AMS Spring 2023

Engineer 3D Prints an Ancient Form of Dice

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side_by_sideAs children, we don’t usually think about the origins of the games we play. Most of the most common and universal childhood games have been around for centuries – did you know, for example, that hopscotch originated in ancient Rome? I certainly never wondered, as a child on the playground, about where ring-around-the-rosie came from, and I’m now glad I didn’t know. I was disturbed enough as an adult when I found out that I’d been spending my long-ago recess time dancing in a circle and singing (allegedly) about the Black Plague.

Another game with ancient origins is jacks. Most people know it – bounce a ball, pick up as many of the little pointy metal or plastic objects as you can before the ball is caught. It’s a simple game, and one that has been played in some form for about as long as we’ve been keeping historical records. At its very beginning, it was played using the “knucklebones” – actually the ankle bones – of sheep or other hoofed animals. Knucklebones were used for a variety of games, in fact, much the way we use dice today. Known as Shagai to the Mongolians, Astrogaloi to the ancient Greeks, and Tali to the Romans, knucklebones as a game piece were not limited to any particular culture, but were universally used for games of chance.

Mechanical design engineer Mikhail Tikh learned about knucklebones as a form of dice from a Reddit thread, and his interest was piqued. A fan of ancient history, he decided to look into obtaining a set of knucklebones, but discovered that they were pretty elusive; not many people use the ancient form of dice anymore. He didn’t have much luck searching for downloadable files, either.all_bones

“First I tried to find MRI files for sheep to extract the STL out of, but after a several day exhaustive search I did not turn up any scans of sheep, although found lots of humans and dogs,” Tikh told 3DPrint.com. “In the end I had to go the DIY route.”

So he ordered a couple of real sheep knucklebones from an online fur and bone store. Unfortunately, when they arrived, they weren’t exactly clean, so Tikh had to learn to clean and bleach bones himself, which turned out to be a rather lengthy process. Eventually though, after a lot of effort, he had workable models that he could use to 3D print a full set. He has been interested in 3D printing for several years, and built his own printer a little over three years ago.

“I don’t have access to a 3D scanner, although building one is on my to do list,” Tikh told us. “I decided to try photogrammetry.  I used 123D Catch and it was a struggle to get the software to recognize features on the white bones.  Through a lot of trial and error I figured out a procedure that worked: I drilled a small hole and put the capture_allbones on a pin on a lazy-susan and the camera on a small tripod. I then dusted the bones with corn starch to knock down the gloss, and took about 60 photos from all different angles. The trick was photographing against a black background then inverting the photos in Photoshop and adjusting the brightness/contrast to capture all the details.  The resulting mesh was cleaned up using Meshlab and Meshmixer.”

He then uploaded the files to Shapeways, as well as Thingiverse and YouMagine, to share with other fans of history and of board games–and of course he made sure to include a link to some ancient Roman Tali rules. One order consists of four knucklebones, which is the quantity required for a game of dice per Roman rules. Each bone is unique, and can be ordered in a wide variety of colors.

Point_system (1)

“The sintered nylon bones I got from Shapeways weigh almost exactly the same as the real bone and have a very satisfying sound and bounce when playing on wood,” Tikh told 3DPrint.com.  “I printed a set out of ABS with high infill and they work almost as well.”

What do you think of these ancient dice?  Discuss in the 3D Printed Dice forum thread on 3DPB.com.See the video below for a quick demonstration:

 

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