Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Royal, Seedy, and Supernatural History of Dice

Robert Rath | 21 Aug 2014 12:01
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Last week, Turkish archaeologists announced an astonishing discovery: a Bronze Age burial site has yielded what may be the oldest gaming tokens ever discovered.

With pieces depicting pigs, dogs, pyramids and various round and oblong shapes, the set - carbon dated between 3,100 and 2,900 B.C.E - the set is notable not just for its age but its completeness. It makes the viewer feel like they could pick up the pieces and play.

But the pyramid pieces have attracted the most discussion, leading several writers and commenters to speculate that they may be ancient four-sided dice. Unfortunately that's not correct - the archaeologists did find dice, but listed them separately from the pyramids, meaning that it's probably that knobby, bony object in the middle of this picture. That aside, though, it's an honest mistake - particularly since the humble d4 and other modern-looking polyhedral dice were not unknown in the ancient world.

Given this new chapter in gaming history, the newly-released D&D edition and the glorious bags-of-dice madness that is GenCon, I thought this might be a good time to look back on the history of our tabletop workhorses - so here are seven facts about dice, an invention that went from the palace, to the gambling den to the temple.

We've Unearthed 5,000 Year-Old Dice

The oldest dice ever found were excavated in the Bronze-Age city of Shahr-i Sokhta ("The Burnt City"), in present-day Iran. The Burt City has yielded many incredible finds, including the first artificial eyeball, a pot painted with what's considered the first animation, and a backgammon set from 3,000 B.C.E. - about 1,000 years older than Stonehenge.

However, just because the Burnt City set were the first dice discovered doesn't mean that's where dice originated. In fact, historians have several competing theories on where came from - varying from The Indus Valley Civilization to the Middle East - but it's also likely that dice were developed independently in multiple regions, probably evolving from lots, casting stones and similar random number generators.

Wherever they started, dice made their mark quickly. Dice or other forms of random number generation appear in many ancient texts. In India they're mentioned in the Vedas, in the Buddha's teachings, and in the epic poem Mahabharata, where a high-stakes dice game initiates a war. The Old Testament contains multiple references to casting lots, often as a form of divination. By 2,000 B.C.E., Egyptians were using several types of polyhedral dice in games - including some like d4s and d10s that would look familiar on a modern D&D table.

The Oldest Known d20 Is From Ptolemaic Egypt

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has a sizeable number of dice in its collection, including the oldest known example of an icosahedron, better known as a twenty-sided die or d20. Carved from serpentine stone between the 2nd century B.C.E. and 4th century C.E., the die is the oldest of three Ptolemaic icosahedrons in the Met's collection. Though historians can't be sure what game the Egyptians played with these dice, the fact that they're covered with Greek letters rather than numbers - Macedonian Greeks ruled Egypt during this period - suggest to me that they may have been mated to a specific board or have been part of a word game. Regardless, the game must've spread to other cultures, since the Romans manufactured similar icosahedrons from glass. (If you want one for your D&D campaign, Christies sold one for $17,925 back in 2003.)

Loaded Dice Reached Their Peak in the Wild West

Now mostly a joke in tabletop circles, loaded dice are probably as old as dice themselves. Mentioned as far back as the Mahabharata, it wasn't long until someone figured out that by shaving edges, rounding sides or drilling a weight into one side you could create a pair of dice that wins more than it loses.

While examples exist dating back to Roman times, crooked dice reached their peak during the Wild West period, when mail order catalogues offered dozens of options for the discerning cheat. There were mis-spotted dice that repeated numbers. There were classic loaded dice with the pips drilled out, filled with metal, and repainted. Cups with hidden chambers that could swallow fair dice and drop tampered ones. Some gambling houses went high technology, embedding electromagnets under their tables and birdcage turners, which insured at the flip of a switch that their iron-impregnated dice turned up double sixes.

Modern loaded dice are ingeniously technical. Some, called "tappers," have mercury drops in a central reservoir that run into a capillary tube when you tap them on the table, throwing off the weight. Others contain a metal with a low melting point, so a gambler can cause it to run to one side by applying body heat. That's the reason all casino dice these days are clear.

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