Dice Legacy is a strange game. This is not inherently a bad thing. I’m generally of the mind that strange but distinctive games have a decided edge in the now-crowded indie game space, and I’m inherently very fond of any game that’s trying to do something very different. And a roguelike city-builder strategy game is certainly going to qualify for the “something very different” style of gameplay before you even get into the basic conceit of the gameplay.
Yes, really, that stew of buzzwords isn’t the entry point but the setup for Dice Legacy’s core gameplay conceit, which is also its (thin) story conceit. So it’s definitely a big old mixture of unique right out of the gate. Unfortunately, there are certain things that do drag down some of that heady mixture pretty early on. Is it enough to make this otherwise promising and unique sort of combination into less than the sum of its parts? Well, that’s the point of this review, isn’t it?
Dice Legacy releases on September 9th on PC and Nintendo Switch. The Nintendo Switch version was played for this review.
Roll to Save
The story conceit of Dice Legacy is pretty straightforward and almost not worth covering in any significant detail. Your ship of settlers winds up washed up on the shore of this strange new land, with the whole map basically set up as one large rotating ring. Your goal is to survive the harsh winter, gather resources, explore, and above all else thrive in this strange new landscape. Failure to do so will, well… kill you. That’s enough.
There’s more going on, of course – you have to figure out what’s going on with the people attacking your settlement and discover the mysteries of the location, after all. But the majority of the game is made up with the direct ludonarrative, which means engaging with the game’s main systems, and that means its central conceit of having your units represented by dice. Every worker and unit in the game is a die with six faces, and what those faces display dictates what you can do at any given time.
Across the map, there are a number of spaces that can fit dice with certain icons in them. A stone mine requires a Harvest face. A building under construction requires Build. A wheat field requires Work. You roll the dice, assign them to matching spaces with their icons, and then wait for a few seconds while the workers perform their tasks. Afterwards, you have to re-roll to use them again.
The catch, of course, is that each die has limited durability. Each time you roll one, that durability counts down by one; if it reaches zero, the die is exhausted and goes away forever. Fortunately, you can stave this off with food, which allows the die to have its health restored by a bit after a few seconds… unfortunately, food takes time and resources to gather, and it’s easier to do during the summer than in the winter.
That’s all the basics. It gets more complicated very fast. There are a lot of different sorts of buildings to construct with different functions, for example. You have to construct furnaces to keep dice from freezing during the winter, which renders them unusual. There are multiple different types of dice to recruit, each of which is able to do different things. You can empower the faces of individual dice to be worth more. You can have children. You can assign different policies and different groups of the citizenry will be happy with you or irritated depending on whether or not you agreed with what a given group wanted you to do and…
Yeah, it all gets pretty overwhelming, and much like the roguelike element implies, you’re kind of expected to make some bad calls, screw up, and ultimately have to try again with lessons learned. Everything is a depleting resource, everything is constantly being eroded, and frequently you’ll find yourself staring at your setup and saying “aw, crap, I should have done something differently back like twenty rolls ago, now I’m probably screwed.”
This is not a bad thing, exactly? Like, it’s not something that I particularly find fun myself, especially because in the build I played the tutorials were not great and kind of confusing. (This is exacerbated by an issue I’ll get into in a moment.) If you like this style of play, though, this is a really good example of it. If you read that description and just cannot wait to get into a game that’s going to let you fail several times before it even pretends to let you know what’s going on, well, this is exactly what you’ll want. It’s cold (winter pun intended), harsh, sharply balanced, and replete with things that will make your life harder even as it never feels unfair… just punishing.
One of the biggest issues that I found with this particular game is just that its control interface on the Switch is kind of terrible. That’s not really a fault of the designers; you don’t have a mouse, you have a controller, and thus everything needs to track to one of the buttons. But I found myself constantly rerolling dice when I meant to lock a die, or when I was trying to scroll the map. The right thumbstick selects a die rather than moving the map, the shoulder buttons scroll, but the other shoulder buttons are used for rolling and locking, and it’s really easy to find yourself screwed not because you made a mistake (which is also very easy to do) but because the interface is just not intuitive. That’s not what I would call a good thing.
Do I necessarily have a better interface in mind? No. But between the kind of baffling non-tutorial (which is supposedly getting overhauled for the full launch, so that might just be an early build thing) and the awkward controls, that was not exactly the best introduction to what the game has to offer.
Visually, the game very much feels like a game of two parts. 90% of the art is very much what you’d expect from a city-building strategy game, with detailed models, illustrations, muted colors, and so forth. And then you have these big chunky dice thrown into everything, which is a bit jarring but in a good way? It lends the whole thing some of the air of a board game, a sharp contrast between the realistic and the unreal. The icons are a little hard to read, though, especially since some of them get pushed off of the edge on the Switch version.
Musically the game fails to really stand out, but the sound effects are excellent, especially the nice chunky sound and feel of rolling the dice. I realize that’s a little thing, but it’s a little thing that is sharply appreciated when it comes to dealing with the weirdness already circling around the game’s overall presentation and design.
Know Your Roll
I find myself somewhat conflicted about Dice Legacy. For one thing, it’s not the sort of game I personally like all that much; as implied, its design is one that I can understand and appreciate without taking any particular enjoyment out of it. I also find myself somewhat stymied by the fact that the Switch version has some interface woes that make it a bit less pleasant to play through, which is definitely what I would consider a problem. Not an insurmountable one, but there’s way too many times when it felt like the interface penalized me rather than the main game mechanics just being complicated.
At the same time, I do think there’s an appealing and fun game there just the same. The core gameplay loop is well-defined and unique, and the game has a unique charm to it. I might not be the target audience for this particular title, but I can tell that the people who are the target audience are going to get a real kick out of how harsh it manages to be while always feeling just shy of being unfair. It’s never easy, but it’s always unwelcoming in that peculiar balanced way.
Just… be prepared for some interface weirdness and losing before you get into it, and you’ll probably get more out of it in the long run.
Review copy provided by Ravenscourt for Switch. All screenshots courtesy of Ravenscourt.