Off the Grid reviews Diceland

Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

Continuing our love-fest with the games of James Ernest (we'll be moving on to other designers soon, I promise), we've come to Diceland, a unique two-player tabletop title that's been the opening game of every PAX Omegathon thus far. So, you know, it must be doing something right.

What makes Diceland so unique is its game pieces: large, eight-sided paper dice that the players assemble themselves. In the standard game, players select a team of five dice, each representing a different character. Rather than play cards or position miniatures, the placement of characters is accomplished by literally rolling them onto the table; where they land is where they are. From there, players take turns repositioning dice, rolling new ones, or aiming to take out their opponent's. Points are scored for each defeated enemy die, and first to 50 points wins.

Each of the eight sides of a die correspond to different abilities or techniques available to that character. Mostly, this amounts to targeting and attacking enemy dice, but certain die have special abilities like repairing allies, or re-rolling themselves. Since these abilities are associated with particular faces of the dice, part of the strategy becomes predicting your enemy's next move, and attempting to disrupt it; a player can throw in a new die specifically to knock an opponent's die onto a less-threatening side. Add this physical layer of gameplay to the myriad of icons and values associated with each die, and the number of details to consider when determining elements like attack precedence, and you've got a lot to think about in a given turn.

This is precisely what distances Diceland from other Cheapass Games. Unlike the previous James Ernest titles we've reviewed, Diceland features a shallow, unimportant narrative, but compensates with a large number of factors which combine like Voltron to make a robust gameplay experience. It's practically the polar opposite of a game like Give Me the Brain!, which featured simple rules and straightforward gameplay. In Diceland, oftentimes part of the challenge is simply keeping track of the sheer number of variables at play.

Of course, it's this same variability that makes the game so darned flexible. Diceland isn't so much a single game, as it is a sustainable game mechanic on which other games can be built. Each edition of Diceland comes with changes to the standard rules, and the game's official site (as repeatedly advertised in the instruction manuals) features gameplay variations for mixing dice sets, adding obstacles, building multiple levels of terrain, and including more than two players.

So, the bottom line is that it's deep -- much deeper than most Cheapass Games (in fact, Diceland abandons the Cheapass branding altogether, and is instead sold under the flag of "James Ernest Games"). This depth might be a detraction for some players. For others, it might be exactly what they feel is missing from most Cheapass Games. In either case, Diceland is most definitely a unique gaming experience. Omeganauts, get your practice in early.

Final Verdict: If you love strategy games, and have a weird thing for polyhedral dice, then Diceland was designed for you. If you want a game that you can pick up in five minutes and then never play again, I think Cranium's still in stock over at Toys R Us.

Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.