Critical Intel

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

Robert Rath | 21 Aug 2014 16:01
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the royal game of ur

Dice-Based Board Games Entertained Kings

When archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the royal tombs at Ur back in the 1920s, he made a curious discovery - five game boards made up of twenty squares that he dubbed "The Royal Game of Ur."

Back in 2,600 B.C.E., the Royal Game was a favorite of the Sumerian upper class, so popular that the nobility often had boards buried with them so they could continue playing in the next life. These weren't plain wooden boards either - The British Museum has one inlayed with shell, red limestone and rare minerals that were imported from Afghanistan. (And you thought Warhammer 40,000 was expensive.)

The Royal Game of Ur (also known as "the Game of Twenty Squares") was an international phenomenon. It swept through ancient Sumer (present-day Iraq) and spread as far as Iran, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus and Crete. It transcended class, too - 2,700 years ago, bored soldiers scratched a version of the board into an Assyrian palace's limestone gateway so they could play on duty.

For decades historians could only speculate on the game's rules, but in the early 1980s, Dr. Irving Finkel found a cuneiform tablet describing the game's rules. The Royal Game was, as historians suspected, a race game where players tried to clear their pieces off the board first - but to enter the board they also had to roll a specific number on tetrahedral dice (d4s).

If you're curious about how it plays, you can buy a copy from the British Museum.

They're Called "Bones" Because That's What They Used to Be

Before dice were fully adopted, Greeks and Romans played "Knucklebones," several different games involving the knobby anklebones of a sheep, goat or calf. While Knucklebones was primarily the original form of the children's game we call Jacks, there was also a gambling version that involved throwing marked Knucklebones on a table surface as a random number generator. While dice took over this role and made this offshoot of the game die out, it's still immortalized in the expression "rolling the bones."

Dice Were - And Still Are - Used for Divination

The ancients thought dice rolls were literally determined by the gods. Anytime you call on Lady Luck when you're rolling to dodge, you're reciting the nickname of Fortuna, daughter of Zeus, whom the Romans believed controlled games of chance. It should be no surprise then, that many cultures practiced cleromancy, or divination through the casting of stones, bone fragments, wooden lots or dice.

In Scandinavia, a soothsayer would cast marked twigs on the ground and pick up three at random, deciphering a message from the runes marked on them. In China, there's a similar practice called Kau Cim, where supplicants will ask a question then shake a cup full of one hundred bamboo sticks marked with characters-the first stick to fall out tells you what numbered fortune to look up. The Old Testament depicts the Israelites casting lots to determine everything from land disputes, to who determining guilt in a crime, to which passenger they need to throw overboard (spoiler: it's Jonah). And the mathematics and numerology-obsessed Pythagorean sect reportedly rolled dice for divination. However one place that still practices cleromancy is modern Tibet, where people consult the dice in professional, healthcare or travel decisions.

The practice, known as Mo, involves a petitioner asking a question and rolling three six-sided dice, then interpreting the result by looking it up in a book written by a lama. The belief goes that Manjusri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom will affect the dice roll and direct the petitioner to the correct answer or a helpful passage. Apparently the Dalai Lama himself uses Mo when faced with a tough decision - though he uses a different method similar to the Chinese Kau Cim, but with possible answers folded up inside balls of dough and shaken in a cup.

You've probably practiced cleromancy yourself - that Magic 8 Ball is just a floating d20.

A Soldier's Best Friend

Anyone who's studied military history can tell you that being a solider often means a lot of waiting around. It's hardly surprising, then, that dice have been a soldier's best friend since at least the Roman era.

Dice are small and easy to transport, with little upfront cost and no other accessories needed to play. Besides, while soldiers might tire of a board game over time, the added element of wagering gave dice a drama that never got old. It's therefore unsurprising that there are references to soldiers gambling with dice in almost every historical period - even in the Bible, where Romans soldiers diced over Jesus's clothes.

Most militaries discouraged gambling amongst the ranks since fights and discipline problems inevitably followed, but even so it's fairly common for archaeologists to find dice in forts or old campsites.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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