|BANG! The Dice Game (2013)
|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Michael Palm and Lukas Zach
Bang: The Dice Game plays like a kind of unholy fusion between Yahtzee and the movie Blazing Saddles. It draws not so much from Sergio Leonne as it does Mel Brooks. Imagine the kind of slapstick gunfight you might see if the end of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly had been choreographed by Charlie Chaplin. That’s the spirit of the experience you’re getting here, and it’s exactly as weirdly disconnected as it sounds.
Much as with our review of Inis I have to confess here that I am fully aware I haven’t fully given Bang The Dice Game the opportunity to shine, purely as a result of player counts. I’ve played it several times with four players, and I gave it a go with five a couple of times. BGG is pretty split on whether it works at four (most say no), and there’s a broad consensus that it works well at five. With Inis though, I didn’t really feel like its optimal player count was unreasonable. The biggest problem I have with Bang: The Dice Game is that if I have five or more players ready to throw down for a game, I’m almost certainly going to pick something else. The social cost of arranging a session of Bang: The Dice Game that works well is way too high for the passable entertainment it throws your way.
Let’s dig down a bit and work out why. I’m going to refer to the game as Bang throughout from this point, even though there is another game that is actually called Bang and this is its dice version. So bear that in mind.
Bang is a social deduction game where your ability to impose your will on the game state is mediated through dice rolls. The Sheriff has a publicly disclosed role, and their job is to defeat the wrong ‘uns around the table. Everyone else has a secret role. Outlaws want to eliminate the sheriff. Renegades want to be the last person standing. Deputies want to keep the sheriff alive. Everyone gets an identity card that gives them a special power, and everything else is deduction and dice. Special powers might include heals, the ability to extend the range of your bullets and so on. Each character also gets a number of health points represented by bullets they can fit into their body before there’s no room left. Lose all your health, and you’re done. You’re out of the game.
The dice have predictable mechanisms built in. Each rolled beer is a point of health you can regain. Dynamite is a symbol that will lock that die and prevent you from rerolling it. Three dynamite and you blow yourself up. A Gatling gun symbol, if you get three of them, does damage to everyone else. If you roll an arrow, you collect a point of deferred damage in the form of an arrow token. When there are no tokens left, everyone turns around and politely pierces the arrows into their body and then returns them to the pile.
The other two faces are ‘bullseye’ dice. If you roll a one, you pick an opponent next to you and deal a point of damage to them. If you roll a two, you choose a player exactly two places away from you. You skip over corpses, of course, otherwise you might well spend your entire turn emptying your revolver into a dead player that is just becoming ever more perforated with every passing turn.
You get a roll and two rerolls. That’s your lot. NOW DRAW, PARD’NER!
And yeah, it’s sort of fun. You have to take part in a lot of people-reading and making do with the dice that fate sends your way. You might be a renegade that wants to gun down the outlaws but you don’t have the range to do it. Making the best of a bad situation, you just shoot someone else because in the end it’s fine if everyone is dead. You just don’t want to make things too easy for the sheriff. Your character powers will give you some additional options, but in the end your deduction is only ever a minimal part of the play. You might very well be a sheriff that spends his or her turn pumping bullets into the two players that you believe are the deputies on your side, just because that’s all the dice let you do. It’s a funny mental image – it’s like Wyatt Earp facing down Johnny Ringo and deciding to get things started by shooting Doc Holliday three times in the back of the head. This isn’t the tense, taught truel that you might remember from Clint Eastwood movies. This is more slapstick than spaghetti western. It’s more comedy than cowboy.
So, here’s why I found it fall flat. The first is that the social dynamics of the roles just aren’t really interesting enough because information is strictly rationed. Sure, you can all claim to be whoever you like but only the Sheriff is known and everyone else is operating in an information blackout zone. That’s a standard recipe for these kind of titles, used to great effect in games like the Resistance and One Night Ultimate Werewolf. In both of those games though there’s at least a degree of confederacy offered by the baddies knowing the identities of at least *some* of the people around them. Social deduction games really need to permit ways for that deduction to make itself known and Bang… does a poor job of that.
Common board game discourse tends to conflate two mechanics together. There’s ‘social deduction’ where you try to guess at the motivations of the people around you. There’s ‘hidden role’ where you each have a secret identity you try to jealously conceal from others. And usually, they really are one and the same thing. Within Bang though, I’m not sure that actually holds true and it’s because of the ambiguity of intention that comes from the central role of the dice.
Let’s consider Secret Hitler. One of the best mechanisms in that game is that one player draws three policies, passes two to another player, and that player picks one to enact. They may be confederates, or they may be working on opposite sides. What the card draw does though is permit for a degree of wilfully misleading play. ‘I passed you two fascist policies because I drew three from the deck, sorry’. It’s maybe true, it’s maybe false, but it’s a data point. And importantly it’s a data point from the past that might become important to the future because a deck of cards has memory. It’s not possible to draw five aces because the cards themselves hold the recollection that you have already drawn four. The odds of drawing a particular card shift as others are removed. A deck of cards holds the story of the game. If someone is always claiming to draw fascist cards, well… the odds are not ever in their favour. Information, by virtue of the way cards work, seeps out into the game. Or perhaps more accurately, implication seeps into the game and you can do a lot with that in a game designed around social interaction.
Cards and dice are both randomisation systems, but they differ in that crucial respect. Dice have no memory. You can roll ten sixes in a row. What’s the chance of rolling an eleventh six? It’s nothing to do with the mathematics of probability (less than a hundredth of a hundredth of a percent). It’s one in six, because that’s the chance of rolling a six for any die. The dice don’t remember the ten that preceded it and adjust their internal odds accordingly.
With Bang we have an interesting amount of ambiguity in that the dice give people plausible reasons for actions that seem to act against their expressed self-interest. But that’s because they do have plausible reasons for it. You can’t interpret ‘shooting a supposed ally twice’ as a sign of betrayal because in the end it’s a multiple-choice scenario. All you can hope is that you can read intention into someone that is getting randomised answers to a test and is being forced to pick one. At best you can try to read the truth into what they keep and what they reroll, but good luck doing that in the time-frame of a gunfight. You can’t narrow down their thinking on the basis of the options they have discarded. It’s entirely possible they shoot the sheriff every time because the dice are a constant agitator, rather than because it’s what they thought was smart.
I’m not saying here it’s impossible to work out who has which roles, but rather it’s not fun to do it. The insight is either brazenly obvious (deputies shovelling available heals into a sheriff’s open wounds) or lacking the evidentiary rigour to be definitive. Even if you are sure, whether you get to do anything with that data is entirely up to the dice.
This might be fine if the dice-play was at least interesting, but it isn’t especially. The intersection of some character powers with some dice rolls offers glimpses into this, but not reliably. Slab the Killer can spend a beer die to double a bullseye, as an example. That’s cool and interesting but not at all consistent enough to really improve the game much. It locks situational capability into a particular context around the table, and it might languish there unused. It seems like it would have been much cooler to have those powers available to everyone in a central, and diminishing, supply. That way you’d still be stuck at the mercy of the dice but you could bend their outcomes in more interesting ways. It would even be more interesting if you got to use (with permission) the powers of other players even if the social context isn’t rich enough to give that much oomph. As it is though, it’s just… okay. It works well enough.
And all of that brings me back to the thing I said in the intro to this review.
Look, Bang is fine. It’s absolutely okay. But it’s nowhere nearly good enough to be worth the social cost that comes along with playing it. I could justify the effort needed to have eight people around to play Telestrations, because it is consistently a fantastic experience for everyone and there are relatively few games that excel at that player count. A minimum of five though? Well, that opens up the Resistance which does social deduction and hidden roles so much better. Six? Well, then why wouldn’t you crack open Secret Hitler, which does much of the same work with ambiguous intention but with more aplomb? Or if that theme is too challenging for your group, why not Deception: Murder in Hong Kong? Why not a game where you actually can work to deduce the hidden roles rather than just roll with them as best you can?
The only thing that Bang is going to give you that these other games don’t, and better, is the dice… but dice just don’t work in this kind of game. Or at least, they don’t work very well in this game and I have never seen a game of a similar ilk where they’ve improved the experience. As I say, it’s fine. It’s a game that functions. It’s kind of funny for a while and an agreeable enough way to kill the precious hours of your life until the grave finally takes you. But come on, that’s not enough. That’s not the bar, it can’t be the bar, that we expect games to clear to be worth your attention.
A common response people have in these sorts of scenario is ‘We’ve played all those other ones to death’ when pointed to better alternatives. That’s a singularly poor pitch for why a game deserves your attention. It’s fine to play something just because it’s new, but it’s not a reason I can ever use in one of these critiques. It’s a bad, cheap conclusion that is disrespectful of your time. It’s a dereliction of my duty. The fact that kind of basic summation is endemic in reviews is a problem. I try my hardest to avoid it. But you know, if you have Bang handy on a shelf somewhere you won’t do yourself any active harm in playing it.
Part of the job of criticism is trying to relate cultural products to the wider context in which they exist. It’s almost impossible for board games because there’s relatively little real critique out there, and what exists is constantly drowning in a sea of releases that can’t possibly be navigated. It always seems a little perfunctory as a review conclusion to say ‘It’s fine but you can do better’, but really… Bang the Dice Game is fine. And you can absolutely do better.
It’s aggressively, almost violently, mediocre. It’s the kind of game they’d stuff your collection with in the Medium Place. ‘We’ve given you a copy of the Resistance with half the cards missing. You’ve got Secret Hitler, but one of the dodgy print and plays that let people see who you are through the cheap cardboard stock. And here’s a copy of Bang the Dice Game. It’s pristine’.
Do with that forking judgement what you will.