Dice have existed in different forms since before recorded history, and interestingly they evolved independently in cultures and civilisations all around the world. That’s not to say they haven’t all had big influences on each other, especially in the more recent past, but it does show how seductive dice games are and how natural they feel to play. You might even say playing games of dice is built into human DNA!
Dice are believed to have first been used by shaman to divine the future or decide on a course of action. It’s not the only time that the lines between gambling and divination are blurred in history, and this fortune-telling practice continued independently of dice games for many years. The first dice were animal bones, which could fall on 4 different sides and not on the 2 rounded ends.
Around 7000 years ago the Mesopotamians rounded the ends of the bones used for dice games off and made them into a more uniform, cuboidal shape. As technology advanced they were also made of wood, whalebone and ivory. Shaman were probably the first to carve symbols on the dice, but it didn’t take long for this to catch on and for dice games to become incredibly popular.
Casting lots is mentioned in the Bible, suggesting that dice or something similar were used in these times, and the Ancient Egyptian game of Senet, whose rules are unclear, was played as long ago as 3000 BC and as recently as the second century AD.
Games of dice are known to have been played in Greece, China and India in the first millennium BC, and it was hugely popular in the great Roman Empire too. It was illegal to play, but Roman citizens indulged as quietly as they could. There are even records of several rulers, including Marc Anthony, Claudius, Nero and Julius Caesar, taking part in the casting of dice.
Dice continued to be popular throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, as one of the few pleasurable activities that peasants could afford to play. Native Americans threw beans as a form of divination, and they were important to cultures in Africa over this period too. Dominos evolved from dice in 12th-century China, at roughly the same time as scrolls were replaced by block-print books.
It is in medieval Europe, however, that we see games of dice take off in an unprecedented way. Chaucer references throwing dice in The Canterbury Tales, and dice schools and guilds were formed all over Western Europe. Attempts to ban the games were made by the Catholic Church but, just as in Rome, dice were too popular to be stopped by any force.
Today’s Casino Games
Dice are used in a variety of casino and other games today, and the most common gambling games that you’ll see are Craps and Sic Bo. Craps evolved from the medieval game of Hazard, which was introduced to North America by the French settlers in New Orleans. It was called Crapaud, which means Toad in French, and was shortened to Craps by slaves with whom it was immensely popular.
Sic Bo originated in China, where it means Dice Pair. This suggests that earlier versions of the game used only 2 dice, although today’s variations all use 3. It was brought to America by Chinese labourers during the 19th century, although non-oriental people only discovered it between 1920 and 1940, and it was first treated as a carnival game in the New World.
The simplicity of dice and the endless permutations they create have fascinated us for years, and continue to do so. Today, at online casinos, they can be as rewarding as they are amusing.