comes with a genuinely engaging game attached.
It may not do a lot that’s new, but it does a lot of things well. At times it feels a little like the hit dice-rolling, city-building game Machi Koro. But it’s deeper and more varied, with a much less linear path to victory. It also shares some similarities with Dice City, which is, well, another dice-rolling city-builder. But it avoids a lot of that game’s clunkiness, and it fits its whole experience into a much tighter and better-flowing package.
Ultimately, Dice Forge is a clash between order and chaos. The precision of assembling a winning collection of cards runs head-first into the whims of the dice, and the result is a potent, unpredictable mix. Combine that with the sheer toy appeal of those chunky, pop-apart dice and I don’t think it’s going to be long before I’m back to worship at its temple again.
- Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this game from its distributor.