Viking Dice

I was one inch away from titling this review "Lindisfart," but there are so many times I can draw from that well in a month.

History is shot through with unintentional ironies. In response to political meddling in church affairs, English monasteries tended to be isolated on cliffs and islands, all the better for devoting time to God and avoiding the bickering of minor kings. In board game terms, they were located on the edge of the map. This solution worked — right up until June 793, when ships of Northmen made landfall and sacked the lightly-defended abbey on Lindisfarne before anybody from the mainland could respond. So much for keeping your back to the wall.

Alain Pradet and Damien Fleury’s Lindisfarne has nothing to do with that particular raid or its aftermath. It’s a dice game. A particularly clear-headed dice game that highlights both how to do dice properly and how to fail to generate much lasting interest.

Hark, it's right there, concealed beneath somebody's token.

Turns out, Lindisfarne is a tiny portion of the map.

Let’s start with the good stuff, because when Lindisfarne is good, it’s very, very good.

You may have heard of Geoff Engelstein’s distinction between input and output randomness. The nutshell version is that one of them comes before the player’s decision, while the other comes after it. With output randomness, you decide to fight a battle, then roll the dice to see what happens. Input randomness is basically the other way around: you roll the dice (or draw cards, pull chits from a bag, or reveal an event) and then decide what to do with them.

Neither of these is “superior” to the other; in fact, both can be leveraged to great effect. But when it comes to something as directly chancy as a dice game, it’s easy to see why many, myself included, prefer input randomness. Anyone can make a terrible dice game. Roll 1d6. Higher number wins. There you go, a terrible dice game. And it’s even worse because I haven’t explained how to break a tie. By contrast, rolling a die and then deciding how it will be applied allows the player to make informed decisions.

This is the core of Lindisfarne. Each turn is about rolling dice. But unlike games in which dice are the final argument of kings and generals, this roll is the preamble, not the crescendo. What matters is how you use the results. There are three boards, each with two cards that serve as awards once everybody is done rolling as many times as necessary. More importantly, these board dole out their awards according to varying criteria. One is about brute strength — the highest total number of dice assigned to it. Another is about making the longest sequence of dice. And finally, the third board rewards duplicates, regardless of how high or low the dice fell.

Vikings painted frescoes?

The ultimate prize for any Viking: completed frescoes.

Within this framework, Lindisfarne provides two considerations, both subtler than first glance would make them appear.

The first is the tiebreaker. With each player only rolling six dice, two of the boards are unlikely to see high results. Six maximum! That’s barely anything. Since you probably won’t dump all of your dice onto a single board — rolling a full sequence or all of a single number isn’t trivial — even digits as high as four or five become unlikely. The answer is that the first player to place on a board puts their tokens in the highest spot. Their wager in now favored; in a tie, they get the first pick of cards at that location. But because each turn sees you rolling only as many dice as you haven’t yet placed, it’s tempting to claim a high row with only one or two dice. This is the crux of your wager: since you hold the tiebreaker, will other players invest additional dice to defeat you? Maybe they’re better off passing. At least their leftover dice translate to rune tokens, good for bumping a die’s result up or down by a single pip in a future round. This is exactly the sort of push-or-hold, wager-or-break mentality that a good dice game should engender. In this regard, Lindisfarne is almost perfect.

And then there are the cards. Predictably, some offer bonuses: rerolls, passing after a bad spill of the dice, drawing objective cards to share around for bonus points. While only a few cards have bonuses, every card is for scoring. Each is worth somewhere between zero and two points, plus their suit — which scores both a majority and fulfills objective cards — plus even more if you can string multiple cards together in the proper sequence, painting “frescoes” of your Vikingly deeds.

As incentives for winning wagers, these function as intended. Sometimes you want specific cards for a desirable ability or to round out a fresco, so you wager high on the corresponding map. Other times you just want to start filling your hand, so you score second place in as many locations as possible, rather than first in only one spot. And sometimes there’s nothing attractive, so you pass on a card to draw an objective. Despite only featuring two awards per board, there are plenty of details to consider.

Aaaaaannnnnnnd there's the problem.

The boards flip to become a score track.

Almost too many details, in fact. The problem is that Lindisfarne doesn’t know how to say when. It would have been sufficient to offer suits, the occasional ability, and frescoes. Instead, you’re also chasing majorities in each suit, fulfilling objective cards, and considering the raw point value of each card. Most of these values don’t rise to the level of mattering very much. But there they are, additional variables in the mental algebra that begins each round. X + Y + Z = victory is one thing. But X + Y + (Y₁ seq Y₆) + (10 x Z where Z is a former requirement of multiple Ys) + (some other scale of points I don’t know how to bluff a formulation for) + Z = no thank you.

To be clear, this isn’t some misplaced case of arithmophobia. Consider what Lindisfarne’s scoring might have been had it been designed by Reiner Knizia. Rather than offering a heap of criteria, it could have featured a simple formula that became charged as players interfaced with it. The quantity of your weakest suit, perhaps, or the size of your grandest fresco. Our theoretical Lindisfarne would have focused entirely on the quality of your wagers. How do they impact your score? How do they impact your fellow players by denying them specific cards? How does a particular ability alter the course of the whole game? Such moments exist in Lindisfarne, but they’re few and far between, instances of individual clarity rather than the natural result of the game’s getup. By containing map boards that flip to become a score track, Lindisfarne’s priorities become clear. It’s a wagering game where the wagers are secondary to feats of middle school algebra.

"Bits" is the technical term.

Hotly contested fresco bits.

Not every title can or should be designed by Reiner Knizia. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

But some of Knizia’s lessons would have served well here. When it comes to the dicey half of its design, Lindisfarne knows how to roll. But by drawing the focus away from its sublime wagers, Lindisfarne also becomes a prime example of trying so hard to make its cards matter that they stop mattering much at all. Every play should have landed heavily with import. Every acquisition should have made the entire table sit up and take notice. Instead, most plays are ambiguous in their relative value where they should have been immediate. They rate a shrug, not a declaration of war.

In other words, Lindisfarne deserved a Viking battle roar. Instead, its insistence on overly complicated goals results in a wheezy yodel.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on July 21, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Tangential to your review, but years ago I played a prototype on a similar subject that I suspect you would have liked. It was inspired by the Book of Kells, and was set in an abbey facing an invasion by “northmen”. The mechanics weren’t entirely fleshed out, but it had this tantalizing tension between its two possible win conditions. As monks, we are creating illuminated manuscripts, and so on the one hand we’re trying to produce manuscripts even in the face of invasion: so we want to protect the abbey if we can, but even more so the books: that is our mission. Or is it? Are we supposed to be preserving this manuscripts or /sharing/ them? Are we supposed to be resisting/repelling the invaders or /converting/ them? And so the other win condition was if you converted enough northmen. The trouble is that it’s hard to pursue both goals in parallel; you have to go great-guns after one or the other, which leads to debates amongst the players, because oh by the way it’s a co-op.

    It was a fascinating idea; the execution was never quite there and I think the designer has abandoned it, but man it was a cool concept!

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