Decathlon board game: A four-sided review

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Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon board game is a Yahtzee-style push-your-luck dice fest. And best of all, it’s absolutely free. It takes about 20 minutes per player, and in theory can be played by any number. Although it won’t give you too much joy long-term as a solo game, so I recommend it for 2-4 players.

It is inspired by ideas featured in Reina Knizia’s game design books, including ‘Dice Games Properly Explained‘. Which is well worth a read if you’re looking for other free dice games, or want to learn game theory. You can read or download the rules and a scoring sheet specifically for Decathlon from Knizia’s website.

Teaching the Decathlon board game

This may seem like an odd game for me to cover on the blog. But I’ve logged double figures in plays and it has appeared in my Top 50 games, so why not? I mention it often, so it seems sensible to have a place on my blog which has a bit more detail. It really is a solid little dice chucker. And at a cost of free, what have you got to lose? Also, you could easily play during lock down over Zoom or the like, as most people should be able to find a few dice to use.

All you need to play are eight standard six-sided dice, plus a way to record your scores. The game mimics the athletic event. Players take it in turns to compete in dice versions of 10 throwing, running and jumping disciplines. Each type follows a theme with slight variations, and has a way to score as you go along. The player with the highest total score wins. Alternatively you can award ‘medals’ for each discipline, instead totalling those at the end.

Each throwing event (shot put, discuss, javelin) gives three attempts per player, with your highest score recorded. Two have a similar mechanism to Pickomino, where you have to save dice after each roll, choosing whether to re-roll the rest each time. If you’re not totally unlucky, this gives you a chance to put in a ‘safe’ jump then go for a big one, much like the actual events.

For the runs (100m, 400m, 110m hurdles, 1500m), it’s just the one attempt. They largely revolve around throwing single/sets of dice, with the total being your score – minus any sixes thrown. You have a set number or re-rolls available. So it’s all about whether to take poor scores, saving your re-rolls for any sixes; or pushing your luck even more.

Jumping (long jump, high jump, pole vault) can be super risky. Both the bar events see you taking it in turns to try clearing certain heights, with the odds getting worse as you go. But with a set amount of fails available at each height, trying every one feels like you’re increasing your chances of a bad run of luck. Again, much like when the better athletes skip the early rounds in the real competition.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: A good roll-and-write creates tension. And the Decathlon board game has that in spades. Equally, they’re not normally about the aesthetics. Sure, they can help. But the games normally revolve around you spoiling a pretty score sheet, rather than improving on it with your ‘art’. What I’m saying is, you’d have to be pretty seriously into visuals to turn your nose up at this. This is a clever, mathematically sound and – most importantly – fun set of dice games rolled into one.
  • The thinker: I guess you could call it a thinking person’s game, as really anything to do with dice is about playing the mathematical odds. And, as this game plays out over 10 rounds, luck should balance itself out. Indeed, the scores do tend to end up close as the leaders start to play safe and those chasing are forced into taking risks. Really, there’s nothing for me here. But that doesn’t stop it being a fun little game. However, as a filler, I find a whole game is a bit too long.
  • The trasher: Decathlon is all about the records. I’ve played dozens of times now, and rarely win. But I have got several perfect event scores over my plays, which is such a buzz. We keep a sheet with who has the highest score in each event, as well as the best ever total scores. I’ve seen that kind of sheet included in several board games, but never considered using it. Here, it feels like a must. That’s saying something.
  • The dabbler: Fun! Not every game has to look pretty. And in some ways, it encourages players to do a bit themselves. Why not pick a country to represent, and get your own set of dice in its flag colours? You can even dress up – and bring snacks and drinks for your country. This is a really great light game with really tense throwing. So why not bring a little extra to your evening?

Key observations

I struggle with criticism of the theme being ‘pasted on’ to Decathlon. It’s eight dice and a score sheet. How could it be anything but? And, with the right crowd, you can really make it thematic. When a game is this light on components, it’s what you bring to the party. Decathlon gives you the tools for good time, even thematically. If you don’t use those tools, maybe you should be looking closer to home for something to complain about.

However, I can see why some people think it is too long. It can easily go an hour with three or people. And yes, with more people it can start to feel repetitive – two is a great number purely from a ‘get it played’ perspective. But again, its what you bring in terms of atmosphere. And there’s always the option to find more dice and do some of the rounds and events simultaneously. Or, just pick your favourite ‘events’ for a shorter game.

This is also an option for those who think some events don’t really have any decisions. Sure, sometimes you roll and it’s obvious what to keep. But I see that more as a general issue with light games, rather than this one in particular. That said, if you’re looking for a game with a lot of interesting thinky decisions, Decathlon probably isn’t for you. It is certainly a game of chance and push-your-luck, not strategy.

Conclusion: Reina Knizia’s Decathlon board game

I usually conclude by saying whether or not a game is a ‘keeper’ for me. But as I have at least 100 six-sided dice (probably a lot more), and a smartphone, I guess it will always be in my collection no matter what. But if it were a paid product, I’d buy it purely as a nod to the designer. I prefer it to Yahtzee (a solid dice game), largely due to the added variety and space for theatre with the right group. And I recommend it for anyone in the same camp.

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