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Dice Alternatives and Substitutes

Dice are the most obvious and common of all randomizing objects but there are a number of other related objects, shapes and devices that can be used for generating random results for social games and related activities like gambling, divining, fortune telling, prediction, etc.

Before dice became commonly available they were preceded by a number of other methods for generating unpredictable results for social games and  divination.  Learn about dice's ancestors and mankind's other ingenious ideas on how to come up with a random result that is not consciously predetermined by anyone or anything other than the natural forces of nature.

Two Faced Flat Shapes

The original randomizing objects used by ancient peoples dating from pre-history were sets of two-sided flat sticks, flat sea-shells, nut-shells, pebbles, etc, used by witch doctors and shaman to give omens, receive messages from the gods, and to tell of things to come.

Technically any two-faced flat shape, like an ordinary coin, is a kind of dice.  It is a two-faced object that can be tossed or thrown to randomly generate one of two possible results.  You could even use a number of coins to generate greater random numbers.

Many tribes all over Africa have witch doctors who use spotted flat sticks (known as dollasses), made of wood or ivory, as dice for divination and fortune telling



Animal bones were commonly used as dice in ancient times and are still used by some Native-American and Mongolian tribes to this day.  The Egyptians, Romans and Greeks threw knucklebones and anklebones as dice, for divining, gambling and social games.  The Roman name for these was Astragalus's and many examples of Astragulus gaming objects can often be found in Roman and Greek archaeological excavation sites.  In fact, these anklebones are found considerably more often than any other type of bone in ancient sites of human activity.

An Astragalus only has four sides that it can rest on to indicate its upper face.  The Romans assigned their four-sided anklebone dice the values 1, 2, 3, 6.  The larger 1 and 6 faces had a probability of occurring of about 40% each, while the smaller 2 and 3 faces only had a probability of around 10%.

The earliest known reference to an Astragalus is found in an Egyptian painting illustrating a nobleman and his wife gambling with an Astragalus in some kind of board game.  The painting is dated to around 3500 BC and it can be safely assumed that bones as dice were used by ancient people from much earlier in history.


Rolling Logs

An extremely ancient relative to dice is the rolling log.  These are long barrel-like objects which are rolled along and come to a standstill with a particular random result facing up.  There is a very ancient Korean game called Dignitaries that uses rolling logs like this for random results and many other cultures around the world have used similar rolling log objects in the same way.  They are one of the few methods of producing dice-like objects with an odd number of faces.  Like Prisms and Anti-Prisms (see polyhedral dice geometry) there are an infinite number of possible rolling logs with any number of faces.

Recently there have been some modern versions of rolling logs commercially manufactured for contemporary games.  On the right is a plastic rolling log for a modern cricket-like game.

Other similar modern rolling objects like the Anti-Prism shapes below can be readily purchased.  They are anti-prisms in shape but with tapered ends so they can only ever come to rest on a uniform triangular shaped face.  (For more on Anti-Prisms see polyhedral dice geometry.) 


Spinners, Teetotums and Dreidels

Another common method of generating random results is to use a spinning-top type object (sometimes known as Teetotums).  These are barrel-like shaped objects with a centrally aligned protruding point which are spun like spinning tops so that they will come to rest with one side randomly facing up to indicate the result.

Dreidels are four-faced spinners used for a very old traditional Jewish game often associated with and played on the annual Jewish religious celebratory holiday, Hanukkah.  The Yiddish word dreydl comes from dreyen ("to turn").

Each face of a dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet which are named: Nun, Gimel, Hey, Shin.  The four Jewish letters form the initials of a phrase - Nes Gadol Haya Sham "a great miracle happened there". The four letters can also be used to form a mnemonic for the rules and actions of the game played with a dreidel: Nun represents the Yiddish word: nit ("nothing"), Hei stands for: halb ("half"), Gimel for: gants ("all"), and Shin stands for: shteln ("put").

After lighting the Hanukkah menorah, the custom in many Jewish homes is to play the dreidel game.  Each player starts the game with 10 to 15 units (coins, chocolates, nuts, raisins, etc), and puts one unit in the "pot". Each player in turn then spins the dreidel, and depending on which side of the dreidel falls face up, either takes from or puts into the pot.  The actions of the game (based on a Yiddish version) are as follows:

  • Nun - nisht - "nothing" - nothing happens and it's the next player's turn.
  • Gimel - gants - "all" - the player takes the whole pot.
  • Hey - halb - "half" - the player takes half of the pot, rounding up when there is an odd number .
  • Shin - shtel ayn - "put in" - the player puts one unit in the pot.

Another version differs:

  • Nun - nim - "take" - the player takes one unit from the pot.
  • Gimel - gib - "give" - the player puts one unit in the pot.
  • Hey - halb - "half" - the player takes half of the pot, rounding up when there is an odd number.
  • Shin - shtil - "still" (as in "stillness") - nothing happens and it's the next player's turn.

The game may continue until the last person has won everything.

The game of Put & Take is believed to have been developed during the First World War (1914 - 1918) by a soldier in the trenches.  The original spinner was said to have been made from a brass bullet that was shaped into a six-sided spinning top.  Each of the six faces had an instruction marked on it as follows: Put One, Put Two, Put All, Take One, Take Two, and Take All.  Players would ante into a pot and then take turns spinning the top and depending on the spinner's resulting instruction either put in or took from the pot.  It was probably originally played for cigarettes in the trenches.  From here the game spread and became a very popular gambling game during the 1920s and 1930s.  It was greatly played in the North of England in pubs and Working Men's clubs and was also played to a lesser extent in many other countries.  It has since lost much of its popularity and the mass manufacture of the Put & Take spinners gradually dwindled.  There are many different Put & Take spinners around, some with a greater number of faces and instructions, but all are played in much the same way.  There were even crooked spinning tops manufactured that would favour some results more than others.


Ball Shaped Dice Alternatives

Spherical ball shaped objects with dimples (like a golf ball) are yet another randomizing dice-like alternative.  The dice manufacturer Gamescience have produced and marketed the Zocchihedron (illustrated left) with one-hundred numbered dimples set into a ball which can be used as a percentile die (d%).  These objects are not a modern development as you can tell from the very old antique Czechoslovakian glass fortune telling ball (illustrated right) with thirty-two faceted dimples set into a sphere.


Other Randomizing Devices

There are quite a few other interesting randomizing devices that have been commercially manufactured.  Here are some of them below.

These ball bearing rolling randomizing devices aren't that uncommon.  A number of manufacturers have produced devices along these lines.

For more examples of these devices see Arjan Verwiej's link below.


There are a number of electronic dice with LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) that light up randomly when operated.  The process of generating random numbers electronically is an interesting topic which deserves a page, explaining its principles, all of its own.  Maybe in the future.  If you want to learn more on how computers generate pseudo-random numbers see randomly.net.

For more electronic dice take a look at Arjan Verwiej's site - Arjan's Electric Dice.

For some other very interesting randomizers take a look at Arjan's page - Arjan's Randomizing Devices.



Now learn about Standard Dice or Cubic Dice Without Spots









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