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verso journal

Instrument of chance

    25 · 01 · 2020


2020 is here. Like us, you might have promised yourself to slow down life a bit heading into the new decade. Why not take advantage of January’s relatively sluggish pace and indulge in a game of dice? Doing so is probably the ultimate digital detox. No cortisol-inducing video games. Just a pair of beautiful cubes to throw and roll. In this issue of Verso Journal, we sing the praises of the die, an object of perfection that has driven gaming since time immemorial.


It’s hard to imagine a more accessible and straightforward game motor than the die. As perhaps the most famous symbol of fate, luck and chance, the die is the ultimate determinator of outcomes.

The act of rolling dice might seem low-key and perhaps a little bit boring, especially when compared to modern computer games. But in fact, dice has a lot going for it. Throwing the dice adds a bit of chance and excitement to every game. As an object, the die is visually appealing and has a nice tactile quality. Also, a well-made die has a certain weight that gives it gravitas. And it makes a distinct sound when thrown on a cloth that completes its aesthetic wholesomeness. The experience of playing dice is the ASMR of gaming. 

Another quality of dice games is that they are clearly finite. They do not present an infinite feed of new gaming scenarios. The experience of dice is physical, direct and straightforward. You throw the die and observe how it rolls into position. So it’s no wonder dice has such a rich and long history. These little instruments of chance have played a significant role in fuelling different pastimes and games since way back.


Dice are presumably the oldest gaming tools known to humankind. Archaeological excavations have unearthed dice reputedly dated to 6.000 BC. In 2015 a mysterious 14-sided die was found in a 2.300-year-old tomb near Qingzhou City in China. Proof of dice in Egyptian tombs from 2.000 BC also exists. These finds thus make clear that dice have existed for at least that long, probably longer. In which case, they refute the claim of Greek poet Sophocles that the Greeks invented the object.

Made from a variety of precious and cheap materials like bone, crystal, ivory, marble, silver, gold and wood, to mention but a few, dice come in many shapes and forms. Throughout history, there have been four-sided and twenty-sided dice and everything in between. The Egyptians used two-sided throw sticks as dice. The six-sided cube design we commonly associate with dice has existed for thousands of years.


What are the classics among dice games? The answer depends on who you ask and from where that person comes. Here in Europe, we might say that Yathzee or Monopoly qualify as classic dice games. But if we turn to someone from Japan or China, their answers might be Chō-han or Cee-Lo. It thus goes without saying that the following selection of classic dice games is highly subjective. 

Let’s start with the most famous of our favorite dice games: backgammon. It has all the credentials of a classic dice game. The roots of backgammon reach back nearly 5.000 years to Mesopotamia, which makes backgammon one of the oldest board games there are. Two persons play it on a board with two tables, each marked with 12 points. Each player has 15 markers that are moved with the dice throws. Backgammon is an excellent workout for the mind with a snappy pace. So, if you are of the restless kind, this is the game to put you at ease. 

Our second choice is craps, a dice game with a colorful ancestor. In craps, you throw two dice at the same time and bet on their total value. Played mostly at casinos craps is a simplification of the older dice game hazard. Hazard’s origin is a bit cloudy, but it has existed at least since the 11th century. The name stems from the Spanish azar, meaning ”an unfortunate card or dice roll”. Played for money, hazard was especially popular in the 17th and 18th-centuries. Because of the monetary aspect of the game, it tended to attract characters from the shadier parts of society. Sometime during the 19th-century, hazard evolved into the more accessible craps.

No list would be complete without mentioning Yathzee. Or Yatzy, as we like to call it here in Sweden. It’s one of the most popular dice games in the world. In Yathzee, you roll dice and win points by hitting certain combinations. Five dice, a dice holder and scorecards are all you need to play it.

These games also exist in digital iterations, of course. But they can never emulate the feeling of holding and throwing the little six-sided cube. To watch it roll into position and tell you that you get the chance to buy New York Avenue is satisfying (and frustrating when you’re out of Monopoly money).

So, bring out a cup and a few dices whenever you feel the need to get away from your digital life a bit. Accompanied by the crackling and snapping sounds of an open fire, playing dice in any form is an excellent way to relax and connect with family and friends.

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