Fantastically Metathematic – A Roll Player Review

THe cover for the game Roll Player and a cool cat.

A simile that’s been attributed to many different people over the years goes like this: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s supposed to be critical of music critics. I personally find the statement ridiculous, perhaps since I find it highly useful to approach most of my interests – including music and musical instruments – by way of the written word. It’s my understanding that the simile means that one form of expression cannot be meaningfully represented by the use of another form of expression, a very narrow-minded view in my opinion. By this logic a good game should be a game about gaming. Roll Player is such a game. I took a break from writing about games (which probably is as silly as crocheting about masonry anyway) and played it. Let’s see if it is as good as it is thematically cohesive.

Juni the Cat is hanging out on the table next to a board game box and a can of beer.
Juni is having a beer and thinking about making an Elf character.

The highly regarded game Roll Player was designed by Keith Matejka and released in 2016 by his own publishing company Thunderworks Games. The name Roll Player is an aptly chosen pun. The goal of the player is to create a role-playing character by rolling and allocating dice to different character stats. If you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons or other fantasy table-top role-playing games, or computer games such as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights or Icewind Dale, you’ll immediately get the gist of Roll Player. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about I’ll give you a brief introduction to the role-playing character concept. If you’re already well versed in the intricacies of role-playing you might want to skip the next section.

Background – A Short Introduction to Table-Top Role-Playing Games

When playing a table-top role-playing game (RPG), each person except for the Game Master (GM) or Dungeon Master (DM) takes on the role of a character. The GM is in control of what happens to the characters, and the players control the characters’ actions and reactions. The story is moved forward by talking, almost like a semi-improvised radio drama. The GM usually has some sort of storyline prepared, with goals and major events, and is in control of the surroundings, the weather, other characters the players meet… Essentially, the GM is an omnipotent narrator. Conflict and other tests of the characters’ skills is done by rolling dice. But it all starts with each player creating a character to play.

The character is represented by abstracted skills and traits in the form of numbers on a character sheet. In many RPGs the basis of all skills are called Attributes. The skill of climbing, for exampe, might be based on the STR (strength) and DEX (dexterity) Attributes. Apart from this the character sheet also has sections where you describe the story of your character, her moral and spiritual approach to life, her goals and so on. All these stats have a dual function. Firstly, they describe who you are playing in broad strokes, giving you a starting point for enacting your character, a foundation on which you can base your character’s decisions, reactions and behavior in general. Secondly, they provide the basis for skill-testing dice rolls when the GM has your character face a challenge.

In many RPGs the characters are created by rolling dice and basing the Attributes on the results. There’s some choice involved in that the players decide which dice add to what Attribute. Making an RPG character can be almost as much fun as the actual playing. But is it enough fun and enough of a challenge to be a game in itself?

When the character is ready to embark on the adventure, Roll Player is over. It’s not an RPG, but a game about fantasy RPG character creation. Before we look at how the game plays let’s have a look at the box and the components.

Look and Feel

The physical production of this game is outstanding. If you forced me at gunpoint to mention anything negative at all about the quality of the components or the overall presentation I might admit that the cardstock is slightly less flexible than I’d prefer, but that’s really the only nitpick I could come up with.

All of the game components laid out on a birch-wood table,

The game comes with five hundred dice, or at least seventy-three, a dice bag, wooden and cardboard tokens, a well-written rule book, six character boards and lots of cards.

Everything from the texture on the exterior of the box to the dice and cardboard components inside it is top notch. The well done but generic fantasy artwork is just right. Since this is a game about a rather well known, firmly established, almost formulaic gaming concept – a gaming cliché if you will – more daring or original artwork would have been detrimental to the theme.

All 73 dice for Roll Player next to a candle.

Rules and Gameplay

Roll Player is a game for one to four players (one to five with the expansion Monsters & Minions) but this review is only about solo play. During setup you first choose if you want to be Human, an Elf, an Orc, a Halfling, a Dwarf, or a lizard-like Dragonkin. Then you flip the character board to decide if you want to be male or female. Then you randomly get Class, Backstory and Alignment cards. These cards provide scoring goals. After this you draw six dice randomly from the dice bag, roll them and allocate them however you want to the six different Attributes STR (strength), DEX (dexterity), CON (constitution), INT (intelligence), WIS (wisdom) and CHA (charisma). There will be twelve empty slots to fill with dice before you’re done with your character, and rolling, drafting and allocating dice to these slots is the main mechanism of the game. Depending on which Attribute you allocate a die to you get to do different actions, further manipulating the stats of your character, re-rolling dice, swapping them and so on.

Roll Player Orc Character BOard.
Top right: Class Card. Bottom right: Backstory Card. Bottom left: Alignment Card.

In allocating the dice you have to keep close watch on your Class, Backstory and Alignment cards. A character of the Warrior Class, for example, will be rewarded four points at the end of the game for having 18 STR, but only one point if INT or CHA is 14 or more. The Bard, on the other hand, will be rewarded four points for 18 CHA and only one point if STR exceeds 14. In similar ways the Alignment and Backstory cards give you goals to reach to make a successful role-playing character.

My greedy monk after scoring. A very successful but rather unconventional character.

If you’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons or its derivatives, Alignment is a simple way of describing a person’s moral and ethical outlook as a point on a chart with two axes, Lawful–Chaotic and Good–Evil. In this game your Alignment starts in the neutral middle position but can be manipulated during the game. If you drew the Lunatic Alignment Card, for example, you’ll be rewarded if you end the game with a Chaotic Evil Alignment, while the Sentinel will be rewarded for Lawful Good Alignment.

Your Backstory Card has a few lines about your character’s past, and provides further rewards for cleverly positioning the dice on your character board.

An elf druid that scored me 39 points!

The rolling, drafting and allocating of dice to maximize your end score is the central part of this game, but there is another important part to the building of your character – the Market. Placing dice in certain positions on your character board, or placing gold colored dice, will get you Gold coins. These can be spent in the Market to equip your character for adventure.

Some examples of Market Cards for Roll Player.
A small selection of the many Market Cards.

One area of the table is the Market. Here you’ll be able to purchase weapons and other items and learn skills that can be used as your character grows. If you manage to collect a whole set of a certain type of armor you will be awarded some extra points by the end of the game. In the solo game, drafting the die with the highest value makes it more likely that available cards will disappear from the market before you have the chance to buy them, so you always have to balance your strategy.

On each turn you roll three dice, arrange them according to face value, draft one, place it, do the Attribute action mentioned above, and go to the market. There is more to a turn, of course, but these are the basic parts of a turn. Most of the important decisions pertain to the dice drafting and allocation. Picking the highest value die might often be most attractive from one point of view, but doing that makes it less likely that you’ll get to buy what you want from the market. The color of the dice matters too. Gold dice give you Gold when placed. Each class has a color, and dice in the same color provide that class with extra points. Being able to take different Attribute actions depending on where you place the die is yet another factor that impacts your decisions in this phase of the turn.

Going to the market is not as challenging. It’s often rather obvious what to buy or if to buy at all, at least in a solo game since you don’t have to consider getting something to prevent an opponent from getting it.

When all of the die slots are filled you finish the turn, calculate your score and compare it to a chart to see how well you did.

A solo game takes thirty to forty minutes. Setup takes five at most.

Theme and Experience

From a thematic point of view, making a board game about RPG character creation is a brilliant idea. For reference let’s look at the solitaire game Hostage Negotiator. This solo gaming hit simulates a very volatile and uncertain situation, and the tension of dealing with it, through the use of dice. In the mind of the player the tension of rolling the dice corresponds to – and amplifies – the tension of the story the game is telling. Knowing that you can fail even though you make the statistically appropriate in-game decision, once again because of the dice, has a parallel in the angst of the hostage negotiator who knows that no matter what they do or say there’s an element of unpredictability in the form of the abductor. Correspondence or parallels between the mechanisms of the game and the story it aims to tell is the mark of a good game, in my opinion.

What Roll Player does thematically is to try to evoke the sense of playing a game. The whole idea is to pretend that we’re about to play D&D! That’s the theme. Dungeons & Dragons is conceptually so much closer to a board game than hostage negotiating is to any kind of gaming. This means that in the case of Roll Player, correspondence and parallels between game mechanisms and story were firmly established by the choice of theme alone.

For a gamer with a background in role-playing, with many fond memories of RPG sessions and character creation, Roll Player is a strongly thematic experience.

My first Roll Player character. I managed to equip this Human Thief with some armor and a weapon, she learned to be focused and I managed to adjust her moral compass to Chaotic Evil in accordance with her Alignment Card. She scored me thirty points – a Luminary.

The game plays smoothly. You watch the steady growth of your character. Every decision is important. The choices are many. It’s a pretty thinky game, actually, since it’s all about min-maxing your character, optimizing every detail. And along the way you get to roll about 50 dice. Lots of fun!

Since the multiplayer game is not focused on player interaction, the solo variant doesn’t need a complex simulation of an opponent. The only thing you need to do is roll a die now and then to randomly remove cards from the market, since there’s no opponent around to purchase those cards. Smooth!

Although my background in table-top role-playing definitely enhances the experience, I don’t think it’s necessary to have that background to enjoy this game. The concept of creating a character with the best possible stats and characteristics for its vocation isn’t that far fetched. For a player without the RPG background, this game will come across as less thematic, though, and it will probably feel mainly like an optimization puzzle. But this puzzle is enjoyable in itself.

Pros

+ The rule book is very well written and structured. This is pretty rare, in my experience. So far, I’ve had no issues whatsoever with the rules.
+ Roll Player is an excellent solitaire game, but from looking at votes and comments on BoardGameGeek it seems that most people find it even better with two to four players. This means that it’s a game that could often hit the table and thus would provide good value for money. I would keep this game for it’s merits as a solo game alone, but it will definitely be played multiplayer too.
+ The theme is fantastically implemented and really strong. For anybody nostalgic about the role-playing sessions of their youth this game is a must-have.
+ Component quality is great.
+ Artwork is just right.
+ Gameplay is smooth and full of meaningful, interesting decisions.
+ The sense of progress as your character grows is rewarding.

Cons

– Scoring isn’t super exciting. There’s no clear win condition. You simply try to get as many points as possible. Many people want a game to end in a win or a loss, and find just trying to improve their personal score less thrilling.
– If you’re buying this game only for solitaire play it’s comparatively expensive since it comes in a big box with stuff for up to four players.
– If you are not familiar with role-playing games the theme of this game most likely would not make for a very immersive experience. The game has solid mechanisms, though, so I think you could enjoy it anyway.
– Although a fun challenge, it’s not a tough one. The average score on my first eight plays was 34.3. After that I’ve been too lazy to keep track. Since 38+ is supposed to be more or less outstanding and the score tracker doesn’t go over 40, I’d say that at least the solo variant is pretty easy. I don’t mind that. Every second of this game is fun. But some people might want a tougher challenge, so I feel I have to point it out.

My Verdict

Simply wow! I can’t wait to try this game with the friends I used to play RPGs with! I know I’m basically the embodiment of the target audience here, but in my opinion the theme of a game is irrelevant without sound game mechanisms that provide an enjoyable playing experience in themselves. My point is that I’m not blinded by the theme due to my affinity to it – the game behind the theme is solid, and it all comes in a great package with a great rule book to boot. A lot of care has gone into this game.

Other People’s Opinions

“Writing about games,” a self-proclaimed wise person once said between puffs on a curiously small pipe, “is like spelunking about philately.” Despite the profundity of this statement there are many reviews of Roll Player out there, and although reading about other reviews in a review probably is like strategizing about cave farming… I JUST CAN’T STOP! I have to get off the stage before that guy with the gun, the guy who threatened to kill me earlier if I didn’t say something negative about the game components, gets tired of my ramblings and…

This thorough review by David Wiley is on the positive side just like mine, but Wiley comes across as somewhat less infatuated and less verbose. Wiley also focuses on solo play.

If you’re interested in the multiplayer side of things this review by Tom Vassel of The Dice Tower provides a good overview. He starts off by describing his initial skepticism. He’s not as impressed with components and artwork as I am. In the end gameplay wins him over.


Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this review despite my unrestrained enthusiasm, the lengthy preamble and the whimsical finale.

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