Liar's Dice is clearly a member of the Perudo/Dudo family of dice betting games common to South America. Curiously though it was not directly derived from these games. Richard Borg, the designer of Liar's Dice, tells me that he had not heard of the public domain game but rather based his design on Dollar Poker. For those not familiar with this, it's a bluffing game where each player has their own dollar bill and the players make claims as to the occurrences of a single number on all of the serial numbers on the bills. Say five 3's or seven 4's. I'd always suspected that this was a derivation of Perudo so it's interesting to speculate that the game has come "full circle" so to speak.
In Liar's Dice (also known as Bluff or Call My Bluff), each player is given five dice. These are regular six-sided dice except that the "1" has been replaced by a star which acts as a "wild card". All players simultaneously roll their dice but keep the results hidden from the other players. One player will then make some claim about all of the dice rolled. For example, he may claim that there were, in total, at least seven 4's rolled. (This number will include all "natural" 4's as well as any stars.) The next player, in clockwise order around the table, has a choice - she may either call the bluff or raise the bid. Raising the bid is straightforward, you can either bid a higher number (e.g. seven 5's) or increase the number claimed (e.g. nine 3's). If instead she calls, then all players reveal their dice and if the bid was correct, she'll lose dice. However, if the call was incorrect then the bidder will lose dice. The number of dice lost is equal to the difference between the actual number rolled and the number claimed. So if Al calls Bob's bid of nine 3's and there are only seven 3's (including any stars) then Bob will lose two of his dice. However if there were actually twelve 3's then Al would lose three dice. If the bid was exactly equal to the actual number rolled then everyone except the bidder loses one die each.
Once a bid has been called (and dice lost) all players then pick up their remaining dice, reroll and a new round begins. If a player has lost all his dice he's out of the game and you continue until only one player remains. There are also a couple of extra wrinkles thrown in—you can make a bid for a certain number of stars and the bidding track indicates how many you must bid to increase a previous bid. More significant is that you can reveal some of your hidden dice in order to reroll the rest. You do this after you've made a bid, normally one you're not terribly confident in. (For example, I may make a bid of six 2's even though I'm not sure there are this many. So, I then show the two 2's I already rolled and reroll my other dice, hoping I roll some more 2's.)
At first glance the game appears to be entirely luck based but this is not the case. Similar to Poker, the game comes into it's own due to the psychology of the players involved. Figuring out when a player is bluffing is key to the game and avoiding such "tells" will improve your results greatly. What I find especially interesting is that you must be careful even when you've rolled a great "hand". Whereas in Poker, if I'm dealt a royal flush, I need only concern myself with how much I'm going to win. In Liar's Dice even if I roll five stars it's not a guarantee that I won't lose dice that round. (Unlikely, but never a sure thing.)
The "show and re-roll" option also has a greater impact on the game than one might suspect. Not because of it's direct affect on the game but on what it tells you about the person bidding. Often a player declining to re-roll tells you as much as when she reveals some of her dice. Players will quickly recognize what constitutes an "average" bid. Generally speaking one third of the remaining dice can be expected to roll either any specific number or a wild card. So if there are eighteen dice left, bidding six of anything is "average". (Note that if you bid stars though the average will only be one out of six.) This leads to much quick calculating on the fly...
"Joe bid eight 3's and there are only twenty dice left. Since you'd only expect there to be seven 3's, he's probably got at least two 3's himself. He still has four dice left though, so why didn't he show those two and re-roll the rest? Hmmm, maybe he's actually got three 3's or maybe even four? I've only got one 3 myself but if the other players have an average number of 3's the bid should be right on. So, I probably can't call Joe's bid but is it a greater risk to raise? If I get called on nine 3's and Joe's lying I could lose lots of dice! What to do!?"
It's this psychology that gives the game its lasting appeal. I've played many dice rolling games and enjoy a great many of them. Rules-wise this is not much better than any of them except this all important aspect and it's why the game returns to the table time and again. While it may not be one of the greatest games ever, it is one that I expect I'll be playing the rest of my life. I should make one note though and that's that we play with a slightly modified "exact bid" rule. As stated above, on an called bid that turns out to be exact, everyone but the bidder loses a single die. We played this way a great many times and had a lot of fun with it. (Most of the fun being in denigrating the player that called the bid forcing you to innocently lose a die.) However, we found that far too often you'd lose two or three of your dice even though you never made a "mistake" in the game. In short, the result was more driven by luck than we liked. So we changed the rule such that only the caller lost a single die on an exact bid and we've found that the game is far more enjoyable. I'd be hard pressed to play any other way from now on.
The biggest curiosity with this Endless Games version is the decision to limit it to four players, all other versions that I've seen have included dice and cups for up to six. I suspect that this this is merely a cost saving decision but I wonder if it was the right one? I certainly think that the game plays well with four players (and is even an excellent three player game) but I know many players that strongly prefer the game with five or six. The good news (in a way) is that the board was clearly designed for six players as there are spots to store 30 dice as well as well as a bidding track that goes to 20 (as in all other boards). So, you could purchase two copies if you wanted to play with more than four (although this does negate the original cost savings doesn't it?).
Now for the (ultra) nit-picky. How does this version compare with the others component-wise? The dice are larger than the ones in Bluff (the FX Schmid version of the game) and the stars replace the 1 instead of the 6. Other than colour (these are white) they're identical to the Milton Bradley dice. The cups are made of thick, flexible plastic. While I think they'll stand up to the abuse of gameplay, they're flimsier and lack the ridges that the Milton Bradley cups have. The lack of ridges may be a good thing though as they made a heck of a racket. (Personally, I think the cups in Bluff are the best for no other reason than they're great fun to spin once you're knocked out of the game.) The board in all three versions is somewhat loud and garish, I think I prefer the Milton Bradley version but this is largely a matter of taste. One problem I see with the Endless Games version is that the "lost dice" area is a line of 30 spaces running around the middle of the board. (Other versions have two 3x5 areas to keep the dice.) I find it much harder to determine how many dice are left in the game when they're organized in a line (particularly since you only get 20 dice and there's space for 30). Since it's pretty important to know how many dice remain, this is a not insignificant issue.
Still and all, these considerations are pretty moot if you've only got access to one version. The good news is that no matter your preferences Liar's Dice is a quality game, simple but not simplistic and I think every gamer should have a copy.
- Greg Aleknevicus