One moment I was at Gen Con, stalking the aisles of the vendor floor for the next big board game. The next moment I was shopping for an engagement ring – or so I felt. A woman with beautiful hands was pulling out semi-precious stones from a well-lit display case, placing these beautiful objects on a velvet fabric and encouraging me to roll them.
Luxury has come to table games. At first it was fancy tables, and this year it was all about the dice. At least two vendors – Dispel Dice and Level Up Dice – were selling sets of polyhedrals that were almost as expensive as some whole sets, and people were lining up for the opportunity to buy them. The biggest name on the floor was Karen Wang, whose $2.3 million crowdfunding campaign for sharp dice filled with creative inclusions turned heads in 2020. Level Up Dice was also in attendance, her wide selection of semi-precious dice unlike anything else in the lobby. Each vendor was at the top of their game, energized by the interest and momentum of the Super Bowl crowds of table games.
But it took a lot of work to get there. Wang, for his part, has struggled during the pandemic with manufacturing, workflow and import issues. Level Up CEO Alex Abrate said many would-be dice makers have simply gone out of business during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The problem is that it’s a niche market,” he said, his voice muffled by the mandatory mask that guests had to wear this year. “The problem is that it’s a niche market with […] clients. So all of a sudden we had this whole new generation looking to monopolize [and] capitalize on the dice industry. And then COVID hit, which meant there was no way out of there. So there are places with [literally] tons of dice they’ve been sitting on for two years. […] They are lowering their prices everywhere.
Both Abrate and Wang stand out from the crowd with how they make their dice and what they make them from. Wang relies on liquid resin — much like the two-part glue you can buy at the hardware store — and new inclusions to give depth and sparkle to her designs. There’s also the branding that goes with their names: Crimson Nebula, Eldritch Fire, Magenta Inferno, Faewater – each an opportunity to connect with the fan of a certain type of roleplaying game or campaign.
The Abrate niche is made of semi-precious stones and incredibly rare materials. “What you see here isn’t the only type of stuff we’re working on,” Abrate said. “We work on four-figure, five-figure things. We just finished making a dice game out of a WWII Tiger I.
Indrani Ganguly was representing another cohort of dice makers at Gen Con this year – independent artisans who sell their wares online. India’s first modern dice maker, her problems during the pandemic came from finding the tools and materials to even get started. His biggest challenge: the air bubbles that ruined his sets.
“A pressure pot is basically an air compressor tank that compresses all the air bubbles in the resin once you put it in there,” Ganguly explained. “So it hardens while it’s inside the pot under pressure, which means there are no bubbles or little voids in the dice. And that kind of stuff isn’t just available at Lowe’s or Harbor Freight or stuff like that at home [in Mumbai]. I have to go get these industrial-grade products and be like, ‘Look, I don’t want 20. I just want one. Can we please understand something? And that was a lot of that for me.
Now Ganguly, who was on hand to accept the Diana Jones Award on behalf of game designer Ajit George (Journeys through the Radiant Citadel), uses the sale of his dice to fund his trip to Gen Con.
She says she loves the job – even when a single set of dice can take hours to perfect.
“It takes a lot of hard work and effort to be able to get it to the point where people see it online,” Ganguly said, “where it’s super shiny and beautiful without any scratches or marks. And those are hours of work – typically five to six hours of work per step in my single seven-step polishing process.
Ganguly says she also makes custom dice on commission. A customer requested that her dehydrated breast milk be included in her dice. Another wanted raven feathers – a nod to Critical Role’s Vax’ildan.
But what about dice with Mountain Dew inside?
“I aim to create aesthetic dice,” Ganguly said. “I don’t necessarily want to create the most cursed dice imaginable.”