Why Dice Throne's So Addictive: One Facet Of The Die
Paul Saxberg - Community Manager, Roxley Games
I have an embarrassing confession to make.
When I first learned that Roxley was considering partnering with Dice Throne in 2018, I checked their game out, and I was not particularly impressed.
How good could it possibly be?
Spoiler Alert: I Was Wrong.
Fortunately, Gavan saw what I didn’t and the rest, as they say, is history.
I was wrong about Dice Throne... but it didn’t really sink in for me exactly how wrong I was, until I joined their team at PAX Unplugged. It was there that I learned what everybody around me apparently already knew: convention crowds - especially at PAX - love this game.
There were ten large game tables in the Dice Throne/Roxley booth. It took very little time for nine of them to fill up with ambitious Gunslingers & Samurais, eagerly rolling dice, enthusiastically trash talking each other, and shouting and punching the air when they won their games. There were literal cheers from the players - and from the assembled crowd! - whenever someone hit an Ultimate. I spent my day at the tenth table, surrounded by this joyful chaos, showing off Santorini and Steampunk Rally. Between games, I started having to defend my table and chairs, as whenever they were empty, the Dice Throne fans waiting their turn started coveting them. It was an absolute zoo.
There was even cosplay.
Longtime fans dropped in, proudly announcing themselves as Kickstarter backers and thanking us for making the game. Nate & Manny posed for pictures and autographed Battle Chests. By day, media representatives from Geek & Sundry, Shut Up & Sit Down, and what felt like dozens of other channels showed up to learn to play, and by night the demand continued! So, fueled by granola bars and cold fast food, the demo team just kept going after the dealer hall was closed, on unclaimed tables and in hotel lobbies, playing on into the wee hours that we really should have been asleep in.
And as I thought about the day, I noticed a strange feedback loop.
Some of the people who bought Dice Throne took it immediately to the free play area. Some of them taught it to their friends. Some of them taught it to complete strangers. People started showing up, money in hand, waving aside the sales pitch. They already knew what they wanted, and they could see that our pile of Battle Chests was rapidly shrinking. Could they get theirs before we sold out?
Santorini was my favorite game to sell at conventions, but I hadn’t been able to generate nearly the interest Dice Throne had. I felt like I was failing my employer! But when I looked around the next day, I realized that it wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about Santorini.
The booths around us couldn’t compete with this behemoth either.
It was something about Dice Throne.
What Was Going On?
When life reminds you that you’re not the smartest person in the room, you can ignore it, or you can do your best to swallow your pride and try to learn something. (I’ve learned from experience that my pride tastes best with ketchup. Lots and lots of ketchup.)
I - and some of my fellow game designers - had seriously misjudged this game. I'd seen the evidence with my own eyes. So just what was it that was making Dice Throne so insanely successful?
What could I learn from this?
I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and ruling things out:
- Nate has incredible charisma… but it wasn't his salesmanship. If you’ve ever seen Nate at a convention, you'll know that he's instantly likeable, and that he's got the pitch skills to sell bottled water to Aquaman. But when I went to a convention that Nate couldn't make it to, Dice Throne still spread like wildfire.
- I thought for a while that it might be Manny’s artwork. But it's not that either, because as magnificent as it is, there are lots of other beautifully illustrated games nowadays (some of them, Manny's even worked on), and I didn't see them taking over conventions the way Dice Throne did.
- By the same logic, it wasn’t the new edition’s high quality, deluxified components - those are also popular in the industry now, but they don't guarantee commercial success.
- It wasn’t that it was a Roxley game - we have other Roxley games...
- It wasn't that the game was new.
- It wasn't that the game was simple.
- It wasn't that the game was complex.
- It wasn’t Dice Throne's advertising.
- It wasn’t the game's fundamental mechanics.
…or was it?
I believe now that Dice Throne’s success is a mixture of a bunch of different factors. But after learning a little bit about psychology and the chemistry of the brain... I think I might have isolated one of them.
Let's Talk About Dopamine
It’s time for a little experiment!
Grab the nearest d6 before you read any further. (You’re a Throner, right? You should be able to find one somewhere.)
In a minute, I’m going to ask you to roll your d6 (one time only) and to click on the corresponding number below. One of those numbers links to a picture of my cat, Lola, aka Darth Kitteous. The rest lead to sad, boring, non-feline images.
Before you roll, PAUSE.
Think carefully about how much you would love to see Lola, and how important it is that you roll the correct number. (I mean, she is adorable; you're going to love this picture.)
Remember that feeling, and imprint it on your brain if you can, because we’re going to talk about it again in a minute.
(Disclaimer: this only works if you actually DO want to see the cat, so if you don’t like cats, please pretend you do. For science. You monster.)
Now roll the die and click on your result:
-  -  -  -  -  -  -
Now: Before you proceed, think about the feeling you have in this moment.
Compare it to that feeling of anticipation you felt before you clicked. How are they different? Was one stronger than the other? More exciting? More fun?
The feeling of reward when you achieve something is important... but it’s not what we’re going to focus on here.
But that impulse that made you roll and click?
Wait – Isn’t Dopamine A Reward Chemical?
That’s an extremely popular belief... but it’s actually not the best description of it.
Dopamine is there when you get a feeling of reward, but it’s really more about what happens before that moment.
(Disclaimer: while I have researched this, I am NOT a scientist, psychologist, medical professional, Artificer, or any other kind of certified expert. If you’d like to read more about this yourself, one good spot to start might be Wikipedia’s article on dopamine, which does cite several sources from Real Life Professionals™.)
Succeeding at something can give you a rush of good brain chemistry - but dopamine’s main function is to make your brain imagine and want that feeling, not what actually provides it.
In Other Words:
Don’t think of dopamine as what makes you feel good after you roll an Ultimate.
Think of it as what makes you roll the dice in the first place.
For a real-life example of a dopamine lure from your own life experience, think about the last time you clicked on a clickbait headline. Was it satisfying? Or was it better in your imagination, before you clicked, than it turned out to be in reality?
Dopamine & Dice Throne
If you look closely at Dice Throne, you’ll see that it is full of dopamine triggers. Almost every mechanic in the game is designed to make you envision something that you want, before trying to attain it:
- Rolling your dice to attack, hoping for something good
- Deciding what you want with your rerolls & specifically imagining it in your brain - often even announcing it out loud - before going for it
- Knowing that certain cards in the deck are far better than others in the deck when you draw (Your Twice As Wild is in there somewhere… will this be the turn you topdeck it?)
- Holding situational cards in your hand (such as Helping Hand or Better D!), while you hope for or work towards the right situation to use them in
- Having your character board right there in front of you, full of powerful, exciting, and challenging abilities (How often do you hit your Ultimate? And how excited do you feel when it looks like you might be able to make it happen?)
- Watching your opponent’s Health dial creep downward, bringing your imagined victory closer and closer…
These are just some of the ways Dice Throne can trigger a dopamine lure in your brain. There’s a reason why this game has you rolling for so many things: defense, single use cards, status effects, and for who gets to go first.
Even ties are resolved by a die roll!
So... Randomness Is What Makes Dice Throne Dope?
Randomness is, of course, only one facet of a complex whole. A game full of nothing but randomness would likely be unpopular, at least in our hobby; most players prefer to feel like they are at least partially in control over their gameplay. It takes skill, intelligence, and hard work to arrange this in a game of dice and cards - not to mention maintaining a sense of fairness, which is also popular with some gamers (or so I'm told).
It takes more than a die roll to create a dopamine lure. The player has to genuinely care about the result. And making the player care still isn't enough, because while dopamine may lure them in, it won't guarantee any feelings of satisfaction for their achievements... which could be important if a game designer's goal is to make their game, you know, fun.
Without good payoffs to a game's dopamine lures, a game can just feel like going through the motions - endless, pointless grinding, in search of a satisfying loot drop that never arrives.
Ever played a game like that?
So What Provides These Payoffs?
Well... this paragraph isn't going to be a great example.
I didn't design Dice Throne, and while I have thoughts on the subject, I can't claim to be able to speak authoritatively about that part of it yet.
I do however work with some pretty smart people... some of whom just happen to have their names printed on the Battle Chest sitting beside me, and who clearly understood it several years ago better than I do now.
Perhaps I can convince one of them to weigh in on this, in a future article. What do you think - does that prospect trigger a dopamine lure in any of you?
I do have one little thing I can maybe contribute, though - another small way that we can further test and explore the concept of dopamine lures and satisfying payoffs, and possibly learn something in the process.
So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to try one more experiment. (For science. You monster.)
Roll a d6:
-  -  -  -  -  -  -
And remember our motto:
Keep rollin’ sixes!