How Did it All Begin? The Origins of Dice Games

Dice games have been around for a very long time. While many games and customs can be pinpointed to an exact geographic location, dice seems to have been played all over the world in one form or another, independent of each other.

Today, dice games are as popular as ever and are played world-wide with great enthusiasm. From humble and simple beginnings using shells, beads, or bones, to complex cube shapes today, dice games are here to stay and are some of the most popular ways to gamble.

Pre-Colonial Americas —Two Sided Dice

Archeologists researching in Mesoamerica and North America have discovered ancient forms of dice. These dice are all two-sided simple shapes that were often painted a different color on each side. Generally, one side of the die was flat, while the other side was curved. The values of the sides were determined by their shape or their color.

As these dice were quite uneven, players had to be skilled in throwing them to achieve their desired outcome, otherwise, the game was only a “game of chance.” Archeologists believe that ancient Aztecs and indigenous people from North America used dice for divination purposes as well as for monetary gambling.

Knucklebones in Ancient Europe — Four Sided Dice

Known as the forerunner of modern dice games, Knucklebones, was played for centuries, even before before it came to Ancient Rome and Greece where the game was immortalized. Paintings and sculptures from thousands of years ago, often depict people playing Knucklebones.

The word knucklebones come from the material itself, the dried ankle bones of sheep or oxen, called astragali. The shape of the ankle bone looks roughly like a cube with four distinct sides. Each side has a slightly different shape, one flat, one concave, one convex, and one sinuous. Each side has a value placed on it. The bones were tossed into the air and, as they landed, the values were added up. There are many variations of knucklebones still being played around the world today.

Mesopotamia —Six-Sided Dice

Around 7,000 years ago, peoples living in the Mesopotamia region of Western Asia started to square off the dice to make them even more cube-shaped, like modern dice are today. With six sides to them, the dice games became more complex. As board games were introduced, dice became an integral part of the game. The first known board game was played in the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia. The game is called the “Royal Game of Ur” and is considered to be the precursor to Backgammon.

Dice Games in Medieval Europe

As civilizations rose and fell, many types of games were lost, but dice games prevailed. From royalty to commoners, dice games were an extremely popular form of leisure activity throughout Europe. It seemed that everyone played dice, and even the famous author, Chaucer, wrote in the Canterbury Tales, “They dance and play at dice both day and night.” The main dice game played at that time was called Hazard.

Dice Games in the United States

Eventually, as settlers began arriving in the New World, dice games came along as well, including the game of Hazard. Introduced in New Orleans, Louisiana, by the French, the game was called Crapaud, which was later shortened to Craps. Today, Craps is the most popular dice game in the United States.

Eventually, different types of dice games from around the world were introduced. From China came flattened dice which are now called dominos. In the early 20th century, board games that used dice became very popular. One of the most beloved of these games, Monopoly, is still played today.

Today, dice games are as popular as card games and are still played world-wide with thousands of different variations. From simple games such as Knucklebones and Craps to complex games using dice of different shapes and sizes, it seems that the love of throwing dice is here to stay.