Updated: Oct 24, 2020
The breakout success story of the past year in terms of ‘new’ game mechanics has been ‘roll & write’ games. At their most basic, these are games you can fabricate yourself with a handful of six-sided dice and a printer. Part of the charm of many of these games is their relative simplicity, portability and ease of play. Many of them are games that you can slip into your pocket and bring out to play anytime anywhere: the ultimate fillers.
Yahtzee was probably the first roll & write game. Designed by Edwin S Lowe, it’s hardly new; it's been around since the mid-1950s and has been through more editions and publishers than we can keep track of. But it’s only in the last year or so that we began to see roll & write games that offer more entertainment and more of a challenge.
The first of these were simple roll & write games like Schmidt Spiele’s Ganz Schon Clever, designed by Wolfgang Warsch with art by Leon Schiffer. Like most roll & write games since, this retained the key push-your-luck mechanic of Yahtzee while introducing more of a puzzle-solving element.
The success of roll & writes has prompted other publishers to want to get in on the act. As a result, we’ve seen a lot of roll & writes and variants on the theme, and we’ve seen a gradual creeping up of complexity. Horrible Games and CMON have had noteworthy success this past year with their Railroad Ink games designed by Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva with art by Marta Tranquilli. These are games that used custom dice but are no less portable for that. Blue Cocker Games’ Welcome To…, designed by Benoit Turpin with art by Anne Heidsieck, plays very like a roll & write except that there are no dice; instead players draw action cards. Again, Welcome To… was also a step up in complexity, and its larger box and fairly hefty stack of cards sacrifices the pocketable 'play anywhere' portability.
All of which brings us to Big Dig from Tasty Minstrel Games. Despite its title, Big Dig brings us back to a small-box very portable game. Designed by Shaun Graham and Scott Huntington, with art by NateCall and Katie Welch, the 2–4 players in Big Dig are archaeologists or treasure hunters (take your pick) trying to find buried treasure on identical wipeable printed dry-erase boards. Unlike most previous roll & write games, where players make their choices simultaneously, Big Dig involves turns. And, like Welcome To…, there are cards rather than dice. Perhaps we should start referring to such games as using a draw & draw rather than a roll & write mechanic.
Players are on their turn selecting one of the five double-sided cards depicting a pentomino-type shape and then marking off that shape on their board. The treasures being sought vary with each game: three are chosen at random from the 10 supplied. This means you only have out eight small cards (of the 15 that come in the box), so it is all very manageable and still playable on, for example, a train or a plane.
Big Dig plays fast – expect a game to take only about 10 minutes – and it’s a much lighter game than Railroad Ink and Welcome To… We’ve enjoyed playing it, although we definitely found that some of the treasure cards made for more of a challenge than others. We found there was a distinct first-player advantage that was particularly pronounced if you ended up seeking three ‘simple’ sets of treasures, including the card that called for five rock squares to be ‘exploded’; in those games, the player who went first tended to win, with the second player in a position to have won on their next turn(!) There was much more of a game when the rock card was excluded and one or more of the treasure cards demanded that players complete a contiguous pathway or pipeline for oil or water.
Like most of the games in this genre, Big Dig comes with four felt-tip pens for marking up the dry-wipe boards. In other games, such pens come with sponges fitted to the lid, for use in wiping the boards. The pens with Big Dig don't come with any wiper but we were astonished to discover that if you wipe the boards clean with your finger or with a paper tissue, the black ink from the pens disappears but there is no trace of any ink on your fingers or on the tissue. We were so impressed with these 'magic' pens that these alone made the game worth buying!
If you’re looking for a very light portable puzzle game that can be enjoyed by children as well as adults, check out Big Dig. It’s one to consider for your holiday packing.