Dice Games Properly Explained [Book Review]


“Dice Game Properly Explained” with 36 Chessex 12 mm green dice and chits

I’ve been kind of scattershot about covering games and fun stuff here, but I’m planning to try a Fun Friday feature for a month and see if it’s of any interest. If you like it, give it a share on social media. If the traffic seems to warrant continuing, I will.

My first entry is a little gem that I had on backorder for ages, only to appear in the mail just as Games Magazine, where I was Editor-at-Large for about 17 years, was being shut down. It’s like it arrived just to taunt me.

Reiner Knizia’s classic little volume Dice Games Properly Explained (Blue Terrier Press: $15) packs 150 games into just over 200 pages, and is the best book about its subject in print. Dr. Knizia is the multi-awarding winning designer of more than 500 games, including hits like Lost Cities, Tigris & Euphrates, Lord of the Rings, and many others. With this book, he gives serious consideration to the simplest and oldest form of gaming: rolling dice.

Games that are heavy on dice rolling tend to be shunned by more serious games as being nothing more than a dull cycle of repetitive actions and almost entirely based on luck. Knizia says this is the wrong way to think of it. He divides the book roughly in half between games of luck, “where you have no control over the outcome,” but which still provide suspense and fun, and games of influence, “where you determine your destiny.”

The first four chapters tackle games of luck, with an intermission as Knizia explains the theory of dice and odds. In the realm of “luck,” he offers chapters on scoring games, counter games, and betting games.

One example of a scoring game is Ninety-nine. Someone selects a number between 33 and 99. Each player rolls five dice and then tries to get as close to that number as possible by any application of math, using each rolled number only once. So, for example, if the target number is 83, a roll of 1-3-3-4-6 can be used to make 81 by (6+1) x 4 x 3 – 3.

Most of the games described don’t require that much calculation, and as Knizia moves into the next chapters, counters become a central part of each game’s strategy, and the various ins and outs of casino dice games are considered.

The second half of the book offers chapters about progression, jeopardy, strategic category, and bluffing games. In these examples, luck plays less of a role and players make choices and attempt to influence outcomes. The best known example of a strategic category game is Yacht, packaged and sold as Yahtzee, and offered here with myriad variations. Progression and jeopardy games frequently rely on hitting a target number without going over, but with enough variants and twists to keep things fresh and interesting.

The book was hard to come by for a time, even though the Blue Terrier Press edition doesn’t appear to have gone out of print. It’s available once again on Amazon, which makes this a great opportunity to get it while you can.

Here’s on more example, called Hearts Due:

Any number of people can play, but it’s best for three to five. You need six dice and a notepad for scoring.

On your turn, throw all six dice, then score fie points for each die that belongs to a sequence. Sequences always start with the number 1 and continue with consecutive numbers. A single 1 scores 5 points, 1-2 scores 10, 1-2-3 scores 15 and so on. If a throw contains multiple 1s and more than one sequences, score them all. First person to hit 100 points wins.

Variant rules: 1) Anyone who rolls three 1s loses all points. 2) 1s don’t score, so you start with 5 points for 1-2, and then progress.

Most of these are simple games, which means they’re good for kids (homeschoolers may find some of the games particularly useful for reinforcing math lessons), warm-ups, a quick bit of fun, bar play, and of course, betting, which is where most dice games have their roots.

If you pick up the book at Amazon, grab some dice as well. These Chessex 12mm dice are small, well-made, inexpensive, and come in a variety of colors.