When we think about tabletop gaming, we think about the people we play with, the stories generated from the act of playing, and we think about the actual physical pieces. Games are made up of a lot of different elements: boards, cards, pawns, miniatures, and so much more.
For this week’s CMON Feature Friday, we decided to examine one of the most iconic components in board gaming: the die. Around the world, dice are recognized symbols of play. In North America, we’re used to the standard six-sided die, but there are many sizes, shapes, and uses around the world of gaming.
Gamers have a love-hate relationship with dice. They can represent one of the most hated of game mechanics: the roll and move. But more than that, it’s the element of chance that turns some players off. More and more, there has been a push in some design circles to remove elements of chance from games, making them completely deterministic. However, dice have been around since before recorded history, so chances are they’re here to stay.
The oldest known set of dice was found as part of a Backgammon-like game in the Burnt City in Iran. They have been dated to around 2800-2500 BCE. That is one heck of a vintage game.
Dice games continued to be popular throughout history. They show up in ancient Egypt in the game Senet, are recorded as being a favorite pastime in India, and they’re even mentioned in the Bible with various passages referencing the casting of lots.
Despite being an illegal activity, many Romans enjoyed gambling with dice. In the Roman Empire, there were two standard sizes for dice, the Tali were larger and had one, three, four, and six inscribed on four sides. The Tesserae were smaller and more closely represent the six-sided die we know today.
Dice are considered responsible for the invention of other game elements, such as playing cards and dominoes. That development is considered to have taken place during the Tang Dynasty in China, a period when many technological advances were occurring.
In Victorian times, board and parlor games became quite popular. One of the most famous still exists today. The Game of LIFE was originally called The Checkered Game of Life. It was designed by Milton Bradley, and due to his virtuous ways, he did not want dice associated with his game. At the time, they were too closely associated to gambling. Instead, a teetotum (a top with different numbers inscribed on the sides) was used to determine how far a player moved. That was eventually replaced with the spinner we now have today in The Game of LIFE.
In ancient times, dice were made of animal bones, leading to the term, “roll the bones.” Today’s dice are usually made of injected hard plastic, but you can find metal, wood, and even crystal dice if you’re looking for them.
Dice can have a variety of different uses in a game, from determining how far your pawn can move on the board, to calculating the strength of an attack. The random element of their results seeks to mimic the randomness of everyday life.
The invention of role-playing-games (RPGs) created a whole new use for dice, and a need for different sized dice. The development of the D20 system by Wizards of the Coast created a whole new need for 20, 10, 8, and 4-sided dice. All of a sudden, players were transported to fantasy worlds where they would become different characters immersed in a story. Each of their characters would have their own traits (also determined by dice rolls) that would be tested a variety of different ways in the game. Say you want to charm the pants off that comely ogre barmaid, you’d roll the dice to do a charisma check. Want to scale a tower wall? Check your agility. The fate of your adventure would be determined by the party’s cunning and the luck of the roll.
Modern games have found a lot of interesting ways to utilize the random effects of dice. Lettered dice, like those in Boggle or Razzle, generate different potential word combinations every time you play. Dice with symbols, like those in King of Tokyo, Banana Bandits, or Gekido: Bot Battles, can be used to determine the outcome of conflict in a more interesting way than just seeing who has the highest number.
Whether you love them or hate them, dice have been one of the most enduring components in board games. Chances are, they will be around for as long as we’re playing games on the tabletop.
What do you think about dice? What are your favorite dice games? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #CMONFeatureFriday.