Gambling Dice games

Button Men

Players 2
Age range 8 and up
Playing time 10-180 minutes
Random chance Medium
Skill(s) required

Probabilistic analysis

Strategic thought

Button Men is a dice game for two players invented by James Ernest of Cheapass Games and first released in 1999.

Games are short, typically taking less than ten minutes to play. Each player is represented by a pin-back button of their choice. The buttons are metal or plastic discs, about 2-2.5 inches (5-6.5 cm) in diameter, with a pin on back that can be used to fasten them to clothing. A button bears the name and illustration of the combatant ("Button Man" or "fighter") assumed by the player. Each button indicates the quantity and maximum value (and abilities if any) of the player's dice.

Background and history

Button Men is a game designed for fan conventions and other public venues. It can be played almost anywhere on short notice (provided the dice are at hand), and games are quick to complete. Buttons are meant to be worn on clothing, bags, or other accessories, advertising that the wearer has a button to play with and is open to challenges. Buttons also frequently advertise something else, such as a company, a webcomic, or another game. The Sluggy Freelance set of buttons, for example, features characters from that comic, and the Brawl set features characters from another Cheapass game. In 2000, Button Men won the Origins Awards for Best Abstract Board Game of 1999 and Best Graphic Presentation of a Board Game 1999.

Button Men can easily be extended simply by creating more buttons. It has continued to be so extended since its inception; as of 2004, over 200 buttons have been printed. Many are by now out of print, though many others are still available, primarily via purchase from the Cheapass Games web site. Companies other than Cheapass must pay a licensing fee to use the Button Men artwork in distributing their own buttons.

In 1999 Pyramid magazine named Button Men as one of the Millennium's Best Games. Editor Scott Haring said "This game just gets more and more impressive every time I look at it. ... the idea is so simple, and the strategy so subtle . . . I've never figured out exactly how to master this game, and I suspect that's because there is no good way to do so."

In 2009, Thrust Interactive released an iPhone version of the game in collaboration with Cheapass Games.

In 2011, Cheapass Games began "ransoming" their older and out-of-print games in an experiment to apply the "freemium" business model to board games. Button Men was revamped into a trading-card format that can be easily printed on a standard inkjet and cut apart for gameplay. The original base set, "Soldiers" and the first expansion set, "Vampyres", have both been released in this new format and made available for anyone to download, print and play with at no monetary cost.

iPhone Game

Cheapass Games and Thrust Interactive market an iPhone app version of the game for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. It has both two-player and single-player modes. There are plans to release content updates, such as new button packs, over time. Updates to provide features such as networked and online play, a campaign mode, and player ranking and statistics are also planned. Button Men creator James Ernest joked that "this new platform actually makes the game cheaper and more portable than ever. Button Men is the best thing for iPhone since the app that simulates sliced bread!"

Online Game

Button Men Online, a website initially developed by Dana Huyler and officially endorsed by Cheapass Games, allows users to play games over the internet via a web-based interface. Button Men Online features most of the printed buttons, an additional 250+ "buttons" that exist only on the site, and a random button generator. In 2003, Button Men Online won the Origins Award for Best Play-by-mail Game of 2002. In February 2012, Button Men Online went off-line due to server problems. After nine months of downtime, a number of the players from Button Men Online got together and recreated an open-source version of the site. The new version of Button Men Online came online in March 2014. Button Men Online requires you to register with a username and email, but is free to play.

Gameplay

Players play several rounds, first rolling a set of Dice, and then playing several turns in which they target their opponent’s Dice with their own to capture, take control of, or neutralize them, based on their current values. The first player to win three rounds wins the game.

Set up

At the start of a game, players select a fighter and collect the necessary dice (see “The Dice”, below). Players keep the same fighter throughout the game.

The Dice

Each player starts each round with several Dice of various sizes (maximum values), each represented by one or more physical “dice” (any random number generator with a uniform distribution from one to a given value), as specified by the numbers and letters on his fighter’s button.

R S T U V W X Y Z
2-16 6-20 2-12 8-30 6-12 4-12 4-20 1-20 4-30

If a fighter has more than one Swing Die of a given letter, each of those dice must be the same.

Additional symbols specify special Dice, with special abilities defined below. Though (with the exception of Auxiliary, Reserve, and Winslow Dice) these abilities do not require selection of dice beyond those listed above, players may find it convenient to use different colored dice to distinguish them from other dice. Players may make new selections (e.g. for Swing and Option Dice, a Reserve Die, or any other special dice with variable powers or sizes) at the start of each round. However, in tournament play, the winner of the previous round must always reset to the dice he started that round with. Any sizes (e.g., Turbo Swing, Mood Swing, Mighty, etc.) or abilities (e.g., Rage, Thief, etc.) that changed during the previous round are reset, and all dice are returned to their original owners.

Starting a round

Take all of your fighter’s dice and roll them. Whoever rolled the single lowest number will go first. If the lowest Dice are tied, compare the next lowest dice, and so on until a leader is determined. (Note that certain special Dice are not used in determining who goes first.)

The Turn

Starting with the player who gained initiative, players take turns during which the current player must take one of the following actions, if possible.

Normal Attacks (unless otherwise stated, all Dice may make these attacks):

Special Attacks (only specified Dice may make these attacks):

Round end

Scoring: When both players pass, the round is over. For each Die a player captured, he scores its size in points. For each Die under his control (not in reserve), he scores half its size. The highest score wins the round, and the first player to win three rounds wins the game. (Poison, Deception, and Value Dice are scored differently.)

Ties: If any round is a draw, re-play it.

Special Dice

Special Dice, with abilities that modify the rules above, are indicated in a variety of ways, usually with a combination of symbol and changed field color (which varies from one set to another).

In brief these abilities are:

Strategy and the meta-game

Not all Button Men are evenly matched against one another. Though designers attempt to balance a Button Man's strengths and weaknesses, necessarily it happens that some arrangements of die sizes and skills are more likely to win games than others. Buttons that are exceptionally powerful (or that have problematic special abilities) may be declared not to be "tournament legal" by Cheapass Games, meaning that tournament organizers should consider disallowing those buttons. Most illegal buttons are rare or promotional ones with unusual die skills or special rules. All buttons that have not been licensed from Cheapass (including all of those that exist only on the Button Men Online web site) are illegal by default.

Button Men Online maintains statistics on the hundreds of thousands of games that have been played on the site. Among tournament legal Button Men, win percentages range from the mid-teens to the high sixties.

Therefore, part of the strategy of the game is to begin by selecting a relatively powerful button. However, buttons may be stronger or weaker when playing against other buttons with certain characteristics. For example, a button with small Poison dice might be powerful in general because it has fewer dice worth positive points for its opponent to capture. However, a button with large Shadow dice might be powerful against that button specifically because it can allow the round to end with the Poison and Shadow dice unable to capture each other, and therefore still counted towards their owners' scores.

Swing and Option dice help to offset buttons' natural strengths and weaknesses by ensuring that a button's number of sides need not be exactly the same from one round to the next. Tournament organizers may also choose to minimize the importance of the "meta-game" of button selection (usually with the idea of shifting importance to the players' skill) by somehow penalizing stronger buttons, or by enforcing random button selection.

However, chance plays a large role in Button Men; it is always possible for a 20-sided die to roll a 1 at an inopportune time. Among tournament legal buttons, at least, no match-up is impossible for either side to win. Inevitably it happens that a weaker Button Man or a less skilled player will claim some improbable victories due to lucky die rolls. This effect is offset somewhat, however, by the rule that a player must win three rounds to win a game.

Articles on Cheapass' "official fan site" discuss questions of strategy such as choosing the optimal size for Swing or Option dice (including a mathematical formula for how many sides the "larger" Button Man must keep in order to win), and determining which capture to make to have the best chance of protecting one's remaining dice.

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Tabletop games: Rules and Strategy