Think While You Have Fun!: Yahtzee

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Since writing an overview of poker for the uninitiated, I have noticed how commonplace it is to find someone who has not played the traditional board games that populated my youth. But I think everyone is familiar with Yahtzee.

Origins and Comparisons

The official game began as an activity aboard a Canadian couple’s yacht in 1954 (dubbed “the yacht game” and later amended to Yahtzee). They soon asked their friend Edwin Lowe (a toy enterpriser) to make some sets of the game that they could use as gifts. Lowe agreed, in exchange for the rights to the game. By 1956, Yahtzee was being marketed as a thinking-man’s dice game.

With such a simple concept, aren't you a little frustrated you didn't think of it first?

Yahtzee bears many resemblances to “Generala” and “Yacht,” dice games from different areas of the world. A consistently popular game for families, Yahtzee was owned by Lowe until Milton Bradley bought his company. Currently, Hasbro owns the game, and estimates 50 million sets sold each year.

So Many Dice

Ironically for me and my recent article, the concept of Yahtzee came from a type of “dice poker” game, and consists of five dice and a scorecard. Players attempt to roll a three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, full house, straight, or a yahtzee (all five dice are the same amount) in order to score higher. The poker-themed combinations are recorded on the lower part of the scorecard, while the higher portion scores you on the sum of the dice. Sorry, no bluffing. That’s called Liar’s Dice.

And this is a wholesome game; there's no room for liars.

The best part of Yahtzee for mathematicians is the probabilities and score possibilities that come from the five dice, three-roll setup. The maximum score is 375, but if the players are using Yahtzee bonuses it can be as high as 1575 points. The lowest theoretical score is 5, but that would require some special strategies of the player.

Since every turn in Yahtzee is three rolls, the probability of a yahtzee (five of a kind) in one turn is 1 in 22 attempts. When thinking about specific yahtzees (like five 2’s), that extrapolates to 1 in 75.

My History with Yahtzee

As a small child, I had no idea such a game existed. I called it the Mickey game, because my family’s set was a Disney collector’s set with Mickey Mouse in his sorcerer getup all over it. In fact, the dice had Mickey in the sorcerer hat instead of 5’s. I didn’t really know the rules until later.

Math was never, and shall never, be my strong suit. But I do remember learning my multiplication tables on the dice from a Yahtzee set. First we would play a fun game, then my father would ask what 5 times 5 was. I initially answered, “It’s a yahtzee. I win!” But I got better.

Even ol' Spud Head seems to know the value of Yahtzee.

It was later still that I applied my mad Yahtzee skills to a casino table. Yep, that family-friendly game taught me the initial concepts of poker, as well as how to calculate the probabilities of craps. Essentially, craps is just Yahtzee with an unnecessarily complicated betting system.

Value of the Game

With all the substandard board games out there today (“Twilight Scene-It” anybody?), I still take comfort in two particular classics: Scrabble and Yahtzee. One teaches vocabulary and spelling, while the other is an entire class on statistical math.

Yahtzee is a game that kids will find fun because of the dice, but as they get older it will become more fun because they are thinking, and Lowe originally marketed Yahtzee as the “Fun Game that Makes Thinking Fun!”

Maybe Lowe should have played more Scrabble. Yahtzee sets go for $10 to $20 depending on the vender and the version. Look for my personal favorite, Elvis Yahtzee, and the elegant Super Mario Yahtzee.

Want some more about classic games? Check out these articles:

“Ain’t” Is Not a Word: A Scrabble Guide For The Lazy

Like Capture The Flag With Bombs: A Stratego Retrospective

Computers Must Be Stopped: A Short Chess Retrospective

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