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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PuzzleNation Product Reviews: Veritas

Here at PuzzleNation Blog, we’re constantly on the lookout for any and all things puzzly, happy to spread the word on anything that will appeal to puzzle solvers.

And we think Cheapass Games’ board game Veritas fits the bill nicely.

Veritas is a strategy game in the same vein as Risk and other map-based board games, but with a much quicker pace and a delightfully wicked sense of humor.

The game is set in France during the Dark Ages, and each player represents some version of the Truth, printed in a few books at a random monastery. As you make more copies of the Truth and spread the word to other monasteries and cities, your fellow players are doing the same with their own versions of the Truth, as each of you tries to become the prevailing Truth in the country.

Sounds like a pretty straightforward strategy game, right? But that’s where the element of luck comes in.

Every round, each player pulls from a set of tiles, each tile representing a monastery that will burn down that turn. As monasteries burn, the books they contain are scattered, and the map becomes a little smaller, a little more claustrophobic, and one player’s Truth begins supplanting that of others.

Veritas is a marvelous mix of chance and skill, encouraging both short-term and long-term strategizing (skills that puzzle solvers and puzzle gamers have in spades).

The element of randomness is key in separating Veritas from games with similar territorial stakes. There’s a fun element of the unknown as you pick your tile, and since books are scattered instead of destroyed, there’s significantly less chance of hard feelings when one player burns down another player’s monastery.

(Plus it’s always fun to explain to coworkers in the lunchroom what you’re doing. “Burning down French monasteries” is never the answer they expect. *laughs*)

(Confession: We were so involved in the gameplay that I forgot to take pictures of the board. Please enjoy this dramatic recreation.)

The Cheapass Games rationale is simple, but elegant. They know you’ve got board games at home, so why jack up the price of their games by making you buy another set of dice, another set of chips, another set of tokens and supplemental pieces?

Cheapass Games arrive in a slim white box — as our complimentary review copy did — containing exactly what you need to play the game, and describing precisely what you’ll need from other games to play.

In the case of Veritas, you receive the game board (split into 8 well-rendered cards), the monastery tiles (for randomized burning), and instructions. Simple and elegant. All you need are chips to represent books filled with your truth.

Dime-sized ones will work best, especially since they need to be stackable. Monasteries in key positions can start to resemble miniature games of Jenga, as opposing players keep adding to the stack.

We used Rolco plastic chips in our playtesting, but they didn’t stack particularly well. (The game’s designers highly recommend using smaller poker chips like the ones featured here, since they’re designed to be stacked and won’t take up too much space on the game board.)

The game’s setup is a snap, though you’ll want to give the instructions a thorough read before starting, since the multiple actions available to players on a given turn can take a minute or two to suss out completely. (Any rules we were fuzzy on became instantly clear after a round or two of play.)

Veritas is a terrific strategy game that will appeal to plenty of puzzle solvers and gamers of all ages, continuing the Cheapass Games tradition of clever games with their signature sense of humor.

After all, what’s a little monastery burning between friends? =)

[You can find more information on Veritas (or pick up a copy of your own) by clicking here.]

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