There seems to be a lot of confusion to what roll-and-write games exactly are. To be honest, it’s not that strange. Roll-and-write games, unlike say deck-building games, are defined by both their form, as well as the kind of game you play with it. A Railroad Ink looks nothing like a Ganz Schon Clever, for example, but they are both roll-and-write games. Once you get past the umbrella term ‘roll-and-write’, you’ll see that there are many sub-genres within the genre. Luckily, roll-and-write games all follow a certain formula, which is useful if you want to make a definition, but it tends to be on the long side. At least, if you want a complete, all-encompassing, and watertight definition. Using Yahtzee, the first entry in the genre, we’ll see if we can actually reach a definition to start off with.
So. Yahtzee. It’s an old game, all the way from 1956. At least, that is the first known release, but it has been around for a bit longer under the name Yacht, according to Hasbro. The components are: a score pad, and five six-sided dice. Many versions also include a dice cup. It’s a game that, like Monopoly or Risk, is considered a ‘classic’, and as such has a tendency to materialize in cupboards of well-meaning grandmothers all over the world. It’s not, however, a game I would ever recommend to anyone in this Golden Age of roll-and-write games.
Anyways, the first shared point: a score pad. Or rather: something to write scores on. Every roll-and-write has something to write scores on. It’s where the ‘-write’ bit comes from. The second point: the dice. Or rather: something to randomize with. Why this distinction is important, we’ll get to in a later stage.
We have our ‘rolling’ and ‘writing’. Now, there must be more to this than just rolling and writing. Just rolling dice and writing the totals down, with the winner being whoever managed to roll higher than the rest over a set of rounds, can’t be at the cradle of an entire genre, right? Between the rolling and the writing is where the game lives. That just might also be why it proves to be difficult to pin down a definition in a satisfying way. The cool thing is that we can break down roll-and-writes in steps that are present in most, if not all games in the genre.
In Yahtzee, the player rolls the dice, then gets to re-roll any number of dice they want twice. In other words, the player is not completely left to the mercy of the dice gods: the player gets to influence what the dice have to say to a certain extent. We’ll call this ‘mitigation’. What the player gets to do here is to try and manipulate the dice to fit their game plan; these are decisions on the ‘rolling’ side of things.
When the player is satisfied with the results (or in despair with the dice still not in their favour after re-rolling what they wanted), there are more decisions to be made. The player gets to select a set of dice that matches one of their scoring options, and assigns it. If mitigation are the decisions that live on the rolling side of a divide, these decisions, which we will call ‘assignment’, live on the writing side.
For example, the player has rolled the following: 3,3,3,3,5. The player can choose to use the threes in the Four of a Kind section, or to use them in the Threes section instead. The first option can be sub-optimal but safe: the player might leave points on the table, but will leave the Threes section open for a later, potentially worse roll. The second option is arguably a better use of the dice, but at a larger risk: the score is nearly maximized for that section, but the player will have to hope that an opportunity for the Four of A Kind will present itself later.
This aspect of roll-and-writes ties in with other concepts such as ‘Push-Your-Luck’ mechanics and ‘Set Collection’, concepts we will be returning to in a later stage.
Mitigation and assignment, when taken together, form a ‘decision space’ in roll-and-writes. The grey area between rolling and writing is best described as such. As I mentioned early, that is where the game lives, and as such, it is where the players actually play. Later on, when we discuss mechanics, we’ll find that the bulk of mechanics in roll-and-writes deals with player (inter)action in this area. Not every roll-and-write features mitigation and then calls for more flexibility or weight in the assignment.
We now get to the other bookend of the genre: the writing. The decisions have been made, and these are now set in ink, so to speak. Writing is the most straightforward aspect of roll-and-write games.
Finally, we get to a part that is easy to leave out in a description, namely scoring. Writing is good and all, but here is the step in which we actually convert all of the writings into a concrete total score. We apply meaning to what we just wrote down. In Yahtzee, for example, we simply add up all of the dice we used. Not every game does scoring at this stage, though. Some games only score at the end of the game, but most, if not all, games score at the end, regardless of whether there were earlier scoring steps.
The process of roll-and-write games is then: rolling, mitigation, assignment, writing, and scoring, in that order. From this we can start to build a simple definition:
A roll-and-write game is a game in which players roll dice, possibly apply mitigation, then assign and write the results of the dice. The written results are then used to score points.
You might think about other roll-and-writes that you have seen or played, and feel that these are not captured by this definition. For example, the games that some like to call ‘flip-and-fills’, games such as Welcome To… (2018) that use cards instead of dice. At a later stage we will abstract the concept of rolling to one of ‘randomization’, which allows us to include the entirety of the genre, as well as to show that the genre does not undergo any meaningful changes as you swap one method of randomization for another. Or in other words: why games such as Welcome To… and MetroX (2018) are still roll-and-writes, and why other terms such as ‘flip-and-fill’ or ‘rando-writer’ do nothing but fragment an already niche genre.
Have we built a watertight diagram yet, though? Well, no. As we will see at later stages, some mechanics can also define what we roll, for example, drawing rolling into the decision space as well. The diagram will still expand and become more complex as we go along. Now that we have a working definition, though, we can start to look at more of the nuts and bolts of roll-and-write games. In the next section, we move down a layer to abstract away from the score pad into what we call a ‘player sheet’. We will also be moving to concepts of ‘spaces’ and ‘values’, which are where and what we write, respectively.