There is a stigma against roll and move board games in the hobby board game community. There’s a good reason for this, as for many years this mechanic was used to make games, that were often licensed, where you simply rolled dice, moved a piece and then read what happens on the square you landed on.
In this article, I’m going to talk about why the roll & move mechanic in board games isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Along with that, I will be highlighting some of my favourite games that feature roll & move elements.
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Are Roll & Move games really that bad?
This article is inspired by a question we received from Tabletop Bellhop Patreon patron, and indie game designer, Roger Meloche.
Hey Moe and Sean, I’m really enjoying your show. Thank you for the occasional mention of my “Not Ready for Prime Time” games.
I have a question for you.
What’s so bad about “Roll and Move”? Backgammon is a roll and move game. If it’s played at a fast pace, for stakes (2 bits a point) and the doubling cube is used, it can be a very intense and exciting game.
Just because this mechanism was employed very poorly in the past doesn’t mean it’s bad. I believe it’s getting a bad rap because of the lack of player decisions, and lack of ways to mitigate poor dice rolls in games like Monopoly and Snakes and Ladders.
I’m currently working on a roll and move game with many tactical and strategic decisions. Are there any other roll and move games that you know of which use this mechanism effectively?”
Sean and I discussed this topic at length on Episode 135 of The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast and I encourage you to check out that debate as we went back and forth quite a bit during the show.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the game mechanic of roll and move refers to a game system where the player rolls one or more dice and then moves their token or tokens based on the results shown on the dice. Some classic well-known games that use this mechanic include Snakes & Ladders, Monopoly and Clue. More modern examples include Xia Legends of a Drift System and Talisman.
Roger is right in stating that the roll and move mechanic has a bad rap in the hobby board game world and I think he nailed some of the important reasons for this already in his question, with the lack of player decision and the impact of unmitigated randomness being two big strikes against this mechanic.
One of the biggest reasons people don’t like roll and move based games is a lack of player agency and meaningful choices. If a game fails to present a meaningful choice to the player after the dice are rolled then movement is purely random and meaningless. Player skill means nothing in these games. The winner is the one who gets lucky with the best rolls.
Games that do feature actual decisions after rolling can lead to another common issue with roll and move games, and that is downtime. Due to the fact that you are rolling the dice at the start of your turn, and you don’t know what the result will be, you cannot plan ahead. Every turn has the player roll and then make a decision, while everyone else sits and waits.
Another issue that is present in many roll and move games is the need to land on a specific spot or to roll a specific number. This is the trap games like Talisman fell into, at least with their earlier editions. This mechanic can lead to a game that becomes overly long, and could potentially never end, or a game where one or more players are effectively out of the game until they get the result they need.
Due to these three things being present in roll and move games, more so in the past but still happening to this day, there are a lot of people who look down on any game using a roll and move mechanic. That doesn’t have to be the case though. Many things can be done to alleviate or remove these problems, and many modern roll and move game designers are well aware of the potential downfalls of roll and move and have taken steps to “fix” the mechanic for their games.
One of the simplest things you can do to remove the downtime and AP caused by a roll and move game is to swap to rolling the dice at the end of your turn after the first round. This way you have time to plan out your move while the other players are taking their turns. Note this tip also works for tile-laying games where you would normally draw at the start of your turn.
To make roll and move mechanics interesting all you need to do is put in meaningful choices. Even getting to pick to go left or right in Talisman puts it way above most mass market roll and move games. Another way this can be done is to give you more than one piece to move, either letting you pick which piece to move or letting you split up the results among many pieces. More agency can also be added by letting you move up to the result rolled. This helps alienate or even solve the problem in games where you need to roll an exact amount to proceed.
Even with the above fixes, dice are still random so another thing that’s very popular in modern games is to put in some system to alleviate this randomness by providing a way for players to set the dice to a specific side, generate re-rolls, or adjust the results, etc. In addition to helping make the game more random, this also adds another decision point to the game giving the players more agency.
All of these things can be added to a roll and move game to make the game more engaging and fun. By using strategies like this, modern games have taken a classic, somewhat hated, mechanic and made it interesting and fun again. After all, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of rolling some dice and hoping you get exactly the result you need.
The top roll & move board games:
What follows is a list of my favourite games that feature roll and move mechanics. This list is presented in no particular order.
Xia Legends of a Drift System – This Sci-Fi sandbox board game features the roll and move mechanic pretty centrally. Every ship has a basic “impulse” movement stat that lets you get around the board slowly, but most players are going to want to combine this with an engine. All of the engines in the game involve rolling dice, and all of those dice have a chance of rolling low which can be frustrating.
The impulse system does help mitigate this randomness as even when rolling bad you will never be forced to only move one spot, in addition with the Embers of a Forsaken Star expansion you can buy a module that gives you a minimum result on any engine roll. Players can also purchase more than one engine thus changing the probability curve for movement.
As far as freedom of choice, due to the fact that the game uses a large hex map, even on a low roll players are given multiple options as to which way to go and where to head next. All of which helps reduce the impact of the dice.
Even without these tweaks, I still think Xia would be fun because the game is all about exploration, randomness and finding out what happens. This is a game where you get a victory point for just rolling a twenty on the d20, and where you can accidentally jump into a sun and blow yourself up. The randomness in Xia is what makes it enjoyable and the results of movement rolls are part of that randomness.
Camel Up – Camel Up is a racing game that has you rolling dice to move different coloured camels. It does a number of things to fix the traditional roll and move problems, the main one being that no one owns any of the camels. Instead of controlling a camel, the players are betting on the results of the race.
Along with that, Camel Up features some really unique movement rules where the camels can stack on top of each other and if a camel in a stack moves it brings all of the camels on top of it with them. There are also ways to mitigate the randomness through desert and oasis tiles and lower valued bonus dice, hopefully giving the camels you want to win an added push.
Formula D – This is another racing game but one where you do control the individual racers. While Formula D plays up to ten players, each controlling their own car, the game actually works best when you either control two or more cars each or play in teams. At the end of the race, you get points based on the position of all cars in your team. This helps to alleviate the runaway leader problem that can happen in many roll and move games.
The other thing Formula D does is to presents dice of different sizes for different gears. Not only do the larger dice have higher numbers, not all of the numbers are present on the dice. For example, you won’t find a 1 on any die above the smallest, and the lowest number on the largest die is a 21. Along with this, the numbers that are on the dice aren’t distributed evenly, so it’s not a straight linear progression. This means that bigger dice will on average roll higher than the die before them and will definitely roll higher than dice two steps down.
To keep things interesting, there is also an entire wear system where players can spend points to shift multiple gears, avoid collisions, etc.
Merchant of Venus – This classic Avalon Hill game from the 1980s was re-published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2012. This is a pick-up and deliver game set in space, where players zoom around the board moving goods from one system to another while watching for an ever-changing system of supply and demand.
Even though you start each turn rolling the dice to see how far you will move, you actually have a number of choices on which way to go based on the shipping lanes on the map including things like orbiting planets. You can also get ship upgrades that make movement quicker over different coloured spots on the board. Both of these things combined help mitigate the randomness of the dice and provide players with multiple options each round.
Talisman Fourth Edition – Talisman is probably the most talked about roll and move hobby board game (which still to this date gets a lot of hate for featuring that mechanic).
I wonder how many people who complain about it have actually played the latest version of the game. Talisman has come a long way from its first printing back in 1983. With every new iteration, the game has been fixed in some way.
The biggest changes came in the fourth edition which finally removed one of the largest flaws of the game, having to roll and move and land exactly on a few key spots required to progress. Now, these key spots allow you to stop on them if you merely pass over the space which does a lot to improve the game.
Another aspect of Talisman that I think many new players miss is just how important the choice of going left or right can be. For a new player rolling a die and seeing if you go one way you get to draw a card and if you go the other way you also get to draw a card, may not seem like a valid choice, but for experienced players, they know that going one way will lead them towards something they can use to progress in the game. It’s never a choice between two equal options once you know the game well.
In addition to doing some work to fix the roll & move mechanics, there have been other improvements like starting characters with a free advancement and reducing the cost to “level up”. All of which help to transform Talisman from a six hour long slog to an enjoyable one or two hour experience.
Monza – In this kids’ racing game each player controls their own car and you are rolling dice to determine how far that car moves. What Monza does to improve on this roll and move mechanic is to feature a board with different coloured lanes on the race track and dice that show these different colours instead of numbers.
Each round you roll all of the dice and then spend your dice to move forward on the track. Because you can use your dice in any order there is a lot of player agency here.
Now, this is a kids’ game, and there’s often an optimum path with each roll (which will likely be readily obvious to older players), but it’s great for teaching kids to play a game with lots of different options and multiple paths they can take.
Viva Topo! – This is another kids’ game that features roll and move mechanics used well. In Viva Topo, each player controls a team of mice who are racing along a track trying to reach Cheesevana. All of these mice are being chased by a cat. Along the path, there are multiple spots where the mice can hide. When they do so they are eliminated from the race but do earn some cheese based on how far they got along the track.
The way Viva Topo adds player agency is by letting you move any number of your mice based on the result of the die roll. You can move one mouse the full roll or split up the total between multiple mice.
At the end of the game, you add up how much cheese you have collected with all of your mice and the team with the most cheese wins.
Rattlebones – Rattlebones is a very unique game that’s a bit hard to describe. The entire game revolves around rolling dice, moving your pawn based on the results and getting other things due to what you rolled. All of this is done using a set of fully customizable plastic dice, that have faces that can be easily popped on and off.
Rattlebones removes the randomness and lack of player agency of most roll and move games by letting you completely customize the dice. That right there is way more player agency than most games offer.
There are twelve different die sides that you can place onto three different coloured dice leading to a ridiculous amount of possible combinations, which even includes using the same action on multiple sides of one die. I remember in one game I completely eliminated the randomness on one die by making all of the sides the same.
This is a hidden gem that I wish I saw more people talking about.
Long Shot – Long Shot is a horse racing game that is currently between printings. Similar to Camel Up, a big part of this game is betting on which horses will come in win place and show. In addition to betting you can also outright buy a horse.
Due to the fact that the game starts with no one owning any horses or placing any bets, the roll and move mechanic doesn’t impact anyone at first. It’s only once things start moving that players can start looking at the horses’ positions and start playing the odds. Horses that are owned by players have a chance of also moving when specific other horses move but only on that players turn.
Dice in this game not only determine how far horses move but also which horses move each turn. To mitigate this, each player starts the game with one re-roll token that they can spend to force one of the two dice to be re-rolled.
There is also a deck of longshot cards that players can take actions to draw from that will do all kinds of things to manipulate the current race.
Thunder Road – This classic post-apocalyptical racing game was first published by Milton Bradley in 1986. It’s worth watching for a copy to show up at antique malls or thrift stores. I was really hoping that this would be a game that Restoration Games would pick up and modernize.
In Thunder Road, you control three vehicles, a car, a truck, and a chopper. Your goal is to be the last player with vehicles on the map. While basically being just a roll and move game giving a big advantage to any player that can get one of their vehicles off the end of the map (which removes the last board in play, destroying all vehicles on it, and placing it to the front creating an ongoing never-ending road). Having three vehicles to split your die results over gives the game a very solid amount of player agency as well as strategy and tactics.
Added to this is a bonus die that you can earn if you are on the centre ‘road’ part of the board, which leads to fighting for that centre area being a big part of the game.
Note there is a newer Hot Wheels version of Thunder Road that simply does not compare to the original.
Top Roll & Move Games, Honourable Mentions:
These three games didn’t quite make the above list. I explain why under each game.
Rallyman GT – This is a fantastic dice-driven racing game and one of my favourite racing games of all time. The problem is that I’m not convinced that it counts as a roll and move game. In Rallyman, you pre-plan out your turn by placing dice representing different gears onto the board into the spots you want to move through. Once you’ve planned your move you then roll your dice to see if it worked.
Each die features one hazard symbol, with every other result meaning that your planned move worked. If you roll too many hazards though, your vehicle crashes, stalls or spins out.
Added to this, there’s also a system where you can earn a resource you can later spend to automatically succeed on a roll. You get these for playing cautiously and not rolling all of your dice every turn.
While I don’t know if it qualifies as a roll and move game, Rallyman GT is a really good dice-based racing game.
Jamaica – This is a pirate-themed racing game with a ton of take-that elements. While doing research for this topic of great roll and move games, Jamaica showed up on almost every single list of the best roll and move games.
The reason I didn’t put it on our above list, is that I didn’t enjoy the game much myself. There is too much backstabbing involved for my tastes.
Jamaica does do some rather interesting things with the roll and move mechanic by combining it with cards. Each round the active player will roll two dice and assign one each to day and night. Then players will play a card from their hand for each phase where each card shows a different action for if it is played during the day or night phase. Actions including moving your ships (in either direction), loading cargo, etc.
Whenever players end up on the same space they fight using a card-based rock paper scissors style combat system.
Deep Sea Adventure – My final game for this list is Deep Sea Adventure, a small box game from Oink games that I have heard is really good. The reason it didn’t make the main list is that I haven’t had the pleasure of trying it myself.
Deep Sea Adventure combines roll and move with push your luck elements, and honestly, I didn’t even realize this was a roll and move based game until doing research for this topic.
The big thing that makes this game work is that you have to decide if you want your diver to head back to the sub before you roll the dice. In addition to this, the amount of treasure you are already carrying is subtracted from the roll of the dice, doing interesting things with the probability curve.
This game, which I’ve often spotted people playing at local public play events, seems quick, simple and quite fun.
In the board game hobby, you will hear a number of people decrying roll and move as a terrible game mechanic. Hopefully, this article has helped to point out that just because a game uses roll and move in it, that doesn’t mean it has to be a terrible game. What’s your favourite roll and move game? Tell us about it in the comments!