Sunday, 5 February 2012

Malifaux: A Farewell to Dice

So, I've recovered from last night's raging...

And therefore, I will write an actual blog post. Yay!

As regular readers (do I have those?) may know, I've started Malifaux. And Malifaux doesn't use dice. Oh, no. It uses playing cards. Fancy playing cards, but playing cards all the same. So here's me looking into some of the for and against using playing cards instead of dice.

Today is Quote Day here at Incarias Speaks
Cards are not as practical a solution to the generation of random chance as dice in a few ways.

First of all, cards cannot be (easily) used to generate mass amounts of chance at once. You flip cards in groups of maybe five or six at a time, and after that, it becomes unwieldy, and loses much of its benefits. Dice, on the other hand, can be thrown in large batches, and the only limiting factors for the actual size of those batches are the size of you dice area and your patience in sorting through the results.

Secondly, when you've thrown the dice, you just pick them up and throw them again. Decks of cards, on the other hand, need to be shuffled more or less regularly to maintain the generation of random chance, rather than the repetition of one particular sequence of results. And shuffling takes time.

Thirdly, cards break much more easily than dice. Most dice are rather solid chunks of plastic (or occasionally even metal) and I have anecdotal evidence that in a head-on confrontation between plastic dice, a concrete floor and a forklift, the forklift comes out on top, but the dice beat the concrete. Playing cards are thin rectangles of paper.

And once one card breaks, you need a new deck. If a dice breaks, you toss it and go on playing with the rest.

On the other hand, cards are much less likely to roll under the bookcase or into the terrain room...

Random Chance en Masse
When it comes to doing what both dice and cards do (which is provide a random number for the determination of some sort of game effect), the two methods offer different benefits.

As stated above, when a large number of results is required, the dice win out on straight practicality. I will therefore presume that the number of simultaneous results required is no higher than three. Which is more than either Malifaux or WarmaHordes requires at once, most of the time.

And cards have a few benefits over dice in these cases.

First, cards are reliable. Barring actual cheating, the likelihood of any one card being drawn is, for all intents and purposes (there might be factors playing in, but I don't know them, and they're likely to be minuscule anyway) the same as drawing any other. If you have fifty-four cards in your deck, the chances of drawing that one particular card are one in fifty-four.

Dice are subject to all sorts of additional factors, however. There are manufacturing imperfections that are only avoidable by getting the very pinnacle of dice (casino dice). There are differences in shape, weight and throwing styles that all influence the final result. You need perfect dice, and a consistent method of dice-throwing (that is also the same for both players) to achieve what the cheapest of card decks does in terms of reliability.

There is one thing that might influence the probabilities when drawing cards, and that is if there are cards missing (which, let's face it, happens). This problem is easily avoided by actually counting your deck once every few games, just to make sure you haven't dropped a card or two in the heat of battle...

I know, I know, the dice remember. There are all sorts of superstitions about this. Don't use dice that just rolled high: they're spent. Use the dice that rolled high: they're hot. Use green dice for Morale, use blue for hitting things. And so on.

But the truth is, the dice don't remember.The fact that you've just rolled twelve ones in  row does not make it any less likely that the next result will be a one. The likelihoods built into any one dice roll will be the same as for the one preceding it, and the one after (barring external factors), regardless of any other result that has come up.

Cards do remember. For a while at least (until you shuffle the deck). If you've just drawn all the twos in a row, you can bet your pet iguana the next card will not be a two (unless you've shuffled the deck. I'll accept no liability for lost iguanas). The likelihood of the next draw will be influenced by the results of all previous draws within the same shufflespace (yes, I made that word up. You know what I mean).

This means that those absurd sequences we've all seen happen - like the no less than nineteen ones my brother once rolled in succession while playing Warhammer - are not only much less likely to happen, but are often actually impossible; you cannot draw nineteen twos in a row, without shuffling the deck between every group of four.

It also means that there is a player skillset that will allow players to more accurately predict the result of any one flip, based on what cards are still in the deck. Whether card counting is good or bad is up for debate, but the fact is that in a card-based game, it is a possible factor.


 Cards also offer a few extra ways of manipulating the results (legally). For dice, we are essentially limited to three methods of result manipulation: flat bonuses (such as a +2 to hit), additional dice (rolling more dice, and either picking one or more, or simply adding all of them together) and rerolls.

Cards have access to all of those - add so or so to your draw, draw more cards or draw again - but also have at least one more option. The hand.

While it would be possible to give each player a set number of results they could use instead of their rolled dice (and this might even have been done), it is much more practical to do this with cards. And this is what is done in Malifaux: each player draws a hand of cards, that can be played instead of a drawn card (providing a few prerequisites have been filled) when the drawn card is insufficient.

This adds a further level of resource management to the game, and also somewhat equalizes the chance by giving the players some control over really bad results. Unless your hand is crap.

Final Verdict?
I like dice. But the cards do offer a few things that dice do not, and quite frankly, for a game like Malifaux, I think they are superior. You might have similar results with weird dice (D12, D20 and so on) but then one of the dice's (eeer, is that right?) main benefits is neutralized: their availability.

No, when playing a skirmish game, with a high level of detail, the cards do well.

I would not fancy playing cards for a fifty-strong block of spearmen, though...



  1. There is an option for using Dice instead of cards:
    Roll D4+D6+D8: D4 = suite, D6+D8 = bumber, Aces high, so 2-10 = relevant number, 11 = Ace, 12-14 = jack, queen, king respectivley

    Not tried it yet, but it's an idea

  2. This notion has the same drawback that rolling, for example, 2D6 has, though. The results toward the middle are more likely to happen.

    The chances of rolling a 2 on D4+D8, for example, is one in thirty-two. The chances of rolling a 6 are four in thirty two (also known as one in eight) as there are four different combinations adding up to 6 (1+5, 2+4, 3+3 and 4+2, where the first number represents the D4, and the second the D8).

    The chances of drawing a six in a deck of 52 cards is a flat one in thirteen, as is the chance of drawing a four, a queen, et cetera.

    Obviously, you sometimes want the bell curve of the 2D6 equivalent, but sometimes you do not.