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Roman Board Games
by Wally J. Kowalski

Tali & Tropa

Tali, commonly known today as Knucklebones, was perhaps the most popular game played among the Romans. It resembled the game of dice except that sets of marked bones were used, called tali. Tali was inherited from the ancient Greeks, who had originally made the pieces from astragaloi, or the knucklebones of sheep or goats, like the ones pictured here. Notice the tali on the bottom, which is made of brass. The Romans would also make them from silver, gold, ivory, marble, wood, bone, bronze, glass, terracotta, and precious gems.The original shape of the tali, however, was preserved. These shapes would sit on one of four sides when dropped.

The four sides of the tali were inscribed with symbols, perhaps sometimes Roman numerals, and each had a different value of 1, 3, 4, or 6. Four tali were dropped from a moderate height over a gaming table or the ground. There were variations on scoring. Numerical values did not have precedence over a Venus, Vultures, or a Senio. Numerical values for the other possibilities would represent a simple variation. In place of numerical values, the concept of pairs of numbers could take precedence, as it does in modern cards. Other rules could be agreed upon at the start of the game, in much the same way as is done at the beginning of a poker hand.

The scoring presented below is based on simple numerical superiority, except for Venus, Senio, Vultures, and Dogs (lowest of the Vultures). In the case of tying values, poker-like rules prevail, that is, a triple beats a pair, but two pair beat a triple. More advanced players could adapt other poker-like rules as they please.

(1,3,4,6) :Venus -- all four tali with different sides.
(6,6,6,4) : Total = 22
(6,6,6,3) : Total = 21
(6,6,4,4) : Total = 20
(6,6,6,1) : Total = 19 (high)
(6,6,4,3) : Total = 19
(6,6,3,3) : Total = 18
(6,6,4,1) : Total = 17
(6,6,3,1) : Total = 16
(4,4,4,3) : Total = 15
(6,6,1,1) : Total = 14 (high)
(4,4,3,3) : Total = 14
(4,4,4,1) : Total = 13
(4,4,3,1) : Total = 12
(4,3,3,1) : Total = 11
(4,4,1,1) : Total = 10 (high)
(3,3,3,1) : Total = 10
(4,3,1,1) : Total = 9
(3,3,1,1) : Total = 8
(4,1,1,1) : Total = 7
(3,1,1,1) : Total = 6
(6,x,x,x) : Senio -- a single six and anything
(6,6,6,6) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
(4,4,4,4) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
(3,3,3,3) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
(1,1,1,1) : Dogs -- lowest of the Vultures

Surprisingly, only one ambiguity occurs with the above numerical precedents, at the value 14. In this case the highest pair (the sixes) is assumed to have numerical precedence over the other highest pair (of fours).

In a variation played by the Emperor Augustus, anyone throwing the Dogs put 4 coins in the pot, and the first player to throw a Venus would take all.

One could create a simple set of tali playing pieces by blanking the 2's and the 5's on four dice, but then the ones that came up blank would have to be re-dropped. Tetrahedra might be a good modern alternative, but one could also cut up a pair of chopsticks and mark the sides.


One variation on Tali involved throwing the dice into the narrow neck of a glass jar. Players would compete in this game and it clearly involved skill as well as chance. Three dice were tossed, or perhaps four astragaloi, and only the score of those that entered the jar would count. The scoring may have followed that of Tali, as detailed above.


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