[First published on www.tabletoptribe.com]
As a reviewer you’re often sent goodies to peruse. Sometimes exciting stuff you’re tearing the package to get open, at other times it’s more of a chore to be dealt with.
It was definitely the former when it came to this selection, arriving one frosty morning all the way from Ukraine. It’s rare I get to review anything but games themselves, so the arrival of gaming accessories is always a red letter day.
I’d seen the videos and images for these “tabletop devices” (as the makers UGEARS had snappily dubbed them) on the Kickstarter campaign page, so knew I was in for a visual treat.
In no time there was ripped cardboard and bubble-wrap strewn about the office, revealing:
- Modular Dice Tower/Dice Cups
- GM/DM Screen (with integral dice tower)
- Card Holder
- Deck Box
- Dice Keeper
UGEARS is already a recognised and respected manufacturer of mechanical wooden toys and models. Their laser-cut masterpieces are beautiful to look at and a delight to operate, with elegant mechanisms ingeniously wrought.
However, this is the company’s first outing into the world of tabletop games, and they’ve brought not one, but five products to market via a Kickstarter campaign.
They’re no stranger to Kickstarter, with five previous campaigns smashing their finding goals. The current tabletop campaign is already over 1000% funded, but do the devices measure up in performance as much as aesthetic?
[Note: Although our models were sent pre-assembled, buyers will have to assemble their own. UGEARS sent me some sample instructions for the Deck Box. They also shoot video assembly instructions for their creations, and although not yet prepared for these models, will look something like these ones.]
Modular Dice Tower/Dice Cups
This is possibly the model that will attract most initial interest, as dice towers have become the must-have gaming accessory for less dice on the floor and no more dodgy dice rolls by the under-handed.
In fact we reviewed a fairly cool DIY dice tower a while back, so had something of a yard-stick to test this one against.
The first thing to note about this tower, is that it doesn’t start off as a tower. It begins life as four separate dice box-cups. You can pop half a dozen or more (normal sized) dice in the box, give it a shake and then, using the buttons on the side, lift the cup clear of the base to reveal the result.
You can also release the catch on one side to peek at your results without letting other players see. I was reminded immediately in this respect of games of Perudo/Liar Dice, which these cups would be ideal for (although it’d be nice to have a couple more for up to six players.)
So where’s the tower? This is where things get funky.
The bases of each cup make up the tray of the dice tower, and the cups themselves stack to create the tower. The top panel of each cup detaches to form the angled ramps inside the tower for the dice to tumble down. One side is unclipped from the bottom cup to allow the dice to roll out and used to form a stop at the end of the tray.
If that all sounds complex, it really isn’t. Once you know what goes where, the whole transformation from four cups to one tower only takes a minute or two, and the way it all clips together reinforces the feeling that these are well-engineered pieces.
It’s a very cool concept, well executed. As I said I’d like to see an option in the Kickstarter for a six cup version. Not only would that allow for a mean game of Perudo, but you could construct two slightly smaller towers for each end of the table (or a single, stupidly tall one!).
In terms of performance it functions really well, much better than the Crystal Twister we reviewed, which couldn’t really cope with D8s or D4s at all. The UGEARS tower only struggles a little with the smallest, lightest D4 I could find in my collection. On the whole it’s fine with all die types.
The only time I’ve had dice becoming stuck was when I first got the tower and didn’t seat one the final internal ramp correctly. Once that was sorted I haven’t had issues, even with big handfuls of a dozen dice at once.
If I had to make one criticism it would be that the tray sides are quite low for the final drop out of the tower, so on occasion dice will end up missing the tray. But they don’t go far, and it certainly wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me.
Gamesmaster’s Screen (with integral dice tower)
The next item looks like wooden book. It’s held closed with little stud-like clips and when opened, two additional screens slide out creating a 4-panel GM/DM screen, with the big and chunky spine of the “book” revealed as a natty little dice tower.
As it comes the screens themselves aren’t up to hiding much, as each panel is merely a frame, but with all corners spanned by small rubber bands, it’s designed to accommodate whatever charts, maps and info you want, with either artwork on the reverse to sprinkle a little theme for your players, or some PC-specific charts for them.
Whilst I do play roleplaying games (RPGs), those sessions are few and far between compared to other tabletop games, so I didn’t expect this one to wow me as much as the other items on offer. How wrong I was. I love this thing.
Once it’s all unfolded it’s really stable on the table, made all the more so by tiny rubber-band pads on feet at each end to stop it sliding on a shiny tabletop, and by small, fold-out sections that also serve as a tiny wall to contain dice chucked down the dice tower.
As with the bespoke Dice Tower/Cups, everything just moves and slides into place in a beautifully-engineered way, and although it does have a little embellishment, it’s fairly neutral overall, so won’t clash with any game’s theme.
I even found a use for it outside of RPGs. For board games with lots of charts, player aids or oft-referenced rulebooks (especially the RPG-Lites, like Imperial Assault, Mansions of Madness etc.) you can just open the first two panels of the screen and have it to one free side of the table (number of players permitting!) as a convenient dice tower, and somewhere to store manuals and crib sheets vertically so they’re not taking up precious tabletop real estate.
If there’s one thing I would liked to have seen, it would be a simple wooden slip case. This would keep with the book-like feel and provide a little protection when you stick it in a bag to take it to a games night.
Out of the five items I was sent, this one is the stand-out beauty in my opinion. It has a kind of Art Nouveau quality to it, with the large filigree circlet on the font almost looking like a clock face. It’s stunning.
It’s elegant too as you unclip the latch and slide the holder fully open, revealing four levels of banked slots for cards (three decks to a row). A small ‘foot’ on the underside folds out to make everything secure and ensure the unit doesn’t tip backwards.
There’s twelve slots in total for “normal” sized US playing cards (yes, sleeved cards fit), but the folded-back lid also has an additional four slots to accommodate small cards too, meaning you can store a whopping sixteen card decks at once.
As I said, I love the aesthetics on this one, and it’s is a wonderfully engineered as everything else. There’s no doubting the capacity either.
If the box was designed for small cards, I’ve got loads of games that could make great use of it, and a smaller footprint of the box on the table would also be welcome. As it is, I struggle to find a game that would make good use of this box. It’s a big lump to have on the table just for accommodating two or three decks during play, although you could use empty slots for discards.
There’s also a couple of design niggles that bother me. For a start, whilst the four areas for small cards inside the lid seem like a nice bonus, their really low walls make them a little impractical for effectively holding anything but a fairly small deck, especially if sleeved.
If you wanted to transport it full of cards and close the lid with cards in the trays below, you’ll also find those low walls contact the tops of any reasonably sized deck in the top row. Which brings me onto my only real issue with the box.
The three deck areas at the top level of the holder can only really take decks half the size of the rest due to the way the lid and top of the box are designed. This means almost a quarter of the total capacity is compromised… although taking into account my comments on the huge capacity overall, I guess this isn’t such a tragedy!
I still like the box, and it’s definitely a looker. I’d still be happy to own it, but I guess the design niggles at the top leave me a little disappointed after the screen and dice tower. I’d really love to see a scaled-down version — even there was no redesign apart from that, I’d be sold.
After the Card Holder, this is definitely the next one that catches your eye aesthetically. With exposed cog teeth on display here and there, it definitely has an air of Steampunk about it.
The box is opened by pushing down on two small levers on either side of the top. As you push down, the top of the box opens like a jaw, locking in place with a reassuring click.
To close you simply press a button at the base and the jaws snap shut in the blink of an eye. So fast in fact that I did wonder whether the jaws might hurt a tiny hand messing about with the box, so in the name of science I deliberately closed it on my finger.
It’s fine. The lightness of the material, and the way the box top is constructed in sections means there’s no real force to trap and hurt any unwary digits. Which is great — it looks like it’d take your hand off, but it’s perfectly safe!
The interior comfortably holds two standard 52 card decks (each compartment would probably hold around 70 unsleeved cards), and has enough wriggle room in width for cards to be sleeved.
Even if you just wanted a funky holder for a couple of decks of standard playing cards, this is a winner, but I can really see it appealing to Magic players and other CCG players to hold a couple of decks. Personally I think it was custom-made for Crypt and Library decks for Jyhad/V:TES, but hey, I’m biased!
I honestly can’t think of a thing I’d want changed or that I don’t like about this deck box. I even end up just opening and closing it as I pass it in the office, just for the delight of seeing a perfect blend of form and function at work.
I guess when I first got it the opening mechanism was a tiny bit stiff, meaning if you pressed down slightly off-centre on the levers, the jaws opened to about halfway and then stuck, meaning you had to release and then depress again. But now it’s working incredibly smoothly, so perhaps these wooden mechanisms have a little ‘bedding in’ period?
Is it outrageously over-engineered? Undeniably. Do I still want it? Most definitely.
This little box is designed to ferret away your eight most precious dice to keep them from thieving, prying hands. Either that or it’s a puzzle box that’s about to summon Cenobytes to your D&D session.
Actually, unlike the diabolical box from Hellraiser, this box is easy to unlocked by pressing the button on top, after which you can simply pull open either side.
Whilst not having the flash pizzazz of the Deck Box, there’s still some cogs and mechanics going on as you open it, which serve to open the box further, and push the dice in the bottom section forward to make retrieval that much easier.
Okay, so if the Deck Box was an over-engineered way to keep cards, this does the same for dice.
That said, if you’ve forked out on a set of luxury dice forged from finest mithril, or some other fantastical and unnecessary substance, then I can’t think of a better way to store them.
I would personally take great pleasure extracting a single dice from the box every single time that I needed to roll, before carefully replacing it, rather than just let it sit on the table like everyone else does. Peasants.
The Dice Keeper is a little more embellished than the other items, with a couple of strategically placed, stylised skulls. Personally I’d have preferred they just continued the pattern covering the rest of it, which is very cool and much more generic.
Word of advice though: store any D4s in the top sections, as they can sometimes fall slightly behind the mechanism that pushes the dice forward in the bottom sections, meaning you have to fish it out. I also store the D8 up top for the same reason, although I didn’t actually have any problems with it stored below.
I think the best thing I can say about the Dice Keeper is that it actually does make me want to invest in a really nice set of polyhedral dice to store in it!
Rarely (possibly never) have I encountered a collection of gaming aids that fill me with such pleasure to behold and generally fiddle about with. These objects are beautifully designed and mechanically ingenious. They really are that design grail of Form and Function combined.
Sure, I have some niggles here and there, but hey, I’m a reviewer, so it’s my job to nit-pick. But I guess the ultimate question is: having tried them, would I be prepared to fork out £90/$116 for the complete set of five?
I’m not sure. But only because my play style means some of them wouldn’t see much table time. I absolutely adore the Dice Tower, GM screen and Deck Box and would happily fork out the $88 asking price for all three in a heartbeat.
And actually, come to think of it, if I was then offered the Card Holder and Dice Keeper for an extra $28, I can guarantee I’d say “Oh go on then!” simply because they’re beautiful objects I’d enjoy looking at (and fiddling with), even if they only saw occasional use.
What’s more, when you compare the price of the UGEARS items to many laser-cut wooden items (particularly dice towers) on the tabletop market, they’re pretty competitively priced, and appear considerably better made than the competition. In terms of other wooden DM/GM screens, the UGEAR one is a fraction of the price (and weight).
I’ve heard the odd murmur of concern about whether cards might get more worn against wood, but Holder and Box can accommodate sleeved cards, and you could easily enough line them with paper or card if you were that worried. I’ve also heard concerns about whether the wooden mechanisms would wear out, but judging from the company’s pedigree, I don’t really think this warrants concern.
As I said at the start, I didn’t have to construct any of them, so I don’t know how difficult that would be or whether it would affect my view on the price or whether it’s worth the effort, but having seen the instructions for the deck box, I really don’t think it would deter me.
If anything it adds to the charm.
If any of the objects above have you instinctively reaching for your wallet, then head on over to the UGEARS Kickstarter page. At the time of writing there’s still a few days left to grab yourself some amazing tabletop bling.
And if this selection makes you wonder what the rest of UGEARS wonderful wooden marvels are like, pop over to their website and prepare to be amazed… and literally want half of them on your Christmas list.