by R.K. Baader

‘Roll the dice.’ A phrase we’ve come to know and love. It fills us with a range of emotions from excitement to anticipation to fear. But how did these dice come into being? Let’s go on an adventure all the way back to several thousand years ago; when knucklebones were being thrown to determine the fate of an individual or situation. It’s oddly fitting considering the throw of the dice determines the fate of our created characters in tabletop RPG games today. 

Dice are some of the oldest gaming items known. The earliest polyhedral ancestors were knucklebones commonly made of bone or ivory around 5000 BC. They were usually four-sided. Six-sided dice began to show up around 3000 BC with bone eventually becoming the primary material. The ankle bones of hooved animals were particularly popular given their already cube-like shape. Of course, as time went on, other materials were used. Bronze, agate, onyx, rock crystal, jet, alabaster, marble, amber, and porcelain are commonly found. It makes you wonder about the dice collections of our ancestors. 

Knucklebone dice from the 5th-3rd centuries BC (source)

Six-sided dice were made similar to ours in that the opposite sides add up to seven with the one opposite the six, the three opposite the four, and the two opposite the five. This was across Europe, Asia, and Africa. There were no numbers at first because the dice were made at a time when no widely-recognized numbers existed. This is why most d6s are marked with dots instead of the numbers themselves. Many d6s maintain this same tradition today. There is evidence these dice were used for games, with the Royal Game of Ur being one of the oldest board games ever discovered in Sumer. Interestingly enough, dice appeared independently across the world. Some other versions of dice were things like stick-tossing and spinning tops.

Serpentine d20 inscribed with Greek letters from the Ptolemaic period (source)

The main theory behind this D20 is that it was used for divination where the symbols are of gods and the die is thrown to determine the god to assist the practitioner. (Interesting cleric idea, anyone?) A Greek oracle book from the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. discusses throwing lots to get numbers that would lead to oracle questions and responses. Needless to say, throwing a die this ancient wouldn’t be advised at your own D&D table, but it would be an ultimate collectible for your dice hoard.

Eventually, other shapes of dice began to surface. A D20 made of a brown serpentine was discovered recently and is currently housed in the Met Museum in New York. It’s about an inch tall, which is pretty close to the Chessex dice size. The die was created sometime between 304 to 30 B.C. in Ancient Egypt during the Greek Ptolemaic period. Each side has a Greek symbol on it that’s very well preserved. What’s exciting is that these symbols were also found on the aforementioned ancient knucklebones. 

Dice-throwing appeared independently all across the world with gambling being the most popular form of gaming. At the same time, the argument could be made that divination with dice is yet another form of gambling. 

A pair of Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE) ceramic tomb figurines of two gentlemen playing liubo (source)

In China, a board game was found in an ancient tomb that was about 2,300 years old. There were pieces of a board game that included a 14 sided die made of animal tooth, 21 game pieces, and broken pieces of a game board. It’s believed the artifacts are part of a lost game called “Liubo,” which hasn’t been played for around 1,500 years. This game was incredibly popular during the Han dynasty and archaeologists have found art with people playing this game in Han dynasty tombs. Unfortunately, how to play this game has been lost to time. 

Harappan d6 from India (source)

During the Harappan Period, around 2000 B.C., cubic dice were being used in India. In fact, the first written records of dice are found in the Mahabharata, which is an ancient Sanskrit epic. A backgammon set from Iran holds some of the earliest known dice in the world. However, these dice didn’t always follow the practice that opposite sides add up to seven. By the 300s A.D., in the Guptan Empire, the game Pachisi (also known as Parcheesi, which is still played today) became extremely popular. They made the boards out of cotton cloth and threw six cowrie shells to determine the results. The pieces were made out of wood. 

Central and North America had a few variations to dice. In North America there was a decorative, four sided stick die that was used in a variety of games. In Central America a board game called Patolli was widely played. The name comes from a word for small red beans, which were the ‘dice’ for the game. It was a game of chance played on a board that was shaped like a cross. Another popular game used ‘dice’ that were instead split reeds with one side being the convex and the other the concave. Counters were moved across a board based on how many of the reeds that fell with the hallow side upwards. There is no name provided for this game. 

Arapaho stick dice (source)

Just as dice developed independently all over the world, so did cheating. Weighted dice were commonly found at all locations where dice games were popular. Not knowing the balance of the material, and the flaws that can sometimes come with hand craftsmanship, could cause ancient dice to be uneven in shape. Because of this, dice throwing became a particular skill. Various methods were invented to prevent cheating. For example, the Chinese threw dice into pottery bowls.

Another method of preventing cheating came from the Romans. They came up with a dice tower to ensure a fairer outcome. Dice towers were usually around 7.5” tall and made of bone. Similar to our own, they had designs carved into them and ramps on the inside. The dice were dropped from the top and the results were considered to be more fair as a result. The sizes of these towers are comparable to the ones you can get today. It’s incredible how these ancient games and traditions have traversed the span of time.

Further Reading