My current board game project has a lot of it’s roots in the ancient game of Senet, which, in it’s modern rules variant, is often played with throwing sticks instead of dice. I thought they could make an interesting alternative for roll-and-move, and other types of games, so I decided to investigate a bit. I looked into their history, tested how they compare to dice, results wise, and generally trialled them to see how nice they are to use. This by no means an in depth study, just a quick review. I’m sure others could go into the subject in a lot more depth, especially when it comes to the mathematics of the throw results.
As far back as 3100 BCE, or even before, board games have existed on earth. But dice are a newer invention. So what did they use? Knucklebones of animals were often the answer, with different sides giving different results. Later, these were filed down and symbols were added to the sides. These may have become the worlds first dice.
At the same time though, sticks were also used. If we look at the ancient game of Senet, it was thought to have been played with either knucklebones or 2-sided sticks, where one side is marked in some way. We can only theorise about how exactly things were played, and rules likely changed over time, but the number of marked sides displayed after a ‘throw’ was probably the number of spaces moved.
So how does throwing sticks differ to dice when it comes to the results of a ‘roll’ or ‘throw’? Well, when you throw a D6, you have an equal chance to get any number from 1 to 6. So what happens when you throw sticks instead? I did a quick study to find out.
I threw five, 2-sided sticks with marks on one side, 150 times. Why five? Well a dice doesn’t have a 0 option, but sticks do. All sides face down. So by throwing five sticks I actually get the same number of possible results as a dice. I also don’t claim these sticks were balanced, I cut them out of spare bits of wood, but it gives you an idea. So what were the results?
0 – 4 times
1 – 20 times
2 – 44 times
3 – 52 times
4 – 25 times
5 – 5 times
You can see from the above data that the results heavily favour 2 and 3, then 1 and 4, and finally 0 and 5. This is known as a Binomial Distribution. It comes about because there is a lot higher chance of results such as 2 and 3 coming up, than there is of 0 or 5. In simple terms, throwing all the sticks, there is only one possible way to get 0, all the sticks have to have their marked sides face down. However there are many ways to get 3. Sticks 1, 2 and 3 could be face up, or 2, 3 and 5, or 1, 4 and 5. You get the idea.
This means that you cannot simply replace dice for throwing sticks, but depending on what result you want to achieve, they could be more useful. For instance, if you want a steady progression along a track, and less extremes one way or the other, they might be the way to go.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t limited to throwing sticks. It works with anything that is X number of objects, each with a 50/50 result. Such as 5 coins, or even 5 dice if you say 1, 2, 3 is a win, and 4, 5, 6 is a miss.
While throwing those sticks 150 times, I got a pretty good idea of how nice they are to use. In general they are quite satisfying to throw, and if you have a hard surface they make a nice clatter on the way down. They are also less likely to disappear off the edge of the table than dice are, although they can spread out somewhat depending on how you throw them.
Are they as easy in the long term as dice? No. Dice are simply too easy to pick up and throw around, even if you have several. Sticks can often be awkward to pick up, depending on how they are shaped and how many you are trying to grab at once. You also often need to straighten them up in your hand ready for the next throw, but that might just be me.
Is there anything we can do to make throwing sticks more usable? Yes. You try throwing a coin on a table then picking it up. It’s hard to do because of the flat side against the flat table. So the key is to not make your sticks flat. There will be many ways to do this, but for mine I got some pieces of half dowel, cut them to length, and stuck the flat sides to each other. After waiting for things to dry and sanding everything down, this gives you a nice stick, which will still land on one side or the other, but is much easier to pick up off a table as it’s not flat. You have to do this with only slightly curved half dowel though. If the curve is too much you’ll just make a round stick and they’ll keep rolling forever! It’s also worth noting that I got the best results at 5cm length. They seem quite short, but are much easier to sweep up off the table in groups into your hand than 10cm sticks.
I would say overall that throwing sticks (or equivalent) are worth keeping in mind for your projects. They give a different set of results to dice, which could mix things up in your game in ways you don’t expect, and are a novel thing for the players to throw around. Will they have lasting appeal? If they are well made, it’s possible. I’ll know more as I introduce them into my game and get people to play with them during playtesting. I’m hoping they do, as I enjoy the history behind them and they fit with the parts of my game that have Senet origins, but if they really don’t work I can either re-work the game slightly to fit with a normal dice result, or use something else which will also give the same results as the sticks.
I’ll conclude by saying that if you haven’t ever played Senet, see if you can pick up a set. They’re not super common, but they’re out there, and it’s a fun two player game where you’ll get to also try out throwing sticks as a mechanic. There are some online apps for the game too, but I always find having a physical set is much nicer.
I will keep you updated on how my game progresses. Until then, keep on gaming!