While some historical games of chance have been played with all kinds of marked throwable objects, dice as we know them have been around for centuries. Millennia, even. The oldest known dice were found at an archaeological site in modern-day Iran, and were dated to the Bronze Age. They seem to have been Asian originally, and were traditionally made from ankle bones. The Bible mentions “casting lots,” but whether this refers to dice as we know them isn’t entirely clear. Dice-based gambling was popular in ancient Rome, and while officially only permissible during Saturnalia, illegal gambling was just as common there as it is in the modern world.
Remember Julius Caesar’s quote when crossing the Rubicon, “Alea iacta est”? This is generally translated as “the die is cast,” although the more typical Latin word for a die was “cubus.” R.C. Bell’s book, which I mentioned last week and will probably review in full once I’ve finished it, also tells a story about how the Kings of Norway and Sweden, both named Olaf, threw dice over the territory of Hising. The King of Norway beat the Swede’s two sixes when once of his dice split in half and thirteen dots ended up showing, or so the story goes. I assume this is where Terry Pratchett got the idea of having Cohen the Barbarian respond to Fate’s challenge to roll a seven on one die by slicing it with his sword, which happens in The Last Hero. It’s a creative form of cheating, like Alexander and the Gordian Knot (or, as it’s called in Discworld, Carelinus and the Tsortean Knot).
Craps remains a popular betting game involving dice, despite its quite unappealing name. After a game of Craps, I like to relax by playing Montezuma’s Revenge. Seriously, though, Bell reports that it was previously called “The Negro’s Game,” due to its popularity among the black population of New Orleans. Okay, compared to that, “Craps” sounds pretty good. The British game on which it was originally based, however, was known as Hazard, and was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Another game Bell describes is called “Indian Dice” for some reason, but actually sounds quite a bit like Yahtzee, with Poker terms used for combinations of die rolls.
While six-sided dice are obviously the most common, probably because a cube is the shape that’s easiest to roll, there are dice with more or fewer sides. A book of games from thirteenth-century Spain mentions seven- and eight-sided dice used in some variants of chess. More recently, it’s been strategy and role-playing games that make the most use of irregularly-shaped dice.