June 21, 2021
Five dice, one plastic shaker, and a pencil. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? But in reality, Yahtzee equipment can be as complicated and varied as the game itself. Don’t be caught off guard by custom dice or exotic memorabilia. Embrace the diversity and make the game your own. From the playing surface to backstops, rolling trays, and good luck charms, learn about the intricacies of Yahtzee gaming materiel and show up to the table prepared.
The arrival of summer and the easing of lockdown restrictions are setting the stage for what is expected to be a record-setting year of in-person Yahtzee games. After the surge in electronic and online Yahtzee brought on by social distancing measures during 2020, the pendulum is swinging back to physical tabletop gaming. But game hosts risk disaster if their Yahtzee set has been sitting unused for an extended time.
If you are making plans to host a sanctioned Yahtzee tournament or even an informal game, remember to check the status of your Yahtzee set beforehand. Nothing will nosedive an otherwise perfect day of festivities than a missing die or lack of scorecards. While your guests will no doubt appreciate your barbecue and lemonade, they will be truly impressed if your Yahtzee equipment is in ship-shape condition.
But beyond winning the plaudits of your fellow Yahtzeeists, proper maintenance of your Yahtzee equipment is the best step you can take to ensure a level playing field for all participants. Perfectly equal conditions simply lead to more fun. Tampering with the official equipment is one of the most common ways to cheat at Yahtzee but even well-intentioned Yahtzee lovers can indirectly damage their sets through neglect and disuse. Prior to play, give your set a six-point checkup:
Yahtzee Pre-Game Inspection
1. Check that all five dice are accounted for and in good repair. Consider adding a few spares in case of loss or damage.
2. Check the integrity of the cup or shaker. Reinforce any weak spots if needed.
3. Check the scorecard supply and replenish sufficiently. If planning to have players make their own score sheets, ensure a supply of related tools like blank paper and rulers.
4. Check that there are enough pencils for all expected players. Pens or other writing implements may be used if necessary.
5. Check that the official rules booklet is in place to nip potential arguments in the bud.
6. Check for any supplemental equipment such as lucky charms, Yahtzee Bonus candy rewards, or customized gaming items.
Note: Yahtzee Bonus Chips are the only useless piece of official Yahtzee equipment, made redundant as the Yahtzee Bonus is recorded on the score card. These vestigial remnants of the game’s shared ancestry with Poker can be discarded at the owner’s discretion.
It's Gotta be the Shoes
The importance of gaming equipment integrity is not unique to Yahtzee - in fact just the opposite. Some level of standardization is necessary in all competitive endeavors that require specialised equipment. It not only protects the integrity of the gameplay but also upholds values of fair play.
Mbuleli Mathanga, a South African long-distance runner, set a personal best time in a recent 5,000m race but was disqualified due to his footwear – state-of-the-art carbon-plated Nike Vaporfly running shoes. But Mathanga wasn’t trying to game the system. He simply found the shoes more comfortable than the traditional spiked running shoes which hurt his legs. So he employed a third option during his next race and set a provincial record by completing the 10,000m barefoot.
With the rapid increase of technological advances in manufacturing processes and the commoditization of pro sports that make cheating more lucrative, some equipment is just too good and subsequently banned to maintain a level playing field. So no metal bats to pad your homerun tally in Major League Baseball and no self-correcting golf balls that always find the fairway. But when it comes to Yahtzee, the effects from a player’s choice of equipment is not so simple.
Juiced for the Yahtzee Table
Success at Yahtzee depends on a complex sequence of dice rolls and not simply on going farther, faster, or straighter. A player using corked dice will not necessarily result in inequitable gameplay. Improved equipment manufacture just doesn’t lead to an increase in total Yahtzee score.
All else being equal, carbon-plated dice will confer no advantage over a player using plain old plastic dice from a standard Yahtzee set. So as opposed to other games, the main issue in maintaining a level playing field in Yahtzee is not to regulate performance-enhancing equipment but just the opposite - ensuring that the dice are up to par. Equipment of an inferior quality can diminish the randomness that is necessary for a fair and enjoyable game of Yahtzee.
Yahtzee involves a great deal of strategy and skill but a fair game would not be possible without randomness. Each face of a die must have a perfectly equal chance, 16.67%, of coming up on any given roll - a concept referred to as “dice balance.” Many studies have been conducted to determine which type of dice have the highest levels of dice balance and some cubes are undoubtedly better than others. Unfortunately the dice that come included in a store-bought Yahtzee game are not at the top of the list.
Plastic dice manufacturing techniques can result in irregularities in a die’s interior which throw off its balance. And many dicemakers value their own economic interests above producing perfectly balanced dice. A company that rounds off a die’s corners and adds pips to the sides (pips are the indentations on each face that indicate the value) saves a lot of plastic over time, thus improving their bottom line. The effect these measures have on the cubes’ balance simply doesn’t enter the equation for penny-pinching dice manufacturers.
Dice, Dice, Baby
Determining dice balance requires experiments where dice are rolled thousands of times in a row. While some may say that sounds like an exciting evening to many Yahtzeeists, the monotony has led to the creation of mechanical rolling devices. These machines deliver precisely random rolls much faster than a human ever could. Such studies have concluded that plastic dice tend to land as Ones in disproportionate numbers - over 30% of the time in some research.
This result is a bit counterintuitive as the One face is the heaviest side of a pipped die. It stands to reason that a die would land face down on its heaviest side due to the force of gravity. The lightest side of standard die is always aligned opposite the heaviest. Due to the additional plastic having been scooped out of its face, the Six would more frequently land in an upright position as the most common roll.
Popular dicemaker Chessex has confirmed the paradoxical result from their own internal research. Physicists assure us that the paradox is an illusion, suggesting that centrifugal forces have a much stronger effect upon rolling dice than gravity does.
If you don’t have the patience to roll your dice thousands of times to determine their balance, consider giving them a salt water bath. Depending on the mass of the dice you may need to add a lot of salt, but once proper salinity is achieved the dice will float. With a gentle flick the die will slowly rotate and come to rest with one face pointing up. Repeating this exercise and comparing the results is a surefire way to test dice balance.
For recreational purposes a slightly unbalanced die may not be too big of a deal for most players, especially if everyone is using the same set of dice. But in professional tournaments dice are usually held to a higher standard.
Given the huge profits that casinos earn by exploiting probabilities, the gambling industry has produced the most thorough and accurate dice balance research. Not incidentally, the type of dice used in a casino are without a doubt the most balanced and these produce reliably random rolls. So for players that want a perfectly level playing field, use high-quality precision dice. These are clear cubes and are often handmade so as to rule out any internal abnormalities that may affect balance. Their square-corners and non-pipped faces also enhance the prospects of a truer roll.
And while not as dependable as casino dice, metal dice are a step up from mass produced plastic dice. These are manufactured in a way where air bubbles and other inclusions are not able to form, although their opacity renders visual confirmation impossible.
Sounds of Science
In their paper, "The three-dimensional dynamics of the die throw", Doctoral student Marcin Kapitaniak and his co-authors created a sophisticated theoretical model of a die throws. They considered how the effects of gravity, air resistance, friction of the table, and other factors influence the outcome of the roll. In addition, they observed the fall of the die with a high-speed camera that captured the die's trajectory at a rate of 1500 frames per second. What did they find to be the most important factor?
"The initial position of the die," according to Tomasz Kapitaniak of the University of Lodz in Poland. Small changes in the position of a die can significantly affect the outcome. "The air resistance can be neglected," he said, although “friction is important.”
A master of the fake roll is able to roll the dice off their hand in a controlled way. Having carefully aligned the dice just prior to the maneuver, they can reliably roll a number of their choosing. In other words, they manage the centrifugal effects with a precise and heavily practiced dice routine. Preventing this kind of trickery calls for a healthy dose of good old-fashioned dice action.
Dice action refers to the amount of kinetic energy inside a rolling die. A die with high dice action will carom wildly and result in a truly random roll. Cheaters will try to keep the force as low as possible in their attempts to manipulate their rolls. A Yahtzee host should prioritize their pre-game preparations around maximizing the potential for explosive dice action. The playing surface, consequently, is the best place to start.
There are two qualities of a Yahtzee playing surface, generally a tabletop, that have the most impact on dice action - hardness and friction. Hardness amplifies bouncing, the hallmark characteristic of high dice action. Softer surfaces will dampen the impact of the dice, sapping their kinetic energy in the process. Likewise, higher levels of friction will result in more dice action. Dice tend to bounce around more on a high-friction table due to its inherent bumpiness. This tumbling and twirling makes the results impossible to predict. Bouncing is diminished on a smooth, low-friction table where the dice can't easily slide across the surface.
Dice may be the most vital piece of Yahtzee equipment but they aren’t the only one. Equipment enhancement is encouraged with regards to the score cards and pencils, but these upgrades are purely cosmetic upgrades to add some spice to the game. Other types of equipment however can be used in strategic ways to make up for possible imperfections in the dice, maintain equal playing conditions, or even improve your total score.
One of the most popular pieces of supplemental Yahtzee equipment is the backstop. This is simply any hard surface that can be used to roll the dice against. A heavy book can serve well here but the most convenient backstop is typically the Yahtzee box itself. A backstop introduces much higher levels of randomization into any given dice roll by increasing the dice action. The concept is employed in the dice game craps as an anti-cheat technique. A player is required to throw or “shoot” the dice against a backstop to discourage fake rolls.
Another way to amp up dice action while discouraging cheating is to mandate the use of a dice cup or shaker. Fake roll techniques require the player to roll by hand so they can simulate the appearance of a roll while maintaining control of the dice’s trajectory. A shaker eliminates the threat by adding another layer of randomness to every roll. The Yahtzee cup also provides an outlet for players’ individuality, through the use of personalized shakers, like the antique version from grandma’s set or your favorite beer stein.
Performance-enhancing Yahtzee equipment is not a risk to the game’s integrity but dereliction of game sets is. The successful Yahtzee host this summer season will keep their gaming materials in a secure location, safe from decay and tampering. Should a player, inspired by the runner Mr. Mathanga, choose to go “barefoot” and not use a shaker at all the results could end up much the same as the race. Proper use and maintenance of all equipment will help ensure that the upcoming global Yahtzee binge can continue for as long as needed.
Learn More about Yahtzee Game Equipment
How to Care for Your Yahtzee Set - We answer letters from readers who have specific questions about proper game maintenance. The answers to the trickiest Yahtzee inquiries are not always obvious. Join us on a deep dive into some of the more challenging equipment topics.
The Yahtzee Playing Surface - Often taken for granted by players of all stripes, the humble table is the most common Yahtzee playing surface. Although unappreciated, the Yahtzee table is a vital piece of game equipment - literally the foundation of your game. Overlook its importance at your peril.
From the Archive:
Board Game Gimmicks
February 15, 2013
Big news in the board game community as Monopoly officially changes its lineup of playing tokens with a kitty cat replacing the iron. The removal of the iron token, long considered a symbol of female subordination, has been hailed as a step in the right direction.
This is not the first, and will certainly not be the last, time that that a board game has shuffled its playing piece selection. Clue, for example, has updated its repertoire of weapon pieces over the years. Generally, such moves are gimmicky marketing ploys to drive game sales. With interest temporarily fixated on a new playing piece, public attention is pulled away from the fact that these games are simply base representations of greed and murder. But in this day and age, when board games are controlled by international conglomerates, profit is the sole driving force in the decision-making process.
Rest assured, fellow Yahtzeeists, Yahtzee will never mix up its playing pieces. While its current corporate overlords would undoubtedly love to churn out new editions every month, the game’s simplicity keeps it grounded. All you need are five dice and a pencil!