Roll, Write, and Why?
Board game trends come in waves. Legacy games, while they experienced a smaller wave compared to the topic of today, were not only unexplored, but non-existent, until Risk Legacy hit stores in 2011. Today, modern classics are getting legacy versions, new games are exclusively legacy games, and some games are getting extra content from legacy expansions. Even though the legacy model is clearly still thriving, the immediate wave of excitement has been pulled back with the tide and as the wave inevitably draws towards the shore again, it brings with it a new gaming trend.
Enter the roll-and-write.
Roll-and-writes are exploding. When I say explode, I really mean explode, with fifty (no, that is not an exaggeration) new roll-and-write titles hitting the hands of gamers in 2019. That’s a lot, especially for a family of games that only had ten games released in 2015. That’s a staggering amount of increase in just four years.
But why? Why are there so many roll-and-writes being released? Why are they so popular? They’re not the smash hits like legacy games tend to be. While the BoardGameGeek rankings aren’t the final say if the game is a success or a failure, more Legacy games have made the Top 1000 than roll-and-writes, while having a quarter of released/planned games. I know, it’s comparing apples and wood stoves, but the comparison still holds a bit of weight. Why, even with so many roll-and-writes being released, are so few of them giant blockbusters?
This may be the biggest answer for all three questions. Simple games tend to do well in board gaming, correct? Very few heavy-weight games get the sheer number of plays that light and regularly quick games tend to get. At game night, gamers play a headliner game, and then wind down with playing a filler once or twice. That’s how it usually goes.
Roll-and-writes fit the bill for that role. Looking at the Top 20 roll-and-writes on BGG, only three of them have a weight higher than a 2.0 (basically saying that games below that mark are light games). Even if you look on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of complexity, there are no roll-and-writes that players have voted as being more than a medium-weight game. With the number of releases that the family is getting, it’s safe to say that roll-and-writes are light games.
Let’s continue fleshing out this idea by looking at maybe the most popular roll-and-write, Welcome to… This is the recipient of four Golden Geek Award nominations, including the game of the year nomination. Yet when you look at the rulebook and ignore rules for advanced variants, solo modes of play, component listings, and the cover page, you’ve got a six-page rulebook. Even if one were to teach the game straight from the rulebook, it would be quite simple for new players or non-gamers to grasp the game’s concepts.
In conjunction with a low amount of rules, they tend to be shorter games, adding to their accessibility. Looking at those same Top 20 roll-and-writes, only a quarter of them have a play time on the box that stretches past 30 minutes. And even among those five games, none of them extend past 45 minutes. So if you’re looking for a short game to fill time or to play after a big-box game, roll-and-writes seem to be the fit.
Low Component Count
Seeing a game with a ton of stuff on the table can be intimidating to non-gamers. Even a short game like Cryptid can be a bit much to look at with all the different colored hexes, cubes, disks, and pawns for those that aren’t used to those components.
But when it comes to roll-and-write games, most of them have a checklist of items, not counting a rulebook.
A pad of custom paper or custom dry erase boards
Writing utensils that match with the game previous choice
Dice or a deck of cards to roll/flip
And for the most part, if those three are met, then you’ve reached the capacity of what makes up a roll-and-write. That’s a big plus to gaming with those that aren’t used to terms like worker placement, rondels, role selection, and many, many others that gamers understand as standard words.
This plays into the playability factor in another way. Imagine a Bingo Hall. Rows and rows of tables lined up about a room with one table elevated near the front of the room. Seated on that table with the heads of the game is a machine to jumble up the numbers and a PA system or megaphone. The machine stops, the mic is picked up, and “G50” echoes about the room.
The same thing can be done with a good number of roll-and-writes. Looking back at Welcome to…, the box says 1-100 players. It might go through the entire pad of player sheets, but a 100-player game is doable. And, like a Bingo Hall, the players aren’t required to all sit at the same table to play. Since it’s not like Bingo and players have a choice at what they write, players might even feel the need to sit with a chair or two between their competitors so they have an entirely unique player sheet.
The Younger Brother
Popular games get spin-offs, and we all know it. One of the most popular eurogames, Agricola, got both a two-player game and a family edition. Nowadays, giving the gamers a roll-and-write spin-off is what the trend has been. Before the surge in the family, we had Catan, VivaJava, Zooloretto, and Castles of Burgundy already get roll-and-writes. And releasing in 2019, Kingsburg, Imperial Settlers, Patchwork, Gold West, Yspahan, and Lanterns are all getting the roll-and-write treatment.
Now the difficult question lies in personal preference. Some people think that it’s okay for there to be a million roll-and-writes, primarily because of the reasons I listed above. Others think that the popular game should stick to being just that: a singular popular game.
I lean more in the latter camp, and not just with dice spin-offs. I personally am uninspired by most roll-and-writes, which I honestly think answers my third introductory question.
I’ve given some names, numbers, and stats before this section. Now it’s all what I personally think, so if you’re only here for the other stuff, this might be a good place to stop. If you’d like to hear why I’m not keen on the family, keep on reading.
A good number of roll-and-writes are barely distinguishable, looking almost like the original, Yahtzee, with a splash more color. While looks don’t make or break a game, (yes, Hansa Teutonica, that includes you) an ugly game is easier to tell apart that 15 games that all look the same: themeless sheets of paper with numbered boxes.
I also feel like many of the roll-and-writes don’t stand out in terms of mechanics. Check this box, draw this line, write this number, combo this into this, which makes more combos. A good number of the popular roll-and-writes do at least one or two of these things.
It’s comparing apples and tables, but let’s look at some of the popular worker placement games.
Let’s start with A Feast for Odin and Lords of Waterdeep. Both involve taking turns placing individual workers on singular spots. Both have victory points to win. Both give more workers as the game progresses. But outside of that, the two are dramatically different. A Feast for Odin, the longer of the two games, has players picking one of 63 action spots at a time, with each column having a different number of workers it requires to take it. Lords of Waterdeep has a set nine spots at the beginning of the game, with players adding and benefiting from the new worker placement locations. These are two vastly different games, while still having the same core mechanic. One takes nearly double of the time and is double the complexity.
I said earlier, comparing worker placement and roll-and-write games is like comparing apples and tables. Worker placement games can be both headliners and light, family games, while most have a huge table space. It’s a bigger genre, with thousands more in it than there are roll-and-writes.
But my point arises: not only are most worker placement games different than one another, they don’t all fill the same spot in a game night or collection. There’s a reason to own Keyflower, Alchemists, and Targi, because they are all different enough to warrant a spot for each. How different can roll-and-writes really feel from one another? Not a whole lot. Like I had said with the simplicity, 17 of the top 20 roll-and-writes are considered light games. Games can be light, still have decisions, but not be very deep.
To end, this is where I stand with roll-and-writes: I do not need any more in my collection. I have a couple that are good enough to keep a place on my shelf. But at the same weight that the majority of roll-and-writes are at, I have about 40 games competing within that same play time. Why do I need four games that feel fairly similar when there are thousands of light games that provide different emotions? Sometimes I want to stare my opponent right in the eye with a barefaced lie in Skull, A Fake Artist Goes to New York, or Deception: Murder in Hong Kong. Other times I’m wanting to shout out how much I’m willing to pay for a property in light auction games like For Sale or High Society. All five sit around the same weight as a roll-and-write. All five are different enough to own each.
I generally won’t turn down a play of a roll-and-write, but I won’t be throwing my money at the latest in the genre.