Time to follow up on some unfinished business. Last month, after finding some strange dice at an odds-and-ends store in Chicago, I invited Gameological readers to figure out what the heck they were. The only evidence they had was two pictures of the dice, yet at the end of an afternoon of exciting detective work—everybody at Gameological HQ was excitedly reloading the comment section on the page—we had a solution, or at least as close to a solution as anyone could reasonably expect.
The “W. GERMANY” mark imprinted on one face of each die proved to be a promising early lead. With the very first comment, ItsTheShadsy noticed a tantalizing similarity to dice listed for sale online:
Here’s a clue: they appear to be part of a set of some sort. Someone is selling accompanying alphabet dice on Etsy, though no clue to their identification other than that they come from the same woodworker that adds “W. Germany” to one side of the dice.
Soon thereafter, Aurora Boreanaz added a little more information in a reply:
Those apparently come from Roll-A-Word. But no numbered ones there.
He didn’t know how close he was. Captain Apathy zeroed in with photographic evidence:
Looks like dice from a game called Roll-A-Sum. Based on the title, I’m guessing that it was made by the same people who created Roll-A-Word, like Aurora Boreanaz mentioned quite a while ago. One caveat: I’m not sure exactly how the included instructions actually relate to the dice.
And ItsTheShadsy used this to find another piece of somewhat blurry but still convincing visual confirmation:
Based on this picture, it looks like the full version might’ve had six dice, black and red. But yeah, I think this is the best explanation we’ve got! Mystery solved! Now we must demand a video of the writers playing Roll-A-Sum.
I wanted to meet that last request, so I tried to acquire a copy of the game. But the online store listing that ItsTheShadsy found isn’t functional—it seems to be impossible to order anything from that site—and I haven’t been able to find one for sale anywhere else. But I wanted to at least figure out the rules of Roll-A-Sum, which proved to be another puzzle in itself, as the rule sheet above is cryptic and incomplete.
First things first: What equipment are we working with? I wanted to determine what exactly was on the dice you use to play Roll-A-Sum. It’s clear both from the rules and from the packaged copy of the game that each player plays with three dice. One of these dice has the numbers 6 through 10 plus another face that reads “10-1”—like the dice that launched this mystery. The second die in each set has the digits 4 through 9 on it, as mentioned in the rules. (You can see in the photo that this die is a bit more brightly colored than other dice in the same set, probably to identify it as the “bonus cube.”)
The third die is a little trickier. If you look at the packaged set, you can see that the third die in the set is the lowest-numbered of the three. It definitely has a “2” face and a “3” face. Plus, if you look at the picture with the rule sheet and assume that there’s a full set of red dice there (there could be a dupe in the mix, but I’m guessing there’s not), the low-numbered die also has a “6” on it, which figures—it is a six-sided die, after all. So the low-numbered die is either 1 through 6 or it’s 2 through 7, and I can’t narrow it down any further than that. The art on the packaged game shows a die with a “1” on it in the lower right, but it also seems to show a die with both “3” and “10” on it, which definitely doesn’t exist.
A few commenters, including EffigyPower and HobbesMkII, theorized in the comment threads that Roll-A-Sum is a simple dice version of blackjack, and that guess proved to be on the mark. Here’s how it seems to work—I’m filling in a few blanks here in an effort to construct a ruleset that makes sense, because, again, the rule sheet is awful.
Each player rolls all three of his dice with the aim of getting as close to a total of 21 without going over. If a player has 15 or below, she “hits” by rolling the 4-through-9 die again. (If your score is 15 exactly, you have the option of standing pat.) The “10-1” die can be a value of either 10 or 1, much like an ace can be 11 or 1 in blackjack. The higher-scoring player—or the player who manages not to go over 21—earns the difference between the two scores, plus a 10-point bonus if he rolls 21 exactly. Play continues until players get bored and decide to do something else.
(Because the game is based on blackjack, I wonder if the low-numbered die is in fact 2 through 7, as there’s no “1” card in a deck of playing cards, and the ace is already represented with the “10-1” face on the highest-numbered die. Who knows.)
Anyway, that was a fun mystery, and thanks for jumping in to figure it out! I offered a Gameological logo pin to the first person who could solve the riddle, and while Captain Apathy certainly earned that prize, there were a bunch of other commenters who helped zero in on the answer. So if your commenter name was listed in boldface in this article, email john at gameological dot com with your mailing address to claim your prize. We’re still going to be using the button logo when Gameological is integrated into The A.V. Club next month, so don’t worry, your prize won’t be instantly obsolete.
Let’s do this again sometime, hmm? If you have an obscure game mystery you’d like the Gameological commentariat to solve, email me!