A Relatively Modern Idea: Fairness in Dice Rolling

[Image courtesy of Larsdatter.com.]

This may come as a surprise to you, fellow puzzlers, but fairness was not always a priority when it came to rolling dice.

Nowadays, whether you’re going after that elusive Yahtzee, hoping for doubles to earn another roll in Monopoly, or trying to roll sevens in a game of craps, the basic concept behind throwing dice is that every outcome of a six-sided die has an equal chance to appear. Unless you’re dealing with loaded or gimmicked dice, your odds should be 1 in 6.

But a recent study by researchers from the American Museum of Natural History and the University of California, Davis, has revealed that fairness in dice rolling didn’t really become a concern for dice users until the Renaissance. Researchers gathered dice spanning 2000 years of human history to explore why this was the case.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

From an article on Science Alert:

Roman-era dice, the researchers found, were a mess when it came to shape. They were made from a variety of materials, such as metal, bone and clay, and no two were shaped entirely alike. Many were visibly lumpy and lopsided, with the 1 and 6 on opposite sides that were more likely to roll up.

In fact, it seems like variety was the name of the game in Roman times, since the number configurations, shape, and size were inconsistent across the board, although dice were fairly common in the time period.

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

The Dark Ages led to a downturn in dice frequency, as they become very rare between the years 400CE and 1100CE.

The use of dice rebounds after 1100, and are most commonly found in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt in what is known as the primes configuration, meaning that opposite numbers add up to prime numbers. 1 pairs with 2, 3 pairs with 4, and 5 pairs with 6.

There was a reinvigorated focus on the mechanics of chance and calculating probability, thanks to names like Galileo and Pascal, as well as a spirit of greater scientific understanding overall. Those Renaissance influences led to both a standardized shape for dice and a change in the numbering system. At this point, most dice convert to the sevens configuration, where opposite sides add up to seven (1 pairs with 6, 2 pairs with 5, and 3 pairs with 4).

[Image courtesy of Smithsonian.com.]

And according to lead researcher Jelmer Eerkens, cheating may have been on the mind of manufacturers going forward. “Standardizing the attributes of a die, like symmetry and the arrangement of numbers, may have been one method to decrease the likelihood that an unscrupulous player had manipulated the dice to change the odds of a particular roll.”

That change from variable shapes, sizes, and designs reflects a sea change in thinking towards dice and chance. Before, the shape didn’t matter because the results were attributed to Fate or some greater outside force, but later on, an understanding of chance and probability pushed standardization of dice forward.

In the end, it’s amazing how much of our culture and worldview, both past and present, can be revealed by exploring how we solve puzzles and play games.


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Monopoly: Pondering the New Cheaters Edition

Monopoly is probably the most famous branded board game in the world. (I include the word “branded” because you can easily argue that Chess or Go or Mah-jongg are equally famous and/or played by as many people.)

There are hundreds of themed variations covering everything from state landmarks to Star Wars. It seems like everyone owns a copy of the game, even if it doesn’t seem to be all that popular these days.

Maybe that’s because we play it wrong. After all, in the instruction book, it plainly states that if a player lands on an unowned property and doesn’t wish to buy it, it immediately goes to auction to the highest bidder. Did you ever play with that rule? It certainly seems like it would speed things up!

And did you know that Edward Parker, former president of Parker Brothers, was quoted as saying that forty-five minutes was the appropriate length for a game?

Forty-five minutes? I can’t remember a single Monopoly game that lasted fewer than two hours.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Things are about to change. The game is in the news once more after the announcement that Hasbro will be releasing a Cheaters Edition of the game.

[Cheaters that get caught are handcuffed to the board itself!
Image courtesy of USA Today.]

You might consider this to be a shameless attempt to cash in by being “edgy” or lean on cynicism already rampant regarding a game that seems to encourage selfish capitalist choices. That has certainly been the reaction of some game enthusiasts on the Internet.

I read a comment on Facebook where someone was disillusioned by this news, since “by buying this, you acknowledge that you’re playing a board game with someone who is likely enough to cheat that you bought a special version of the game with that exact expectation.”

The commentor went on to share his disappointment in the idea that “your response to that person cheating is not to stop playing games with them, but instead is to shame them by clipping them to the board game as though that were somehow more shameful than getting caught cheating your friends in a game with literally zero at stake.”

That’s certainly one way to look at it — though I suspect that’s partially colored by the fact that this person clearly didn’t enjoy the game in its original form to begin with.

[Image courtesy of Grey Mass Games.]

Of course, there’s an alternative view, one that encourages crafty gameplay over the monotonous steamrolling that many of us experienced in the past with a game like this. (Who doesn’t remember landing on the developed property of an older sibling and getting taken to the cleaners?)

Instead, the game encourages you to think outside the box. In that way, it could become something more akin to a poker game with tells and bluffing, or the casual manipulations you’d find in a round of Sheriff of Nottingham.

According to USA Today, “the game features naughty tasks to complete, such as skipping spaces or removing another player’s hotel from their property without them noticing.”

Since the game’s not out yet, we don’t know how far you’re allowed to go with your chicanery.

I’m sure some players will try to take more than $200 when they pass Go, but what about…?

  • Can you hide cash up your sleeve in order to avoid playing more Luxury Tax at 20%?
  • Can you gaslight players into forgetting that you mortgaged that property, flipping it over and collecting rent on it once more?
  • Can you bribe other players into letting you pass through their properties without paying?
  • CAN YOU SOMEHOW CHARGE FOR FREE PARKING?

[Image courtesy of Monopoly.wikia.com.]

We’ll have to wait and see.

Will you be picking up the Cheaters Edition of Monopoly, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below!


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