The Unprecedented Rise Of ‘Roll and Write’ Board Games

The Unprecedented Rise Of ‘Roll and Write’ Board Games
Qwantum (Photo: Haoran Un)

Board games without boards aren’t exactly novel. And yet, board game geeks are sharpening their pencils and competitively scribbling on pieces of paper in bars and lounge rooms across the world.

Bingo didn’t suddenly become sexy again. It’s the new craze: the golden age of “Roll and Write” games.

Because I am a nerd, I made pretty graph for you. Board games in general are going through a renaissance, but this curve is at the extreme ends of the scale.

Yep! That’s a crazy curve alright.

The first Roll and Write board game was Yahtzee, released in 1956. Since then, 136 board games (and board game expansions) have been released, according to BoardGameGeek. Of those 136 games, 27 were released in 2017, and 45 were/will be released in 2018.

That means more than half of all the roll and write games (52% if we’re being precise) in existence were produced in the last two years. It shows no signs of abating either: another 13 have already been announced for 2019.

In its most basic format, most Roll and Write games do what they say: you roll some dice and write the results onto a pad of paper. Based on certain constraints, you’ll get points for the right combination of numbers, the right configuration of numbers, or both.

Okay, it’s a little bit like Bingo.

But the devil, as always, is in the details, and as fiendishly clever game designers have turned their attention to the format, we’re seeing all sorts of innovative takes on the genre.

They’re very puzzly, so “solving” a particular game is very satisfying. They’re generally not particularly confrontational, which is also very appealing to a wide variety of gamers. Obviously dice are pretty random, so there’s often a heavy push-your-luck element to this.

Certain games come with a pad of paper and some pencils, others will give you glossy, laminated boards and whiteboard (dry-erase) markers.

This format means pieces can be kept to a minimum–some cardboard and some dice, and complex games can be shipped and produced for cheap, which means they’re generally $30 games instead of $100 games. That’s good for me and good for my bank account.

Here are some Roll and Write games I’m excited about.

Ganz Schön Clever

Ganz Schön Clever, Android app. (Screenshot: Haoran Un)

The German title translates into Strayn as “Pretty Bloody Clever”, and it is. Looking at your individual player board (which is functionally identical to the screenshot above), you might be tempted to think there’s a lot going on, and there is.

You have six differently-coloured die, and five differently-coloured spaces, each of which gives you points or bonuses in different ways. (The white die is a wild, and using and abusing this well is key to doing well in this game.)

Each turn you roll six die and keep three. You have to take them in ascending order. The yellow section is literally mini-Bingo, where horizontal lines give you bonuses and vertical lines give you points.

The blue section is Craps, perhaps, adding the blue and white dice to give you a number between 2-12, with the probability curves you expect.

Rows and columns gives you bonuses, but the total number of filled-in squares give you points. Orange is straight addition of the pip values, Purple is an ascending numbers game (but 6s reset the count).

There’s an app for this. I played it a few times and was very pleased with myself for getting a hundred(cracking a ton). Then a discussion launched on Australian Board Gamers, and I found people got scores in the 200s.

Then one guy said he could occasionally get 300+.

Turns out, I’m not as bloody clever as I thought.

Welcome To…

Welcome To… (Photo: Haoran Un)

At a recent convention, Deep Water Games tried to get two hundred people in a room to play Welcome To…. Which is a pretty cool promotional stunt, and demonstrates one of the cooler thing about roll and write games, which is they often scale exceedingly well.

In Welcome To…, you’re all town planners, planning your little street. You’re allocating street numbers, zoning housing developments (will these houses be a duplex or two free-standing houses with a fence in between?), including parks, and ? Swimming pools?.

Another innovation Welcome to… brings to the table is that it removes the dice element and uses cards. The back of a card gives you a random number (which controls where you can write), and the front of a card controls what you can write.

Randomised objective cards encourage each game to be subtly different.

The artwork on Welcome To… is delightful and captures a very vintage feel, and because the Kickstarter has gone ballistic, you can now play Welcome To… with zombies, ghosts, a winter wonderland, and a “doomsday” theme reminiscent of Fallout.

Apparently it’s not too late to jump in on the recent reprint on Kickstarter.

Railroad Ink: Deep Blue / Railroad Ink: Blazing Red

Railroad Ink (Photo: Haoran Un)

I love maps. I love games where a map emerges out of nothing, and you have to piece pieces together like a puzzle. Settlers of Catan was my first exposure to euro games, but Carcassonne was my first enduring love affair with a board game. It retains prid of place on my shelf, and I will cheerfully play it any day of the week.

I also love trains. I burned many long hours on Railway Tycoon I and II. Ticket to Ride was my next major purchase, and through it I converted many of my friends into board gamers.

What’s with the Red/Blue versions? Well the basic version of the game is the same, but the different versions come with different expansions. The Red starts nuking your railroad with meteors, as well as volcanoes and lava. I dunno about thematic appropriateness, but it’s still fun.

The Blue takes a more realistic and calming approach–but still adding a neat complexity to the game–forcing you to add rivers and lakes. My preference leans towards Blue, but really, both are pretty ace with or without the expansions.

This tidy little package tickles all of my gaming sweet spots. The little laminated cards with a built-in privacy screen / rules quick reference is simple and delightful.

The custom dice are cute, and the magnetic box snaps shut nice and firmly. I’m not one for solo games as a rule, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if I was trapped in a room with this game for a few hours.


Brikks (Photo: Haoran Un)

One of the other remarkable trends in the world of board games is the resurgence of Tetris. There have been a couple of tetromino-based games, the greatest of which has been Bärenpark, but this game takes it to another level. On this game, you get to play multiplayer Tetris.

Rolling dice gives you a particular piece with a particular colour, to be placed in your grid from bottom to top. Covering up the little coloured dots with the similarly-coloured piece gives you “energy”, which can be spent to swap one piece for another or change colours of a piece.

After a two minute explanation, anyone who’s played Tetris will feel immediately at home with this game. Pieces drop from top to bottom, and fitting tetrominos together is just so satisfying! Pieces are even allowed to slide sideways under other pieces, just like Tetris.

You can overthink the scoring, but the reality is you can follow your Tetris intuition. Completing rows is a good thing, and try not to leave gaps.

Admittedly, not everyone in the world has played Tetris, but that number is also exceedingly low, so this tiny game will take you far.

Coming Soon: Boomerang

This one is coming *any day now*.

This is published by Australian publishing company, Grail Games, and designed by Scott Almes, the brain behind the Tiny Epic Kingdoms/Defender/Galaxy/Mechs series.

Like a lot of others in this list, it’s a small-box game that has you collecting sets. Instead of dice, everyone passes cards around the table, drafting-style (think Sushi Go, or Seven Wonders), and collecting sets comes so naturally to both drafting and Roll and Write games that it’s seems strange no-one thought of it before!

But as gamers we live in a wonderful time. Because of the explosion in interest, game designers are exploring the genre, and in and amongst all the permutations and variations on a theme, you’ll see some truly remarkable games rise, the cream of the crop.


Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!