Saturday, January 6, 2007

Dice Towers

I enjoy boardgames. Many boardgames employ dice. Some of the best boardgames employ many dice. And one of my favourite boardgames uses a LOT of dice.

Now it's not the cleverest game in the world, or the most intellectually challenging, or even paticularly "grown-up", but I do like Heroscape. A lot. But I got bored of the dice scattering all over the board every time they were required, so I started to think about dice towers.

Dice towers were invented by the Romans (who knew a thing or two about dice games; in particular they knew that the average Roman legionary would rob his own grandmother, and given half a chance would even cheat at dice). The typical design is a square tower about 8" tall, which contains three slopes inside. Dice are deposited in the top, bounce off these internal slopes, and roll out onto a tray at the bottom properly randomized.

Well. I wanted a dice tower. Except I decided that ordeinary, "start of the first millenium" designs were not for me. I wanted something different.

I also like the visual appeal of pachinko machines. Pachinko is a Japanese gambling game, their equivalent of the slot machine or one-armed bandit (only with even less skill as far as I can tell). The machines look like big bagatelle boards, and work by bouncing lots of ball-bearings off lots of little pins. Visually and sonically appealling or jarring depending upon your point of view.

So I decided to design a dice tower using the same basic idea - instead of slopes it would have pins or rods to bounce the dice off. ANd of course it had to be transparent, to show off the dice as they counced around inside.

The first version I made was from balsa and thin dowel, just to prove that the idea was sound. It took me about 20 minutes, and demonstrated that yes, it would work, but careful placement of the internal rods would be cricial to avoid dice passing straight through the tower without being randomized, or worse, getting stuck.

So next I ordered some 3mm thick acrylic sheet and rods, and some rather expensive plastic welding glue, and made four towers to a carefully thought-out design. The first one was a complete mess (learning to handle the glue, and also what order things had to be stuck together in), but the other three were pretty good. And they had been carefully designed to work extremely well with the dice provided in Heroscape.

Hasbro decided to release a new expansion for the game, with larger dice. Disaster - the new dice would just get stuck in my dice towers - they were too large to fit between the rods. So, it was back to the drawing board.

The basic idea was sound, but it was time for a design that could handle any size of dice, small and large. It had to be stronger and more substantial than the "mark 1". And it needed to look really good. Those factors determined that the new tower would be made from thicker acrylic, with stouter rods. But I couldn't cut thicker plastic (3mm is JUST thin enough that you can score it with a knife, then snap it along a straight edge - most of the time. But it didn't often leave a perfet 90 degree angle).

I drew up some plans and sent them off to be laser cut. I used this place - - and I was very happy with teh service. I might detail here all the tribulations I had getting the design spot-on, and the costly mistakes I made along the way, but the long and short of it is I have a "kit" of parts upstairs to make 8 new dice towers from, and I've just finished gluing the first one together.

Improvements over the "mark 1" is that it's thicker, heavier, handles any size of dice, has a fold-out dice tray, and nice straight edges! I'm still getting the gluing technique right, but this first one was *almost* perfect. The next step is to assemble the other 7, then sell most of them to try and recover some of the material costs.

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