As a millennial raised on video games, I've developed more of an interest in physical board games the older I get. They're inherently social, and at a time when most multiplayer console and mobile games are pushing people to play online, I want ways to entertain people face-to-face. So when I first caught wind of Dice+, I was intrigued. Here was a product that promised to turn my tablet from a solitary gaming platform into something that could bring people together. After I got my hands on one and took it over to a friend's house to try it out, it proved to do precisely that.
What Is Dice+?
Dice+ is a six-sided die that connects to tablets via Bluetooth in order to turn it into a virtual game board. Dice+ doesn't offer much in the way of functionality that a physical die does not, but it serves as a more engaging option than passing around a tablet to play a game that relies on virtual die.
The developers have managed to cram an astonishing about of technology into this adorable little cube. It contains a Bluetooth module for pairing with your device, a proximity sensor for gauging when it's being held, an accelerometer so it can tell when it's being thrown, a magnetic field sensor that can pinpoint which direction it's facing, and an ARM processor that does the thinking. All of this is housed in a product that measures out to be 1.02" or 26mm tall.
- Build Quality: Dice+ feels solid in the hand, and I had no fears of it breaking from being dropped or handled aggressively. The die also pairs quickly, and its rolls are so reliable that it's easy to forget all the tech involved. Dice+ is intelligent enough to distinguish between being rolled, being tossed, and being handed to another player.
- Game Selection: It's all about the games, and Dice+ delivers. The bundled games are all highly-polished, even if some of them are shallow. That's okay, though, because a good board game doesn't have to be complex to be entertaining.
- The Game Hub: The software that ties the experience together is stable, easy to navigate, and provides access to settings that aren't accessible anywhere else.
- Play Store: Everything is distributed via the Play Store, as it all should be.
- Charging: It's inevitable that you have to charge Dice+, but the USB port can be a pain to get to, especially if you don't have nails.
- Potential for Errors: There was only one time when Dice+ displayed one number and the game displayed another, but you could say that this is one time too many. I didn't care, but it's something to keep an eye out for.
The Dice+ box is roughly the same size as a Moga Pro's, and it's mostly hollow. Inside I found a single die, a short USB-to-micro-USB charging cable, a small Quick Start guide, and a pouch to store it all in. For $39.99 one might expect to find a little bit more tucked away inside, but charging a good amount of money for tiny devices is a thing now, and it has been for years.
Out of the box, Dice+ doesn't look like anything special. All six sides are blank and there's no indication that it does anything at all. Indeed, without being charged, Dice+ is worse than a regular die, because there really isn't much use for a die with blank faces. But you didn't spend $39.99 to use this as a physical die, so this isn't too big of an issue. The die feels sturdy, and I rolled and tossed it around without the slightest fear of breaking something inside.
Well, there is one time when Dice+ feels vulnerable, and that's when it's time to charge the device. Unfortunately, this is likely to be the first thing you do with the device. Etched into one of the six sides is a triangle that points in the direction you're going to need to push in order to reveal the micro USB port tucked away underneath. It requires a significant amount of pressure to open, and the resulting click can be intimidating. It gets easier with time though, especially if you happen to have fingernails.
The die pulses while charging and shifts from red to green. Charging takes up to two hours, and you know it's finished when it's flashing a deep green. It's hard to precisely gauge when it's legitimately fully charged, but there's a way to check later on after you've paired the die with an Android device. It's not an ideal situation, but it's a tradeoff I'm willing to accept for the sake of having a near flawless design.
While the device was charging, I pulled out my Nexus 7 and went to the URL provided in the Quick Start guide. It shot me out to to Google Play, where I was able to download the app that ties together the entire experience: Powered Board Games.
I was surprised by the quality of the Dice+ gaming hub. It guides you through the process of getting the die up and running, and it has a simplistic interface that should be easy to navigate even without the brief introductory screens.
There's a persistent icon at the bottom left corner of the hub that indicates whether Dice+ is paired with your device. The connection ends whenever your tablet or phone goes to sleep, but it doesn't take too long to sync back up. The icon spins throughout the entire process, and at the same time, the Dice+ lights up to show that it's coming alive. Afterwards, you can hop over to the My Profile tab to view the Dice+'s battery life and other statistics.
Games are easy to get to, both the bundled ones and the featured list where you can purchase more. At the time of this review, there are eight games to choose from: five are included, one is available as a free download, and two cost $1.99 each. The remainder are listed as either "Coming Soon" or "Coming in 2014." The number of games in the pipeline looks pretty impressive for an add-on of this type. Like the hub itself, all titles are distributed through the Play Store, so acquiring additional content is a breeze.
No matter how good Dice+ is, it doesn't matter if the games are too buggy or unsatisfying to bother with. I'll cut to the chase here, all of the games are high-polished affairs, but like any stack of board games, you're not going to fall in love with all of them.
This Way Up
Bella & Max
I've managed to go my entire life without playing Backgammon, so I was grateful that each game comes with its own tutorial. I can't say that I know how to play following the tutorial, but as far as I'm concerned, that's merely replicating the authentic board game experience. People learn how to play from one another (and I'm pretty sure everyone has their own rules for some games, like Monopoly). Backgammon's instructions prepared me enough to poke around the screen with confidence, at least.
There's not a lot going on in this game, but it was easy enough for a friend and me to roll the dice and move the pieces around without getting frustrated. It's not a game I'm interested in, but I'm sure that if I handed my parents the Nexus 7 and the Dice+ to play this game, they would have significantly more fun without me having to hold their hands the entire time.
The hub lists this game as suitable for 3+ plus, and that's appropriate. The gameplay centers around rolling the die and counting. If you already know how to count, you're not going to find much challenge here. It's worth noting that it took me a while to figure out exactly what the point of the game was. Your character is hidden in a train cart, and there's a piece of candy hidden in a certain number of cars to either your left or your right. The game will determine which direction, but your die roll will determine how many cars over you need to count. Unlike Backgammon, up to four players can compete, but this isn't something that will hold the interest of anyone old enough to read this article themselves.
Rainbow Jack is a game where two players race to be the first to form the number 21. It's nothing complex, but it is one game that would not be possible to play using just a regular die. After every roll, a number appears on the die in a different color. The number determines how many points a player may add or subtract, and the color determines which row they are working with. A player wins when one of their row reaches 21. If the game ends without any winners, then victory goes to the player who got closest.
This isn't one of the games I tested with friends, and let's just say there aren't enough fingers in the world to play it alone. Two players take turns rolling Dice+ and placing their fingers on the number of fields that the die indicates. A player has to keep their fingers in place during the other's turn in order to score. Think of it as Twister for your fingers.
This Way Up
This game is similar to Candy Land, though there isn't quite as much depth in it (a shame, considering Candy Land isn't exactly all that deep of a game). Each player assumes the role of an alien and moves along the set path trying to collect as many animals as possible. Some animals give more points than others, and collecting a black cat docks points. The player who gets to the end first also gets rewarded. Unlike Candy Land, there are no pieces that move you forward or backwards on the board. Nevertheless, this was still a fun and easy game to pick up and play, and it's perhaps the best bundled game to introduce a new group of players to Dice+ with.
The game this is based on has taken many names and many forms over the years: Ludo, Parcheesi, Sorry!, Trouble, etc. If you've played any of those games, then you know what to expect here. Everything looked and worked fine as we played, but with four players, the game dragged on for far too long to hold our interest. It's also worth pointing out that the one time we saw a discrepancy between what Dice+ rolled and what the tablet displayed was during this game.
This game costs $1.99, and it just so happens to be the only game I experienced a UI bug in. In the screenshot below, the supposedly helpful text urges me to push 'Start,' but the word doesn't appear anywhere else on the screen. It turns out the blank plank next to the speech bubble simply doesn't have the word embedded on it. Eventually I stumbled onto it, but only after I poked every inch of the screen.
That aside, there is more content here than in the other titles, and it's actually very easy for me to imagine Pirates getting packaged up in a physical box and sold for $20 or more. The rules are somewhat complex, and while the initial learning curve is a tad steep, it contains enough strategy to warrant coming back to time and time again. While other games will likely come out that are more captivating than Pirates, I would consider this game to be a must buy for anyone who has already bought Dice+ and wants to get their money's worth out of the purchase. An extra two bucks really isn't much in the grand scheme of things.
Bella & Max
Bella & Max is less of a game and more of an interactive story. It's aimed at young children, so there isn't much in the way of gameplay. Players listen as the narrator guides them through the plot and occasionally offers them instructions. Interactions range from poking at the occasional on-screen objects and rolling the dice to determine how many of which item to give. The game teaches counting, colors, and the like, so it's nothing too complex. But given the quality of the voice acting and the presentation as a whole, it's understandable why it costs $1.99.
There isn't much left to say about the die itself. If I haven't made it clear by now, it works, and it works well. I've only experienced one problematic roll, and given how much time I spent with the device, I'm willing to let that slide. The positives far outweigh the negatives here. Dice+ could tell when it was being rolled versus when it was merely being placed down, and it wasn't sensitive to the point where it would sense a roll when we were really just handing, or even tossing, it to the next player. The battery life holds up well, as I haven't had to recharge the die yet since the initial charge. Granted, this isn't exactly something I have used every day.
On the negative side, we did manage to manually pick our number once by faking a roll and putting the die down with the side opposite from the arrow facing up (which is the six side). Fortunately, we weren't able to replicate it, but even if we were, such shenanigans take effort, and I doubt your friends would be willing to play with someone up to such obvious tomfoolery. The arrow doesn't stand out when you're simply grabbing the die and rolling it as you would any other. All sides look the same until the die lands and lights up.
On another note, the die is somewhat large, so that may be a problem for people with smaller hands. Kids could perhaps cup in between both hands if they need to, so that isn't too much of an issue. Still, it's significantly larger than a normal die. Did I care? No. My wife did, but I'm convinced her hands stopped growing when she was twelve.
Dice+ promises to bring people together, and I believe it succeeds. I've seen friends look over each other's shoulder to watch someone else play a tablet game, but more often than not, someone pulling out a tablet means they're going to be anti-social for a while. With Dice+, this is no longer the case. This is one of the few times you're not going to want to use the device alone. Just do yourself a favor and use a 10-inch tablet. These games were playable on my Nexus 7, but there's a reason board games usually require a fair bit of table space.
The initial crop of games are solid, and there seems to be great potential among the titles planned for later in the year and sometime in 2014. They range from tabletop RPGs to branded games featuring Hello Kitty, Jungle Book, and Judge Dredd. It looks like the more in-depth titles are still coming down the pipeline, and I consider that to be something worth getting excited about.
How you feel about this product will depend on how you approach it. If you love board games and view Dice+ as a means to replicate the same experience without the bulk or clean-up, you will probably be more impressed than someone wondering what functionality Dice+ introduces that was fundamentally impossible before. The answer to that question, mind you, is none. You could do everything Dice+ can using a virtual die and a random color generator. That said, I've yet to enjoy rolling a virtual die, and I'm sure I'm not alone.