Dice Games Properly Explained

Author: Reiner Knizia   Publisher: Right Way Books   Pages: 224   Price: Four pounds   ISBN: 0716021129

I read a review of "Eyes Wide Shut" that contained the somewhat politically incorrect observation that the notoriously reclusive "Stanley Kubrick making a movie about sex is like Gandhi writing a book about food." This analogy leapt to mind recently when I heard that Reiner Knizia had written a book about - of all things - dice. After all, despite the gazillion-and-seven games that Knizia has designed, I can't think of one that contains a pair of bones. (Yeah yeah, "Lord of the Rings", I know ...). Even more intriguing was the curious title: "Dice Games Properly Explained". As though Knizia was railing against centuries of improperly explained dice games.

It turns out that the title of the book comes from the series in which it belongs. Right Way Books, the publisher, has a number of game-related books (including "Card Games Properly Explained") which sell in England for a reasonable four pounds a pop. For the money, I received a nice paperback compendium of over 150 games. The book has eight chapters, seven of which detail different categories of dice games. "Lucky Scoring Games" are games of chance, with little room for strategy. "Lucky Counter Games" include more games of this variety, but also have the players using poker chips. The chips in this last chapter are strictly used for purposes of keeping score, but the chapter "Betting Games" covers a host of gambling games in which the counters represent money. This chapter contains a extensive section on the mechanics and play of Craps, a game I'd never really understood until I read this book.

These three genre of dice games offer plenty of fun, but few opportunities for decision making. Knizia describes the rules for these games and sometimes outlines the relevant odds, but doesn't offer much in the way of playing tips. Nor is there any reason to, really. In "Betting Games" you can choose what to bet on (or against), but little you do actually influences the outcome of the match. But this is not the case in the remaining chapters, and Knizia often includes a short section on tactics for each game.

The first two sections of games that are more than just luck are "Progression Games" and "Jeopardy Games". These are games where you roll an outcome, and then have the opportunity to improve your result by continuing to roll. If you attempt to better your result and fail, however, you may experience some setback -- or even lose it all in some of the Jeopardy Games. These sections contain one of my personal favorites, "Ten Thousand". In Ten Thousand, a player rolls have dice, and may continue to roll them as long has he throws a 1, a 5 or triples. But if he every has a through lacking these target numbers, he loses all of the points he accumulated during the turn. I have played this game for years, and I was please to see that Knizia devoted several pages to its description and tactics. (If "Can't Stop" was a public domain game, I suspect it would fall under the heading of "Jeopardy Games".)

Next comes category games, the most famous of which is "Yahtzee". These are games where you must produce a variety of different outcomes to succeed, such as "five of a kind" or "straight". Many of these games differ only in the assortment of combinations necessary to win, but some are structured in such a way that the decisions regarding which category to put a particular roll are tough indeed. The final chapter of the book contains my favorite kind of dice games: "Bluffing Games" included are the rules for both "Perudo" and "Liar's Dice", as well as a handful of others that will give your poker face a workout.

A third of the way through the book, Knizia stops for a spell and interjects a primer on probability. The third chapter is entitled "The Theory of Dice", and discusses the fundamental mathematics of dice games. The chapter starts out almost laughably simple, patiently explaining that a "3" has a 1/6 chance of being rolled on a single die, and that a "7" has a 00% chance. But from these humble beginnings, Knizia manages to build up to more advanced calculations, and in a mere eight pages demonstrates that figuring out the odds of throwing exactly two sixes when rolling five dice is really not that much more complex than figuring out the odds of rolling one 6 on one die. Knizia thoughtfully puts this chapter just before the section on "Betting Games," presumably so that, armed with this knowledge, you won't get your clock cleaned at the local casino. I found this chapter to be my favorite in the book, and it goes a long way in "properly explaining" the rest of the games within.

As for the games themselves, there is a good mix of well-known and obscure games. I have already found several occations to pull this book off the shelf during disputes over the "official" rules to traditional games, and have secretly boned up on the tactics he outlines to give myself the edge in future matches. As for the lesser-know games, many are superior to their more popular cousins and well worth playing. And Knizia even gives us a surprising number of originals in the volume. Many of these games have been previously published elsewhere, and most are at least as clever as the latest offering from Cheapass. One of the best bluffing games in the book is Knizia's own "Mice and Men", a game that is as never-wracking as anything Stephen King has ever written.

All in all, "Dice Games Properly Explained" is tidy little book, and a great companion for the casual game player (and invaluable for the serious gambler!). It's not currently for sale in the United States, but even with shipping you can get a copy from the UK for a little over 10 bucks. Considering the quantity of games and useful tips contained therein, I'd say it's well worth the price.