One thing I like to keep track of in the board gaming hobby is the idea of "fads". This is when you see that a particular theme or mechanic becomes the new hotness and so every publisher and designer jumps on the bandwagon and suddenly you're front-loaded with 100 games portraying it. Cthulhu was in everything for a while, but let's not forget Sherlock Holmes and Vikings. And just how many "Roll & Write" games have suddenly spawned in the last year? I never quite know how many of these start (public copyright domain is a big one for themes), but it's amusing to notice them. But one fad that I think is slowly dying out is the obsession with "Dice Games" - could Dice Settlers be the swansong for the genre?
I don't get too hyped up for dice games, but I own some, they provide some good enjoyment and if the dice look cool and feel good, that's always a bonus. My interest to try this out stemmed from knowing David as the designer - mostly for my love for Anachrony and my interest in Cerebria - those big, heavy Euro's that have theme oozing from every orifice. . . . pleasant thought there. Even Kitchen Rush, even though I'm not a timed game person, I have to admit is wonderfully innovative in design. He's also well known for throwing in a solo mode or two around the place. So how is this going to rank?
She will Haunt my Nightmares
NSKN have a bit of a weird history with their components and artwork quality. Sometimes you get something that looks neat and slick (Teotihucan is a good example), other times you will struggle to keep your breakfast down. I'm pretty sure no one is going to be singing the praises over the production quality in Dice Settlers. The dice themselves are nothing fancy and yet they are supposed to be the focal point of the game.
If I'm going to be tossing these things constantly, I want to look forward to that moment, case in point; Seasons from Libellud, my poster child for quality dice. On top of this, the tiles aren't the best quality cardboard, you're stuck with cubes (CUBES!!! ARRGGHHH) and I still can't fathom what went into the design process of the box insert, which I swear is designed to troll you rather than be functional in storage.
But my biggest peeve is the artwork. Good artists are hard to find and are expensive, we all know this, but in this day and age your game has to stand out on the table and Dice Settlers is simply as bland as scorched earth. The terrain tiles are only distinguishable by colour alone with next to no detail present on them and I feel I've met the one woman in a board game who can creep me out more than the cover of Concordia. Seriously, that look from the woman on the player boards is the one you see before she turns into a demon and eats your face off.
The Key Mechanical Changes
So OK, the looks haven't got us off to a good start. Well the theme doesn't hold up much better either. You roll some dice, perform two actions and place cubes on tiles to control them. Yeah theme isn't something that's usually strong with dice games and this is no exception. Don't walk into Dice Settlers expecting a thematic experience of exploration or village building as contains about as much theme as Catan does.
Mechanically things take a bit of an upturn though. Like most light dice games, it's a pretty simple rule set to grasp (though the rule book isn't perfect at portraying this) and you do have some choices to make about what path you're going for and what dice you will use during the game as you're only going to have so many. And bag building plays a part, so you'll want to employ all your experience in trashing rubbish dice to allow for multiple power turns. You do have a fair bit of luck present as a result though as not only are you rolling dice, you're also drawing them at random out of the bag. Now you can mitigate the rolls with some symbols and the ability to hold a die back between turns so that helps offset this.
You're limited to two actions a turn, which helps to keep your mind in focus as having too many dice won't allow you to have complex turns, but instead make the two actions you perform more powerful. I'm all up for having lots of choices, but here I'm all in favour really as the whole experience feels pretty light and I wouldn't want Dice Settlers to come off as too complicated. By no means is this a gateway game, but I feel you could make it a next step up, perhaps a little more meaty than the likes of Nations: The Dice Game or La Granja: No Siesta. Part of this is the small amount of player interaction where you can knock out each other's settler cubes and fight for area control - word of warning, never let any player go off on a solo exploring experience, they will run away with the game with ease, so you chase them down!
But even with the pleasant experience, I couldn't help but get stuck thinking about one word - "generic". As much as I enjoyed my games (for the most part, more on that later), there are no stand up moments here, no big revelations and not a lot of tension. You finish the game and say "Oh, that was alright" and then move on without a moment of reflection. And this I fear is going to hurt it more than the looks which I agree, are in the eye of the beholder. In a market with thousands of games and "Dice Games" being a slowly fading fad, I'm not sure it's going to stand out among the crowd based on designer reputation alone.
Move this Art to Another Game Please!
Dice Settlers can be a fairly quick affair and if that's the case, props to the game, it's light enough that anything up to 60 minutes makes for an enjoyable dice romp. . . . until you have that one game where it goes past that. Because you don't draw dice until you start the round you have to think on the fly. Not that it's difficult to plan for two actions; I feel, my turns are usually done in 10-20 seconds.
However not everyone can react as fast - and if you get someone prone to min-maxing or analysis paralysis in your game, you're in for a torturous experience as was my first play of this. The downtime when waiting for that slow player to plan their dice will feel like hell when you're done in 10 seconds, and Dice Settlers isn't a game that can afford to extend its playtime. Of course, this depends on your group, but understand that Dice Settlers is fragile in this regard. Playing with the max player count isn't worth it and I feel it gets better the less players you have, even as far to say for once that three isn't the sweet spot here, the two-player experience was the most fun of the lot.
If you're like me though and enjoy a good solo game, then you're in luck because there's one here. Now the rule book is far from clear on how to work through this with plenty of FAQ's appearing on BGG, but a bit of patience will see you through. And all in all, it's a fun way to play the game and I dare say preferable to actually playing it in multiplayer mode. It's not going to give me the same engagement as say Anachrony's Chronobot, but it's a bonus point for introducing it and David has reached a point where if his name is on the box for a solo mode, I at the very least want to check it out (hello again Teotihucan).
Final Thoughts on Dice Settlers
Overall Dice Settlers is enjoyable to play, but if you asked me to sum it up in one word, the first one that pops to mind is "generic." It has its good and bad points like most games, but its biggest issue is that it's not offering anything new here. You collect dice, roll them, collect resources and amass victory points - insert plot for every other resource-based dice game out there. And this feeling carries through other aspects from the bland artwork on the tiles to the bizarre box insert design to the game's cover title itself. This is the issue I have with many "dice games" though, they mostly feel the same.
It's still fun to play despite this, though woe betide you if anyone can't think fast. Dice Settlers should be a short game and if it's anything but short, you're going to feel that drag like you're hooked up to the back of a tractor. There is little reason to encounter Analysis Paralysis when you've only got two actions a round, but those people exist and if that person is in your game, it will quickly outstay its welcome. Unfortunately, because you can't plan your turn in advance, the threat is ever more present.
With a small player count, I'd happily play Dice Settlers it does make for an enjoyable light dice game. But in an expansive market, I fear it's going to fall behind the crowd in the long term.