Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Lately I’ve been reading the Raffles short stories by E.W. Horning—Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. Instead of a detective, Raffles is a gentleman burglar, essentially Sherlock Holmes’ opposite. Reading them is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I’ve discovered new, authentic Holmes adventures. If the original Sherlock Holmes stories are the Bible, the Raffles stories are the apocrypha.
Just like the typical Holmes story formula of an impossible to solve case, a Raffles story typically centers around an impossibly difficult theft. And, just as the Holmes stories are written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, the Raffles stories are written from the point of view of Bunny—Raffles’ devoted, practically sycophantic sidekick.
Raffles shares many characteristics of Holmes—intelligence, courage, penchant for disguises—but puts them all to use as a criminal. You wouldn’t say that Raffles is evil, necessarily. He tends to steal from morally dubious characters. Still, Raffles is a bad man. In one story, he plots a murder, partially to protect his criminal identity, but partially just for the thrill of secretly knowing that he’s committed the most heinous crime possible.
The stories were apparently quite famous and scandalous at the time, although as Sherlock Holmes has only grown more popular, Raffles fame hasn’t kept pace.
If a gentleman burglar was legitimately scandalous to Victorian audiences, how much have things changed? Fiction about criminal exploits doesn’t exactly carry a stigma today.
In fact, you’re no longer limited to just reading about burgling as you relax in the parlor in your smoking jacket. If you want to feel like a burglar, plenty of board games let you carry out your own daring heists. Which brings me to another game based on Batman: The Animated Series…
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is a game for two to four players from Steve Jackson Games where you take on the role of one of four DC Comics villains. Your goal is to steal as much money as possible without getting caught by Batman. Each turn, you pull dice out of a cup, trying to roll as many money bags as you can. You can stop at any time, keeping any money you’ve rolled, or you can keep rolling—but if you roll three Bat-symbols, your turn ends and you get nothing. The winner is the person with the most money at the end of the game.
Each die has six sides, two of which are alarm symbols. Whenever you roll an alarm, you can choose to re-roll it. Blue dice have more money bags, gray dice are equally balanced, and yellow dice have more Bat-symbols, so you can tell by the color of an alarm how risky it is to re-roll.
The game is a slightly redesigned version of Steve Jackon’s Zombie Dice. The main differences are this version has less dice (10 instead 13) but adds villain characters with unique abilities. For example, Catwoman scores double for any blue money bags, and Riddler gets an extra die on his first roll.
Zombie Dice 2.0?
I came into this game with zero knowledge about how to play it or Zombie Dice. Unfortunately, after reading the rules, I still felt as blind as Batman in the episode “Blind as a Bat.” I had to look up how to play Zombie Dice to understand what was going on here. Part of what’s confusing is the rules attempt to explain the special characters before explaining how to play the game. Also, the explanation of what to do on your turn tells you what to do so specifically that you don’t get a general idea of what a turn is like.
I’d always shied away from Zombie Dice because I find the zombie on the game’s artwork disturbing—and not in a good way. However, Zombie Dice is an ingeniously designed game. You’re a zombie. You want to roll brains. You don’t want to roll gunshots because that’s like you got shot. And, if roll footsteps, it’s like your victim ran away: you get to chase them down and re-roll. Green dice have more brains, yellow dice are balanced evenly, and red dice have more gunshots.
This translates directly into the Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game. Money bags are like brains; alarms are like footsteps; and Bat-symbols are like gunshots.
Except… does this actually make as much sense as Zombie Dice?
In Zombie Dice, a footstep icon for re-rolling works perfectly because a footstep icon doesn’t look inherently good or bad.
Here, the symbol for re-roll is an alarm. Technically, that checks out. You’re a super criminal and the dice are like buildings that you’re breaking into. You want to find money bags, you don’t want to find Batman, and if you just set off the alarm, you don’t care.
But… it’s pretty firmly established in the human brain that setting off alarms is a really, really bad thing. If you’re a criminal breaking into a place, you don’t actually want to set off the alarm. When you’re playing, you roll the dice, and your immediate reaction is, “Oh no, I set off the alarm! Oh wait, alarms aren’t the bad thing. Batman is the bad thing? But Batman is good? Oh wait, that’s right, I’m bad. I’m Poison Ivy. I don’t want Batman to show up. I mean, I probably do, because I probably want to kiss him with my poisonous lipstick. But, no, really I don’t.”
There’s an extra cognitive hoop you have to jump through to remember which icons are good and which icons are bad.
Related to that, the colors in Zombie Dice make total sense: green dice are good, yellow dice are meh, and red dice are bad. Every automobile driver, if not literally every single human being, understands that green, yellow, and red mean go, caution, and stop.
Here, the dice are blue, gray, and yellow. Those are the colors of Batman’s suit, but they don’t have the same innate simplicity. Blue, gray, and yellow aren’t hard-wired into your subconscious. It always takes a moment to remember which colors are good and which are bad.
On the other hand, that’s all assuming that you’re not color blind. For most forms of color blindness, blue and yellow are actually easier to distinguish than red and green. Plus… maybe it would just be weird to have green, yellow, and red dice in a Batman game?
The game ends once someone gets at least 30 points and everyone has had an equal number of turns. However, the game doesn’t include a way to track those points. You have to either use a piece of paper, or come up with some other way (Batcomputer?). It would be cool if there were tokens. Then again, for a four player game, you’d need potentially over 120 tokens, so it’s pretty obvious why they’re not included. One thing to consider is using poker chips or money pieces from a different game.
Also, the game is a cup full of dice, but you don’t actually use the cup to roll the dice. On your turn, you reach into the cup, pull out dice randomly, and roll them. Getting the exact amount of dice you need out of the cup can be problematic.
Keep in mind, this is not a bag, it’s a cup. It’s rigid. And we’re talking the size of cup you get when you order fresh squeezed juice at a restaurant: it’s not generous. Unless you have weird suction cup fingers, you’ll probably end up trying to tip it over and catch the dice without looking at what color they are (because that would be cheating). Except, of course, you end up dropping a bunch of them because you can’t look at them.
The inherent problem with creating a character-driven, muli-player game about Batman is there’s only one Batman. Sure, maybe the other players could be Robin, Batgirl, and Nightwing, but if you want a wildly diverse array of player characters, you have to make the villains into the protagonists of the game.
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game embraces this, casting the players as Joker, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Riddler. Each of the villains has an interesting power that is reasonably tailored to that villain’s personality, and none of them seem conspicuously more powerful than the others.
A fifth villain, Mr. Freeze, exists as a promo card. It looks like the easiest way to obtain this promo is to order the game directly from Steve Jackson Games’ Warehouse 23 online store. Unfortunately, the Mr. Freeze villain is a card instead of a token like the other villains so you can’t mix them all together and draw one randomly. However, Mr. Freeze’s power is pretty intriguing since it enables you to run out of dice faster, which gets you more points.
The Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game continues the trend from Batman Fluxx of putting the animated Batman license on a pre-existing popular game. In that case, it was Fluxx. Here, it is Zombie Dice.
Batman Fluxx is a clear improvement over ordinary Fluxx. Here, I’m a bit more conflicted.
You can’t say that the Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is worse than Zombie Dice, right? Because they’re basically the exact same game. But… it’s kinda worse because it doesn’t have the same intuitive clarity. Then again, it’s definitely better because it’s got Batman and villains with evil superpowers.
Steve Jackson Games recently announced Zombie Dice Horde Edition, which includes a score pad for tracking your score and a dice bag instead of a dice cup. This fixes two of my biggest complaints about the Batman: The Animated Series version. The Horde Edition also includes two expansions.
This is a tough call! If I didn’t have any version of the game, I would find myself pretty tempted by the Horde Edition. And yet, the things I didn’t like about the Batman version were pretty minor, and the nostalgic draw of Batman: The Animated Series is undeniably strong.
When I first heard they were making a dice game based on Batman: The Animated Series, it instantly hit my wish list. Then, the very first time I played, on my very first roll, I got three Bat-symbols: an immediate bust. I’m not holding that against it, though. The Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is fun, and I think it’s the best version of Zombie Dice if you’re a Batman fan.