I was curious to know if Dice Realms, the new game from prolific designer Tom Lehmann (2022, Rio Grande Games), was worth a spin. I was curious enough to drop nearly $100 of my own money to find out.
Tabletop media members are fortunate to receive many review copies for free. It is important to note that I bought Dice Realms with my own cash. That is going to greatly affect my feelings on the game, because as a consumer you always want to feel good when you drop that much money on a single game.
Here’s what made it easier to stomach spending that much cash on Dice Realms. Lehmann has designed three of my all-time favorite games: Res Arcana, Roll for the Galaxy, and Race for the Galaxy, the latter of which I have probably played over 200 times on my iPad plus another dozen times in person. I even have 1846: The Race for the Midwest waiting for me in shrink; I played 2017’s Jump Drive only once, but really enjoyed it.
It’s fair to say that I think Lehmann walks on water. Which is why it hurts me to share the following:
Dice Realms, given the price, designer pedigree, publisher and gameplay, is easily the worst game I have played this year.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve been invited to a wedding of an acquaintance you haven’t seen in years. You aren’t close, but you decide it is worth it to get back in touch.
That wedding requires you to drive about two hours to get to the destination. When you get there, you don’t know anyone else at the reception, and you’ve been seated at a table with a few other people who also appear to not know many other guests.
When dinner kicks off, an MC calls tables over to the buffet line one table at a time, but also includes a twist: you can only grab one item from the buffet each time you walk up.
So, you walk over and grab, say, some asparagus. You go back to your table, polish off the asparagus (you note the slight hint of flavor, tasty, just above average, but nothing special), then you are allowed to go back to the buffet to grab, say, a single piece of bread.
You head back to your seat, then realize you want butter. Another visit, then you go back and forth about a dozen times to grab a single item each time. You wrap up the meal full, but it was really a grind to eat all of the food you wanted, and this is wedding food: none of it was great, but all of it was fine.
A game of Dice Realms is very similar to this experience.
Everything about the gameplay is fine. I won’t even pretend that the idea of using removable dice faces as a setup for building a kingdom makes any sense, because of course it does not. Worse, turns are simply not that interesting.
On a turn of Dice Realms, all the 2-4 players roll their own two starting dice, while one of the players also rolls a red event die known as the Fate die. The Fate die is resolved first, and it has a 4-in-6 chance of coming up with something negative, with half of those negative faces showing the Winter event.
Starting the game with just 3 grain—because, uh, dice need grain to live?—players will be asked to “feed” their dice whenever the Winter face is showing on that Fate die. Each die needs one grain to be fed and survive the winter. So, before you can even begin your first turn, you might be down to your last grain.
After you resolve the Fate action, you look at your two dice (and it is two dice to start the game, but could grow) and collect any stuff showing on your die faces. Then, you’ll get to upgrade your dice (assuming you have the upgrades to do so), with very slightly and somewhat incrementally better die faces. Sometimes, you’ll get money, which can also be used to upgrade your dice.
Sometimes, you’ll get grain, or be able to defend yourself if another player or the Fate die tries to attack one of your dice.
Dice Realms, then, leans heavily into a very plain loop: roll dice, get stuff. In games like Space Base, Valeria: Card Kingdoms, or Machi Koro, the ways to get significantly better stuff are lots of fun and lead to combos that are really cool. Even in deck builders like Dominion (the game Dice Realms will inevitably be compared to), you’ll do something similar to the actions in Dice Realms, just without the dice.
But what if I told you that the feedback loop really looked like this, at least for the first half of the game:
- Roll dice.
- Collect a tiny bit of stuff, maybe a single point, or a single grain, or 2 coins.
- Take a small plastic tool to force a side of the die off, then upgrade that die face into something that gets you something a little better…but you then have to roll the die, and hope that the new die face gets rolled, because otherwise, all the work you are doing to pop off these die faces may lead to empty, inconsolable disappointment.
- Keep upgrading dice, all game long, but don’t forget that you may never actually roll the die faces you need, even with a free reroll every turn and tokens that allow for you to roll dice over again.
Would you still want to play?
Interaction with others at the table? Let’s be honest: you already know how much I love Race for the Galaxy, so it wasn’t like I played Dice Realms hoping for serious interaction. In Dice Realms, depending on your game’s variable setup, you won’t really need to talk to anyone at all.
I was surprised how often I focused on the sound of dice being rolled instead of the words anyone was speaking during my games of Dice Realms. Mostly, one player will announce “You good?” to all players, so that another round can begin.
But, much like sitting at that quiet wedding table, interaction is light here. That ramps up a bit if you are playing a pre-selected variant of the 5 setup tiles for your game, and there are attack tokens being used that have to be defended against every turn.
The lack of interaction isn’t a bad thing on its own. But combined with the absence of truly exciting gameplay, Dice Realms becomes even harder to recommend. The most critical comment I heard during a play of Dice Realms came when my wife said
“I would play Yahtzee before I would play this again.”
Dice Realms is simply never fun. The Fate die produces so many arbitrary moments that sometimes, players will be taking on negative Misery point tokens before they have even taken their second or third turn.
(You WILL have games where one player is simply out of grain tokens, Winter is rolled, and they have to pay for 2 grain tokens they don’t have, which costs them -4 points every turn. So, you’re saying that they should have planned better…on turn 3? In a game featuring DICE????)
You might even do a good job of building a strategy—and I use the term “strategy” here loosely—only to literally not roll the die faces you need. Then, you’ll need to pivot: you aren’t scoring enough points, so you add better point faces to your dice, but that leaves you open to a complete lack of grain tokens needed to feed those dice.
Similar to how Race for the Galaxy uses point tokens when players ship goods, in Dice Realms, a limited supply of grain, VP, and Misery tokens drive the endgame. If any of those three pools run out, the game ends that turn.
Five-to-seven minutes into a game of Dice Realms, you might be halfway through if you took a peek at the VP pool, but then multiple Winter rolls could lead to players taking on so many Misery tokens that the game ends even sooner than you think.
Dice Realms is Quick. Too Quick!
One of my cardinal rules about board games: the setup and teardown of a game should not take longer than the game itself.
Dice Realms almost goes out of its way to break this rule; a game with three players usually will not take more than 20 minutes, assuming that attack faces are not involved. (This is one of the few times I can definitively say that the play time on the side of the box is astronomically higher than real life; if you are playing with 4 players and the game takes an hour, you are 100% playing it wrong, particularly without attack dice in play. My first three-player game of Dice Realms, with teach, was 35 minutes.)
But setting this game up? Let’s start with the basic dice. Assuming you put the game away correctly during your last play, you shouldn’t have to realign the proper die faces to the starting, reserve, and Fate dice. But you’ll still have to lay out the five randomizer tiles needed to build a pool of die faces which can be bought/upgraded during this game. Thankfully, the organizers in the box make that not too painful.
Set up, then, should be easy after your first couple of plays. But when a game of Dice Realms is over, you’ll have to rebuild dice that have been upgraded, which means popping and placing a couple dozen die faces per player. Teardown is a bit of a bear, even if you play the game again with the same randomizer tiles, because you have to reset all the dice.
So, once you have this all down, your games of Dice Realms will be 15-20 minutes long, especially for two or three experienced players. But setup and teardown will absolutely take longer than that.
This begs the question, then; is Dice Realms too short? The overwhelming sense is that yes, it is. This is even for people who complain that lots of Eurogames end just as your engine is starting to heat up. Dice Realms is a diner dash; it’s like that guy who eats a meal then skips town before paying the tab. You’re eating, then it’s just over, then you feel like you were robbed if that was your diner!
Speaking of Cash—I’m Sorry, You Paid How Much?
When I told the players at my first play of Dice Realms that the game’s MSRP was $119.95, one of them literally gasped.
I paid less than that through an online retailer, but I still paid about $90 all-in for Dice Realms. I can probably still recover a decent amount of that price on the secondary market when I move this game out of my collection.
The overall look of Dice Realms is pretty bland, but it doesn’t break the game; the iconography is strong, and like Lehmann’s other games, I had all the icons down by my second play so Dice Realms feels pretty intuitive.
And, look: it is obvious where the high price of this game starts. The dice are magnificent. As much as I will throw shade on the gameplay of Dice Realms, I find no quarrel when it comes to how good it feels to throw these dice. Even the haptic sensation of popping faces off of the dice to press on new ones feels good, at least the first few times you do it. And those dice faces have a ton of information summarized right there for you; these are some of the best dice in the field.
These dice, then, mixed with the die face organizer and the well-designed player aids (although, for this MSRP, can we get four aids instead of only two??), leave me with the distinct sense that the game is at least a strong physical production. A badly out-of-whack price point, but a great physical production.
(I’m OK with the fact that coin trackers are not included; some players complained about this, but as a guy who plays Clank! enough to remember how much Skill I’ve acquired during a turn to remember how much I have to spend at the card market, I was OK with no trackers here.)
Still, it blows my mind that I could buy Roll for the Galaxy, Race for the Galaxy, AND Res Arcana for less than a copy of Dice Realms. Inflation is something else, eh??
A Massive Fail
There’s no getting around it—Dice Realms is a significant disappointment, both for me as a Lehmann fan and as a standalone tabletop production.
Rio Grande Games is one of my favorite publishers. Beyond the Sun is my favorite game played during 2021. Pictures has become my go-to family game whenever we travel to see the grandparents. Concordia is an all-time classic.
But Dice Realms has so many issues. In a classic “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze” situation, the game is simply too short for this level of investment. The MSRP is utterly ridiculous. The themeless nature of this setup still has me shaking my head: why is grain the only thing that gets produced?
The largest fail, though, is quite simple: Dice Realms is a boring experience. I’m struggling to imagine development and playtesting coming to a different conclusion—once you’ve popped a few die faces off to build better dice, you aren’t left with fun things to do each time you roll. There’s really no engine to speak of. Buying new dice isn’t special, and this doubles down when you add dice then have to “feed” these dice without more grain.
If you can believe this, Dice Realms is even more random than you would think for a game that is functionally a dice-rolling game. You have a 1-in-6 chance of something happening on each die, and even then, you can’t really plan on the investments you are making ever coming up for you. Like, what???
The derogatory nicknames this game earned from the 12 different players who joined me for my 8 plays really drove it home. The Most Expensive Filler Ever Made. Dice-Building Toy Game. LEGO Dice. “Oh Boy.”
Dice Realms is a $25 game in a $120 box. It is never truly exciting, is not a looker (there isn’t even a dry Euro-style picture on the cover of the box!!), is too involved to set up and teardown, isn’t nearly long enough, and is going to be really tough to get to the table regularly despite a playtime of 20 minutes.
I will move this out of my collection soon in the hopes of recouping some of this cost.