Roll and Move
In this age of remote plays and digital implementations, it’s sometimes easy to forget that board games are pieces as much as they’re rules or settings or half-filled boxes hogging up more than their fair share of shelf space. Take John Clair’s Cubitos, for example. The absolute best part of Cubitos is handling its massive handfuls of dice. That isn’t faint praise. Cubitos knows what it does best. Which is why you’ll throw so many handfuls of dice that you place yourself at elevated risk of repetitive strain injury.
Before we continue, let’s take a moment to appreciate just how dedicated Cubitos is to its dice. Let me count the ways.
First! Cubitos knows that if you’re going to promote yourself on the basis of appearance, you ought to rent a good tuxedo. In board game terms, that means there isn’t a plain Jane d6 in sight. White with black pips, black with white pips, no thanks. In Cubitos, the basic dice are gray. Two shades of gray, actually. In place of pips, they have custom symbols. A circle with a number means cash for buying more dice. A foot means — well, we’ll get to that. Over time, new dice slide into your pool. Sharp colors, new symbols. Crossed swords, shields, little cheeses with bubble holes. Oh, and a whole lot of blank sides.
Second! Yeah, that “blank sides” thing caught me off guard, too. All that effort to make custom dice, and most of the faces are blank. Except that’s one of the smartest usability decisions Cubitos could have made. This isn’t a game about rolling a bunch of dice and doing sums. Sure, you’ll add things up, but a big integer adds to, say, ten. Maybe a little higher if you’re lucky. Possibly lower if you roll a lot of blanks. That’s the core gameplay loop, by the way. You take some dice, roll them, and set aside those that show any symbols. The blanks you can either roll again or bow out. Bow out and you keep everything; roll again and you might bust. How can you tell the difference? Because rolling all blanks means you bust. Easy. No math. No accidentally rounding off a crucial decimal. You can tell at a glance what just happened. And the odds of that decision are easy to evaluate on the fly because you can see how many blanks are left in your remaining pool of dice.
Third! That pool is yours to customize. Early on you’ll mostly have grays. Sometimes you’ll get the plus-sized current player die. It packs a little extra punch, but not enough to confer a real advantage. Later on, you’ll probably regard it as a disadvantage. One of your precious slots, and you’re wasting it on that lame current player die. That’s because newer dice always make their presence known. We haven’t even talked about the context of what Cubitos uses its dice for, so you’ll have to trust me on this for a few more seconds. But when you’re trying to decide whether this turn’s pool should contain two orange dice plus a brown and a yellow, or whether you should maybe leave one of those oranges for next round, that’s when you know Cubitos has its hooks in you.
Fourth! Like all the best dice games, Cubitos isn’t merely a dice game.
Some game theorists have argued that most games are race games. First player to x points wins. Barring that, the first player to defend themself, or establish an economic engine, or hassle Geoff until he leaves in a huff can all constitute different races.
Cubitos is a literal race game. Because it’s about a race.
The setting doesn’t demand coloring in, partly because even the slightest reflection renders it grotesque: a world of cube-folk who engage in cube-games to determine the identity of the best individual cube. It seems a fate better suited to a world of spheroids, or perhaps hoop-persons. Philosophical reasoning aside, these cubes must collapse ever forward until they reach the finish line. Apparently they do so by rolling smaller gatherings of like-minded cube babies — your dice, undoubtedly more gently handled by fingers than by six equal planes. Such angular savagery only concludes when a cube slams across the finish line.
Geometric horror aside, this race provides ample opportunity to roll as many dice as you can afford. As in two of John Clair’s other recent games, Space Base and Ecos: First Continent, there’s no downtime. Everyone acts simultaneously, first rolling (and rerolling as many times as desired until you either halt or bust) and then moving along the track and purchasing new dice. There aren’t as many ties to adjudicate as you might assume. Cubes never block spaces, instead squatting atop one another in what one assumes are primitive displays of dominance. Those few questions that do arise are easily settled by the possessor of that current player die.
It’s so fast, in fact, that Cubitos is all forward momentum, with very few pauses to gasp for air. At times this velocity is refreshing, as when one feels the wind on one’s face. Other times it’s more forceful, like getting your face stuck in the pneumatic tube at the bank. Early moves are freewheeling, the race’s contestants ambling in the general direction of their goal but taking time to earn the occasional bonus. These are worthy of attention without proving too overwhelming: dismissing a weaker die, earning a few credits, boosting your ratings so you can eventually roll ten dice instead of nine, maybe the occasional shortcut. Later on, equipped with all the dice you could ask for, the back third of each race tends to disappear before you can appreciate the scenery, let alone make a detour for some bonus or another. It isn’t a surprise that the final round or two often come down to a single roll, with desperate contestants busting or prevailing along the final stretch.
As before, the champions are the dice. This is in no small part thanks to the game’s wealth of options. Each color adheres to its own template. With eight colors and seven cards per color — of which you’ll only see one per race — that’s more combinations than you’ll likely witness anytime soon. Even better, each color is clean and focused in its effects. White, for example, reliably generates movement. But there’s a huge difference between Smelly Cat’s easy movement and Broken Cow, which requires two cat results to activate, but when it does could shift the entire race in your favor. Brown dice offer temporary investments, but often useful for nudging yourself to that next price tier. Green are defensive, mitigating busts in different ways. Keep On Rollin’ lets you exchange its shield symbol to ignore a bust entirely. Punk Fruit goes even further by turning busts into opportunities to use a wide range of dice instead of whatever leftovers you were saddled with this round. Orange dice trash your wimpy starting dice, making Cubitos’s proximity to the deck-building genre more apparent than ever. Purples are expensive and don’t trigger often, but their effects are always a treat to behold. And reds are for—
Not attacks, per se. Attacks adjacent. Attacks-ish. After everyone rolls for the round, whoever reveals the most sword symbols earns a bonus. A credit. Some movement. In extreme cases, maybe one of those useless starting gray dice is transferred into another player’s pool. Regardless of the effect, everyone is counting up swords to earn a perk, not because those swords hold a cutting edge.
When you get right down to it, the reds reveal my core complaint with Cubitos as a whole. There’s so much going for it. Color, wackiness, some cool new ideas. Generosity, even, all those cards making each contest feel like it’s the one time you’ll see a particular combination. But those card combos exist for two things only: cash and movement. You’ll never trip a competitor, or push them into the water, or leave a cuboid banana peel in your wake. Oh, the game has glimmers of such moments. Trailing players roll extra dice. Water movement makes an occasional appearance, permitting a carefully assembled pool of dice to take an easy lead. Powerful combos can result in huge rushes of movement. But just as two cubes may share the same space with no ill effects, players hardly have any effect upon their competitors, period. There’s no shifting geography made by other runners, as in real races. There’s no chance of accident, or cheating, or Mario Kart-style hijinks. There’s barely even an arms race for better dice, at least not in the way you often see in deck-building games, with strengths and counter-strengths emerging throughout a play. Here the sole drama comes from the possibility of pushing for a combo or busting. Because of that, victory tends to come down to somebody pooping out near the end or rolling a combo they’ve rolled twice before.
It’s a hard thing to say, because Cubitos comes so close. Closer than most of its races. All that cleverness, all that color, all those cards, and it transforms a race from being one of the most nail-biting events a person can undertake, such a tense occurrence it’s become the storyteller’s shorthand for “time to clench up,” into cube-folk phasing through one another in parallel dimensions.
Ah well. It may have tripped at the finish line, but it’s easy to appreciate for what it is: a solid perspective on how pool-building can be done with dice. Hopefully the next effort will lean more into its strengths.
A complimentary copy was provided.