A What and What Game?
With hits like Cartographers, Welcome To…, and Railroad Ink releasing in the past four years—2018 was a banner year for the genre—everyone can agree that Roll and Write games have gained in popularity, even if no one quite agrees on what exactly a Roll and Write game is.
There isn’t even a consensus on how to write it. Is it Roll ‘n’ Write like Rock ‘n’ Roll? Or maybe Roll & Write if ampersands are your thing? Roll-and-Write for the overly-hyphenated? Or should we just call them pencil-and-paper games? After all, some of these games don’t even have dice, relying on card draws to provide the element of chance.
To reduce confusion, we’ll stick with Roll and Write for now. But what exactly is a Roll and Write game?
Elements of a Roll and Write Game
A Roll and Write is a game in which players roll dice (unless they are flipping cards: flip and write?), select the results of those dice rolls, maybe re-roll some dice, draft dice (or not) and finally, record the results of their rolls on a sheet of paper (or a laminated sheet) with a pencil (or marker). The paper generally records progress toward a goal, whether designing a theme park, mapping unexplored territory, or simply recording straights and full houses.
The first Roll and Write that comes to mind is likely Yahtzee. Who hasn’t played Yahtzee? It’s a staple of family get-togethers, retreats, and reunions. Milton Bradley published the game in 1956 and it still sells millions of copies every year.
Yahtzee is more abstract and simple than modern Roll and Writes. Today’s games add a theme (except when they don’t) and expand upon the mechanics by introducing spatial puzzles and the pursuit of tantalizing bonuses.
In general, Roll and Write games are puzzle-y, casual games with no set-up and a small time investment. There is very little to no player interaction and some of these games make excellent and satisfying solo games. Today we sharpen our golf pencils and take a look at some of the best examples of modern Roll and Write games.
That’s Pretty Clever!
Ganz Schön Clever—aka That’s Pretty Clever!—from Schmidt Spiele, is the most Yahtzee-like game of the bunch. There’s no theme. Just roll six colored dice and choose one to use. The kicker is that any dice of lower value are used by your opponents, not you. Re-roll the remaining dice and again assign them to your sheet. Use the value of the dice in their appropriate colored sections to score points.
The lack of a theme makes some question if That’s Pretty Clever! should be considered a modern Roll and Write, but we are broad-minded. And this is a short, simple, puzzle game. It is satisfying to hit those bonuses and beat your previous high score.
If you’ve played and enjoyed That’s Pretty Clever!, you will also enjoy the sequels: Doppelt So Clever (Twice As Clever!) and Clever Cubed, which continues the (lack of) theme with new actions and challenges.
Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write
Pandasaurus Games‘ Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write is a Roll and Write version of the board game Dinosaur Island. Roll and write versions of popular board games have proliferated in recent years. Kingdomino Duel, Imperial Settlers Roll and Write, Lost Cities Roll and Write, Alhambra Roll & Write, and Troyes Dice have all adapted board games to the paper-and-pencil experience.
In Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write, players compete to develop the most exciting, profitable, and safest (safe-ish?) dinosaur theme park. Draw custom dice from a bag and take turns drafting them. The dice you draft allow you to take actions such as hiring security, breeding dinosaurs, and building dinosaur paddocks and other attractions.
Resources and threats are tracked on a pad of paper, and, as players expand their parks, they draw their buildings on a map. Plan carefully or you won’t be able to fit in that gift shop or petting zoo.
Drawing your expanding park on the map adds a spatial puzzle to the game and enriches the theme. It’s more fun to build a dinosaur park when you can actually see it take shape. If you enjoyed the original Dinosaur Island or drew your career ambitions from the Jurassic Park movies, get building with Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write.
There are no dice in this “roll” and write game. Instead, each round begins with players flipping the top card on three decks (making this a flip and write game.) All players choose from the three combinations of house numbers and special actions. Play happens simultaneously, using the same cards, so the game supports many players at once: up to 100, according to the publisher, although we have not tested this.
Enter the house numbers on your streets, in ascending order, and use the actions to build parks, pools, and white picket fences. Points are scored for these amenities and subtracted for any code violations.
Everyone uses the same randomly generated house numbers and actions, so you won’t suffer from bad rolls while your opponents get all the lucky rolls. When you lose, you have no one to blame but yourself.
These mechanics have also been implemented in the newer Welcome To New Las Vegas! and Welcome to the Moon, which adds an 8-game campaign. If you enjoy puzzles that require planning and designing, and if you would like to do so simultaneously with many other people, then welcome to your new favorite flip and write game.
Build your reputation and become the greatest cartographer by mapping the wilderness for Queen Gimnax in Cartographers – A Roll Player Tale, from Thunderworks Games. Cartographers is another flip and write game promising play for 1 to 100 players.
Over four seasons, players flip new cards from the explore deck showing a shape and terrain type all players must draw on their maps. At the end of each season, score your map according to the scoring cards randomly chosen at the beginning of the game. Some cards may give you points for every forest space drawn on the edge of the map while others will reward each water space adjacent to a mountain space.
Cartographers has the most player interaction of the games on this list. When ambush cards are drawn, pass your paper to an opponent and he or she will draw the required monster shape on your map—probably in the spot calculated to cause you the most grief.
Again, all players are drawing shapes from cards available to all players, so luck is not a factor. If you enjoy spatial challenges—this is as close to Tetris on paper as you are going to get—and if your favorite part of any fantasy book is the map, then explore Cartographers.
And if you want even more, Cartographers Heroes is a sequel that can be played as a stand-alone game or combined with Cartographers as an expansion. Heroes offers different maps, scoring cards, and monster cards for more replayability. It also adds new mechanics with hero cards and skills.
Horrible Guild‘s Railroad Ink comes in many versions. The two base games are the Railroad Ink: Deep Blue Edition and Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition. The core gameplay is the same in both editions. The only differences are in the expansions that are included in each edition.
Roll the custom route dice and draw the revealed road and rail segments onto your dry erase board. Create the best-connected rail and road networks to score the most points. There is no player interaction in this game. Instead, Railroad Ink provides a relaxing puzzle that plays just as well as a solo game. The competitive challenge is to use the same dice results to create a higher-scoring railway than your friends.
Horrible Guild has been releasing a veritable rainbow of expansions (up to 28 at the moment!), so there is no end to the networking once you get on board Railroad Ink.
Players select three cards representing games from the Stonemaier Games catalog, such as Scythe, Viticulture, and Wingspan. One player rolls the two dice and then all players use those values to gather resources and score points on the game cards, or “realms.” At the end of the round, three new realms are used, until players have played through nine of them.
If you are a fan of Stonemaier Games, Rolling Realms will allow you to relive your favorite wine-making and bird-watching gameplay memories.
Heavier Roll and Write Games
If you like the idea of Roll and Write games but find them just a bit too light, we end our list with two deeper, more strategically substantial options: Eagle-Gryphon Games‘ Fleet: The Dice Game and Hadrian’s Wall from Garphill Games.
In Fleet: The Dice Game, roll and draft dice to build up your fishing fleet and harbor. This requires more strategic decisions than most Roll and Write games. After losing a tight game, you will want to replay it immediately and try a different approach.
Hadrian’s Wall is the Big Box of Roll and Write games. Or Flip and Write games, since play is driven by cards rather than dice. Hadrian’s Wall plays more like a Euro board game than a Roll and Write game. You will manage resources, build buildings, and recruit workers as a Roman general in Britannia, charged with building Hadrian’s Wall and holding back the invading Picts.
This game is probably the biggest, most complex Roll and Write on the market today. So if you enjoy the genre but are looking for a greater challenge with an almost overwhelming number of decisions to make, then get to work on Hadrian’s Wall.
Get Rolling and Writing
Whatever you choose to call them, games that involve rolling dice, flipping cards and making checkmarks on sheets of paper continue to provide hours of entertainment. You can play them at home alone, waiting out a global health crisis. Or you can enjoy them safely with friends.
Whatever you do, don’t even bring up the most divisive of all Roll and Write controversies: should we laminate or not?
Written by John David Thacker
John David is a freelance writer specializing in board games and the board game industry.