02 February 2018
Ancient dice used unbalanced ‘prime’ configuration instead of modern ‘sevens’ layout
It took more than a thousand years for humans to work out how to make dice fair because ancient gamers assumed their rolls were in the hands of the gods, a fascinating recent study has suggested.
Researchers at UC Davis in California looked at how six-sided cubic dice evolved over two millennia, from wonky Roman cubes through to a Renaissance-era effort to balance things, eventually leading to the modern standard.
According to the study, Roman dice were “visibly lopsided and unbalanced in the arrangement of numbers”, with dice dated to before 400 AD made in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, as well as being crafted out of different materials that could affect their balance.
Dice became very rare for several hundred years during the Dark Ages, it seems, finally coming back into fashion in 1100 AD, by which time they had managed to adopt a curious configuration known as ‘primes’, seemingly borrowed from players in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where 1 was opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, and 5 opposite 6 – as opposed to the modern use of ‘sevens’, where opposite faces add up to seven.
Again, early medieval dice tended to all sorts of unequal shapes (although they were a bit smaller than their Roman ancestors) and made out of whatever happened to be to hand, with examples found of bone, metal and clay cubes.
Our ancient predecessors apparently weren’t too bothered about trying to balance the dice themselves, the study says, because they believed that “rolls were predetermined by gods or other supernatural elements” – something that anyone who’s ever made a saving throw in D&D can sympathise with.
It wouldn’t be until about 1450 AD that dice makers would begin to think about how the form of dice might affect their outcome, standardising the arrangement of numbers to the sevens layout and having a more consistent shape and size, bigger than medieval dice. This was partly due to the mass production of dice and also influenced by the work of people like Galileo, who had started to examine and explore the concept of probability with greater depth during the Renaissance.
And, so, the humble dice we know today came to be – dictated more by maths and materials than the hands of fate or gods. Though that won’t keep us from praying to the powers that be next time we’re rolling.