Yahtzee has been one of the most popular dice games in the United States since its introduction in the 1950s. The game has its origin in classic dice games that most people now have never heard of, games like Yacht and Generala. Perhaps the game that Yahtzee most resembles is a British game called “Poker Dice”.
Yahtzee is a brand name owned by Milton Bradley, which is, in turn, owned by Hasbro. That’s why you’ll always see the name of the game capitalized, while other dice games, like “craps”, are not capitalized. Proper nouns like Yahtzee are always capitalized.
Five of a Kind
The best possible “hand” in a game of Yahtzee is a five of a kind. The game is played with five dice, and if you get five dice all with the same number showing, then you’ve scored a “Yahtzee”. The name of the game is also the name of the best hand.
The odds of rolling a Yahtzee on your first roll are 1295 to 1, so you won’t see that happen too often–at least not on a single roll.
The game is played over 13 turns for each player. When it’s a player’s turn, she gets to roll five dice. She can keep any number of those dice and re-roll the others. This can be done twice, giving her a total of three rolls. It’s similar to draw poker in this respect, only with an extra round of drawing. The player’s goal is to get certain results which can be added to the scorecard.
Each player has a scorecard that’s divided into an upper section and a lower section. The upper section has six boxes, while the lower section has seven boxes.
The upper section has a box for each of the possible results on a single six-sided die roll. So there’s a box for “1”, a box for “2”, and so on up to the box for “6”.
Scoring in this section is easy. The player gets points equal to the total number of 1’s, 2’s, etc. that she has in her final “hand”. For example, if she has four dice showing a “3”, then she gets 12 points in that box. If she has two dice showing a “6”, then she gets 12 points in that box. She gets to choose one box in which to put her results.
At the end of the game, if the player has 63 or more points in the upper section, she gets a bonus 35 points. The total of 63 corresponds to a three of a kind in each box. Keep in mind, though, that once a box has been filled it, a player isn’t allowed to go back in and change it if she gets a better hand later.
The lower section is more directly related to poker hands. The following possibilities are available in the lower section:
- 3 of a kind
- 4 of a kind
- Full house
- Small straight
- Large straight
These work in a similar manner to the poker hands of the same name. I’ll explain each possible hand below:
3 of a kind is a hand in which at least 3 dice share the same number. The score for this hand is the sum of all the dice. For example, if a player has three 6’s, a 5, and a 4, she would score 27 points for this hand.
4 of a kind is a hand in which at least 4 dice share the same number. The score (again) is the sum of all the dice. For example, if a player has four 6’s and a 5, her score would be 29 points for this hand.
A full house is a three of a kind and a pair, just like in poker. The score for this hand is a flat 25 points.
A small straight consists of four dice in succession; it doesn’t matter what the fifth die is. In poker this would be considered a “straight draw”, but in Yahtzee, it’s worth 30 points. An example of a small straight would be 1-2-3-4-6.
A large straight consists of all five dice in succession. This is worth 40 points. You only have two possible large straights: 1-2-3-4-5 or 2-3-4-5-6.
A Yahtzee, as we discussed earlier, is made up of five cards with the same face showing. A Yahtzee is worth 50 points. Most players don’t get even a single Yahtzee during a game, but if they get multiple Yahtzees, they receive bonus chips. Each of these chips is worth 100 points. The player can only take the bonus if she’s already filled in the corresponding upper section for the face showing. For example, if a player rolls five 3’s, and she hasn’t filled that box in yet, she has to take 15 points in the upper section instead of taking the bonus chip.
Chance is used when a player has a hand that won’t fit into any other category. The score is the sum of the faces on the dice.
It’s important to understand that a hand can sometimes be player in multiple boxes. For example, if you’ve already gotten your 40 points for the large straight, you can use the large straight in the small straight box. It still qualifies for the lower-value score.
If a player thinks it’s to her advantage, she can just take a 0 in a box instead of taking one of the options she has. Also, if she’s already used chance and can’t use her result somewhere else, then she has no choice but to 0 out one of the boxes.
Yahtzee Strategy and Tips
Since Yahtzee is a game of decisions as well as chance, a smart player can use appropriate strategy to improve her chances of winning, especially if her opponents are less sophisticated players. Olaf Vancura, who is best known as a blackjack expert, wrote a book called Advantage Yahtzee which explains the perfect strategy for playing the game. It’s affordable enough, too–you can find copies at Amazon for less than $10.
One of the first strategy tips you should be aware of is the importance of the 35 point bonus in the upper section of the scorecard. Deciding where to place your score each round becomes easier when you keep this in mind.
For example, suppose you’ve rolled three 2’s, a 5, and a 6. You could take a 6 in the appropriate space in the upper section, or you could take a 5 in the appropriate space. But since the potentially higher scores in those boxes is so much higher, you’d probably be more likely to take a total of 6 in the box for the 2’s.
Yahtzees are also important because the score is so high. Any time you have a reasonable shot at a Yahtzee, you should take it. If you get a 2nd Yahtzee during a game, it’s worth 100 points. That will win most games against most opponents by itself.
Don’t be afraid to take a 0 in one of the lower-scoring boxes if you don’t like your hand. The best score you’ll ever get in the 1s section at the top is 4 or 5, so taking a 0 there makes more sense than anywhere else on the scorecard.
Save the chance box for later in the game. If you use it early in the game, you’ll regret it. It’s meant to be used as a consolation prize for when you’re trying to make a difficult hand and fail.
Multiple 1’s and 2’s are better used for the lower section. You get so few points for these in the upper section that you’re usually better off trying to get your full house, three of a kind, or four of a kind filled with one of those.
When dealing with 4’s, 5’s, and 6’s, you’re almost always better off taking the points in the upper section. That’s because those are the critical three numbers for getting your bonus 35 points in the upper section.
When you start getting to the later stages of the game, taking a 0 in the Yahtzee box can make sense. You should try for the Yahtzee early and often, but in the later stages of the game, you need to make sure you’re able to get reasonable totals in the other boxes. Yahtzees are hard to get, and you can’t count on them, especially once you’ve already zeroed out the 1’s and 2’s in the upper section and taken a total in the “Chance” box.
Over the years, Milton Bradley has produced a wide variety of Yahtzee variations in an attempt to goose sales. Some of these are still in print, while others have been out of print for years. In alphabetical order, here are all of the Yahtzee variations I’m aware of:
- Casino Yahtzee – This version of the game was released in 1986. It includes a board game aspect to the game.
- Challenge Yahtzee – This version was released in 1974. It’s meant to move at a faster pace than the traditional version. Players use five common dice, then make decisions based on that initial roll.
- Jackpot Yahtzee – This version was released in 1980 and is designed to look like a slot machine. Instead of numbers, the dice have symbols on them that are similar to the symbols on a slot machine. The game uses racks similar to those used in Connect Four in order to keep up with the scores.
- Power Yahtzee – This is one of the newest versions on the list, having been released in 2007. It features a sixth die, called “the power die”, which acts as a multiplier. It also has a revised scorecard.
- Showdown Yahtzee – This 1991 board game uses the scoring concepts of the original game to make a more traditional board game experience, complete with a board, playing pieces, and movement.
- Triple Yahtzee – This is a 1972 version of the game with a simple variation. You play three games of Yahtzee at the same time. I’ve played this one many times, and it’s a lot of fun.
- Yahtzee Deluxe Poker – This game was originally called “Last Chance”, but it was renamed “Yahtzee Deluxe Poker” in 2005. This is essentially Yahtzee played with playing cards and some betting options.
- Yahtzee Free for All – This is a 2008 variation designed by Richard Borg, who is best-known as the board game designer who created the “Commands & Colors” system used in Memoir ’44. This version uses a couple of boxes and some cards.
- Yahtzee Jr. – This is a simplified version of the original game, meant to be played by younger children. Depending on which version you find for sale, it might feature a licensed character like Mickey Mouse. This game uses symbols instead of numbers.
- Yahtzee Texas Hold’em – This 2005 variant uses colors in addition to numbers. It also uses shared dice, in the same way that Texas hold’em uses shared cards.
- Yahtzee Turbo – This is a 2006 version of the game. As you might guess from the name, it’s meant to be a fast-paced version of the game.
- Word Yahtzee – This 1978 version of the game uses dice with letters on them instead of numbers, and the goal is to spell words with your results.