Native American Technology and Art

Bowl & Dice Game

The dice game has innumerable variations across North America. This traditional game is called Hubbub in southern New England. The game described in the 1600s includes five or six small dice which are tossed in a wooden bowl or basket. The game is accompanied by sticks or beans for scoring. Dice were usually carved from bone or antler, in some versions plum or peach pits were used. Dice were engraved, burned and polished or painted to distinguish one side from the other when they are tossed.
Image adapted from "Games of the North American Indian", Culin:1975

Try Playing the Bowl and Dice Game right here!

Game image compliments
of Waaban Aki Crafting
The dice game was often played in a large gaming house or arbor made from poles set in the ground and covered with tree boughs. Natives of New England played this game in the 1600s for great stakes. Animal skins and furs, kettles, knives, axes were set out and huge stores of strung wampum were hung from the arbor poles.

Elements of reciprocal exchange is demonstrated in traditional gaming of Native Americans in southern New England. Money in this dice game was gambled away, but was probably won back again, in subsequent games. The dice game provoked great celebration and shouthing… with cheering 'hub hub hub'… hence the name hubbub for the game. Entire villages sometimes wagered against other villages over the two individuals chosen to play the game.

How to play "Wa'lade hama'gan", a Penobscot bowl and dice game:

The object of the game is to acquire as many sticks as possible and then bankrupt your opponent. Play takes place in three phases. In the first phase players try to accumulate as many sticks as possible in a primary pile. In the second phase (known as drifting) players attempt to move as many pieces to a second pile (known as the treasure pile). Sticks in the treasure pile have increased value against sticks in the opponent's pile. The third and final phase of the game occurs when one player has sufficient markers in the second pile to bankrupt the opponent. During the course of play, markers are awarded when a "roll" of five or six of the dice come up as the same color (either brown or white). Players alternate casting the dice or lightly banging the bottom of the bowl. This version of the game requires 6 dice, 56 Narrow Sticks, 4 Flat Sticks, and 1 Crooked Stick (Speck 1976).

Beginning the game (First Phase)

  • At the beginning of play all small counters are placed in a central pile. For each successful roll of the dice a player is awarded counting sticks.
  • When a player rolls a 5 alike then he/she is awarded 3 of the narrow sticks from the central pile and gets to roll again. If a second five alike is thrown the player receives 9 round sticks. If the player throws three consecutive 5 alike rolls then he/she is awarded a flat stick.
  • When a player rolls a 6 alike then one flat stick is awarded and the player gets to roll again. If a second consecutive 6 alike is rolled then the player is awarded two flat sticks. If a third consecutive 6 alike is rolled then the player is awarded three flat sticks.
  • Players take turns casting dice until all of the counters are used up. The last stick to be awarded is the "Crooked stick". This piece has the value of one small counter, and the winner of the crooked stick is awarded two small sticks from the pile of the opponent.

Drifting (Second Phase)

  • When the crooked stick has been won the game enters a new phase called "drifting". Players continue to roll dice as before, only now when a 5 alike is thrown the player moves a stick from the pile he or she has won and places it in a second pile.
  • This second pile is known as the treasure or debt pile and becomes important in the final tally of the game. The goal at this point is to get as many pieces from the first pile to the second pile. For each stick put in the treasure (second) pile, your opponent owes you 4 sticks from their first pile.
  • For two consecutive 5 alike throws the player puts three narrow sticks into the treasure pile. For three consecutive 5 alike throws the player puts 1 flat stick into the treasure pile.
  • For a 6 alike roll the player places a narrow stick into a third pile. This stick is called the "Governor" or the "Chief", and is worth 4 of the opponents second pile sticks or either one flat stick or 16 narrow sticks from their first pile.

Ending the Game: Paying Up (Third Phase)

When one player has a big treasure (second) pile and believes they can bankrupt the opponent the game enters the final phase. When this happens you challenge the opponent to pay up according to the values mentioned above and in the following tables. If the opponent pays up all their markers but is in possession of the crooked stick they get three final throws. If these last throws are either all 5 alike or 6 alike the opponent wins.

Throws, Awards, and Values:

First Phase
Roll First roll Second roll Third roll
5 Alike 3 Narrow sticks 9 Narrow sticks 1 Flat sticks
6 Alike 1 Flat stick 2 Flat sticks 3 Flat sticks

Second Phase (Drifting)
Roll First roll Second roll Third roll
5 Alike 1 Narrow sticks 3 Narrow sticks 1 Governor stick
6 Alike 1 Governor stick 2 Governor sticks 3 Governor sticks

Third Phase (Paying up)
1 Governor stick = 4 of opponent's treasure pile narrow sticks.
1 Governor stick = 1 flat stick or 16 narrow sticks from opponent's first pile.

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