Darius, Jeff, and Craig have all posted on Dice Wars (originally linked from Zen of Design). Actually, the first place I saw it was Jay is Games back at the end of June. I did a quick look at the screenshots, skimmed the post, and passed it by. Bah, I thought, another dumb risk-esque game. They never allow for good strategy, take forever to play, and have AI that is frustrating as hell to compete against. It was Darius' link that I wound up following to the game. If there is anyone for me to blame, it is him.
I was actually impressed the first couple of times through the game. It was simple to understand and easy to play. It contained a high level of randomness, while at the same time it managing to encapsulate a fair amount of strategic possibility. Despite a couple of problems with the initial setup of the game, I find that it is rather compelling to play. It managed to elicit emotional reaction (Yes! Aghh, Nooooo! I'm going to get you, green dice!), and hooked me for more than three games. Not an easy thing to do unless you bring some underlying story or character. The game itself feels like distilled strategy - Risk on Speed.
There are issues with the game, but I find that they centre primarily on board setup. In Risk you have a defined map; you can learn the relationships between countries and continents. In Dice Wars the land is generated randomly. While this prevents the development of dominant strategies, it also creates problems. The algorithm is good at generating interesting land, but the layout is not always balanced. This leads to highly indefensible land and/or severely bottle-necked areas (think Australia in Risk, but anywhere, and sometimes multiple).
There is also an issue with country selection and dice distribution - it is also random. The game shows you the map, with everyone’s dice already laid out, and asks you if you want to play. If your position sucks you select NO, it regenerates the map. This means that I spend a good five minutes clicking no until I get a layout that give me at least some chance of survival. The reason I do this is because I don't know when I'll get to play. The play order is not revealed until you click YES, and then you just might wind up last in line. It is entirely possible, with a bad layout, to be eliminated in the first round, before getting to play.
However, should you live past the first couple of crucial turns, you just might have a chance – if you play your dice right. The game is simple from here on out: capture all the land. Any space you occupy with 2 or more dice can attack an adjacent space. If you out-roll (tie goes to the defender - just like Risk) you capture the land, and move all but one die onto it. Lose and you keep only 1 die on the attacking space. At the end of your turn you receive 1 die for each consecutive space you hold (in your largest area), randomly distributed to your occupied spaces (up to 8 dice on a space).
From here out is luck and strategy. Equal stacks of dice have a just about equal chance of winning (slight favour to the defender), so attacking less defended areas is better. Winning means moving dice, and leaving the previous area almost undefended. Being too greedy usually means that you have a fair defence around the perimeter, but an easy to attack middle. Chinks in your armour can often be created by a single failed attack. And no, you cannot relocate dice. Patiently building up your defences through slow expansion and skipping turns means a better core defence, but at the cost of your enemies building up faster. The random placement of reinforcements can be helpful, or can force you to fall back and rethink a poor attack.
Yeah, you can be decimated by a string of bad rolls. I've seen the same thing happen in better strategy games. As you near total conquest, you become a behemoth, trampling you enemies beneath your feet. I've been beaten like this in Settlers of Catan. Either way, you can't help but root for your little purple dice. They are your strong warriors, or your hopeful underdogs. You get a little jolt when you achieve a narrow victory, an inner (or outer) wince when you lose a sure bet. Yeah it's gambling, but a lot of strategy games come down to the roll of the dice, or the fall of the chips.
I like long-form strategy. I'm fair at it. I can plan my moves a few turns ahead. I can compensate for losses and unexpected changes. I can even predict likely behaviour. I just don't always have the time to sit down and play a 3-hour game of risk. A 10-minute game of Dice Wars I can manage (even if the setup is lousy sometimes). In fact, I think I can get a couple in right now.