- Designer: Richard Borg
- Publisher: Milton Bradley, FX Schmid, Ravensburger
- Players: 2 – 6
- Ages: 8 and Up
- Time: 15 Minutes
- Times Played: > 20 (Mostly on the 1997 F.X. Schmid USA Edition)
Bluff: From Self Published, to Milton Bradley, to the 1993 Spiel des Jahres…
Richard Borg first thought of the design for Bluff in 1986. After softball games Borg and his teammates would retire to a bar, where they frequently played Liar’s Poker, a bluffing game using the serial number on dollar bills. Hoping to come up with a game that did not require cash – but that still created the same fun and desire to play and play again – Borg started developing a game he called Doubters Dice. He was working at JCPenney at the time, but he had some game design experience from play testing and working with TSR Hobbies of Dungeons and Dragons fame.
Borg refined the game over a few weeks, and he started showing it to friends and family. It was a big hit. He and his wife, Sandy, decided to self-publish the game under the title Doubters Dice and sell it at the next Gen Con. The Borgs invested significant time – and a large portion of the family savings – in doing so. They rented a booth at Gen Con, but they only managed to sell six copies. Richard Borg told me that the drive back to their home in Springfield, Illinois, was “was very long and very sad,” but “as luck would have it and by the grace of God, one of the sales was to a guy that worked for Milton Bradley, and the rest you can say is history.”
Milton Bradley published the game in 1987 under the title Liar’s Dice. Other than the name change and putting a star symbol on one side of the dice, that version of the game entirely followed Borg’s original design.
The Milton Bradley edition sold quite well, leading to a touching story about what the game meant for the Borg’s: “I still can remember my wife’s phone call when we received our first royalty check from Milton Bradley for Liar’s dice. The night before we had been discussing if we could afford and should buy a couple of kitchen chairs at the JCPenney store that had been returned from the catalogue. Opening the mail the next day, Sandy called me . . . and told me we received the royalty check. I believe I asked her a number of times to repeat the amount of the check, but all she kept saying is ‘we can buy the complete kitchen set, table and all 4 chairs.’”
Milton Bradley discontinued the game a couple of years later, but further success was just around the corner. F.X. Schmid contacted Milton Bradley, but the person in charge wrongly told them that the designer was Richard Berg (the noted war game designer). He in turn stated he did not design the Liar’s Dice game. F.X. Schmid finally managed to get the name of Richard Borg. The publisher released the game under the title Bluff in 1993. The Borgs traveled to Berlin for the awards ceremony, not knowing if the game had won.
In giving Bluff the 1993 SdJ, the jury cited the game’s easy-to-understand rules and quick and fun gameplay. Mr. Borg said he was very excited to win, and he mentioned that he was not at the time familiar with the game revolution occurring in Europe. The game placed fourth in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year.
F.X. Schmid U.S.A. reintroduced the the game to the U.S. market under the name Call My Bluff in 1997. The box did not contain the SdJ logo, although it does say on the back “Award Winning Game in Europe 1993.” As a fun historical fact, the head of F.X. Schmid U.S.A. at the time was Alan Moon, who discussed the release of Call My Bluff in an interview with The Game Cabinet. (Richard Borg would later co-design a couple of games with Moon, and he’s the man who introduced Moon to Days of Wonder, which would publish 2004 SDJ winner Ticket to Ride.)
Ravensburger bought F.X. Schmid and re-released the game with new cover artwork in 2001 using the name “Bluff”. The game is still in print and can be found without much effort or expense today.
As for Richard Borg, he would go on to become one of the most noted game designers of our time. He has dozens of published titles to his name, and he is perhaps best known as the designer of Memoir ‘44 and BattleLore.
[I owe an enormous thanks to Richard Borg for answering my questions about the history of Liar’s Dice and Bluff. Without his participation this entry wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive.]
A Note on Other Games Called Liar’s Dice
I have to confess: the above isn’t the story I expected to tell. According to many internet sources, some games called Liar’s Dice trace their roots to Perudo (sometimes called “Dudo”), a South American game that, according to legend, was created by the Incan empire in the 16th Century.
To my surprise, Liar’s Dice as designed by Richard Borg is not derived from Perudo, at least not directly, and the two games have notable differences. Liar’s Dice (the Borg version) uses a game board and allows for dice re-rolls. Additionally, the betting occurs with regard to all dice around the table, not just what a given player.
Mr. Borg explained the choice behind the board and the re-rolls: “The board was created so it would be easy for all to track the current bet and, because there was a wild side of the die, the board aided players to see just how and where a wild bid fell on the betting board. Re-rolls added excitement and suspense to the game. These two elements allowed more player decisions and kept everyone involved, even with a poor initial roll.”
The Gameplay: Bluffing with Dice
The pictures below are from the 1997 F.S.Schmid USA edition (“Call my Bluff”), since that’s the edition I own.
Bluff can be played with 2-6 players. The game board is set between the players, along with the red dice, which is used to track progress around the game board. Each player takes five yellow dice and a cup.
The goal is to be the player with at least one dice remaining after all of the other players have lost all of their other dice.
All players roll their dice and put them under the cups at the start of the game. The youngest player starts and makes an opening bid. A bid contains two elements: a number from 1-5, and the number of times that number occurs under the cups of all players. Stars count as wilds. For example, a player could say “five threes.” This means that the player is betting that there are at least five instances of the number three (with any stars counting as threes) around the table. The red dice would be placed with a three showing on the fifth space of the game board.
The next player must either raise the bid or challenge. To raise the bid, he must either move the dice to a higher space clockwise around the game board or bid a higher number on the red dice, or both. For example, the player could say “six threes” (a higher space clockwise around the game board) or “five fours” (a higher number on the red dice) or “seven fours” (both). You can also call out stars: in this example, you could say “three stars,” for example.
To resolve a challenge, all players lift the dice cups. Stars are wild and count as whatever number is being bid. A player loses dice for being on the wrong side of the challenge. If the challenger is right, the bidder loses a number of dice equal to the difference between the bid and the actual number of dice. If the bidder is right, the challenger loses a number of dice equal to the difference between the bid and the actual number of dice. If the bidder is exactly right, each player other than the bidder must lose one dice.
After a challenge a new round starts. All players roll their remaining dice and the player who won the challenge in the last round makes the opening bid for the new round.
Players may also re-roll. A player may save one or more of his dice by lifting his cup and putting the chosen dice out for all players to see. He then re-rolls and hides his remaining dice.
The game ends when only one player has dice, and that player wins.
Does it stand the test of time? My thoughts on the game…
I first played Liar’s Poker back in 2002, learning the game from Michael Lewis’s book of the same name. A few years later I discovered that there was a similar dice game – Liar’s Dice – after watching the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I looked up the game online and made a home version, using rules that were similar to those designed by Borg (although I didn’t have a game board). I tried out a few different rule sets I found online. Years later I played the game on a friend’s old version of Perudo. Eventually I traded for the 1997 F.X. Schmid USA Edition. That’s a long-winded way of saying I’ve played several different iterations of Liar’s Dice, both knock offs and the real deal.
Bluff (or, more precisely, Call My Bluff) is my favorite iteration, and I like to pull the game out on occasion. The game board simplifies things, having one side of the dice act as wilds adds a bit of guesswork, and bidding on all of the dice around the table makes the game far more interesting.
The game fills a unique spot in my collection: I don’t have many light, 15-minute games that appeal to such broad demographics. This is a game that fits nicely into many social situations, be it playing with my grandparents during holidays or closing an evening of gaming with friends. There are other games with the bluffing mechanic that I personally prefer — Coup comes to mind, as does Skull — but those games (particularly Coup) can be a bit wonky for non-gamers. I’ve had my mother specifically request “that dice game with the cups.”
I chuckled when Mr. Borg told me the game was inspired during a visit to a bar. Though the game works in many situations, Bluff has always struck me as a pub game, so it is fitting that it was designed for that exact situation. The game is bluffing distilled to its core, and it is the sort of game where the table’s best poker face has a decent shot at winning. I’m terrible at Bluff, but that’s because I tend to approach it as a statistics exercise, which it certainly is not. But win or lose, I’ve had quite a few laughs with this game, and I’ve learned quite a bit about my friends’ skill at deception.
Though I like the game, I know it isn’t for everybody. If you don’t like bluffing or lighter games, this is certainly not the game for you. Nonetheless, with such easy rules and a 15-minute play time, the game is worth trying at least once.
Would Bluff win the SdJ today? My guess is probably not. The game is still the best at what it does, but what it does doesn’t seem to be what more recent juries are looking for. Recent SdJ winners, with the possible exception of Hanabi, are a bit more dressed up. More importantly, recent juries put a high premium on originality, and Bluff doesn’t have that factor on its side, even if Borg’s design is the most innovative and arguably best of the many games calling themselves Liar’s Dice.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Patrick Brennan: 200+ plays. This gets better as the group you play it with gets better and it becomes mostly about the smacktalk. A perfect opener for us. Working out the odds on what the likelihood of a particular call being true or not is just a starting point. What people are betting on really is which number has deviated significantly from average this turn and how far, so if you keep gambling on the average being the right number, you’ll be off. The question each turn is, can I make a claim that will be believed and raised and get me off the hook based on what’s gone round, regardless of the odds. Funnily enough, and knowing this, if someone’s passed me something outrageous, it’s probably more likely to be true. Doesn’t mean I’ll take it, because calling may be low risk, but it could be low risk to escalate as well! Then there’s the whole ducking out and betting on stars to minimise dice loss whilst the crowd hoots and hollers and derides your manhood. But it keeps you in the game at least. We occasionally play a variant that if you claim stars, and you’re called and you lose, it’s instant death, which can be fun. Anyway, 10 years on and the game still gets requested more nights than not.
Larry (several dozen plays): I don’t like bluffing games. I’m very bad at them and they invariably bore me to tears. It’s an interesting question if I suck at them because I dislike the mechanic so much or if I dislike them so much because I suck at them. Either way, I’m not prone to enjoy bluffing games, so it’s hardly a surprise that a game called “Bluff” does very little for me. I tend to approach the game as a probability exercise, instead of a bluffing one, and consequently perform very poorly. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve never won. The only reason I’ve played the game so often is that it used to be a staple in my old games group, as well as being one of the standard group competitions at Gulf Games. I don’t hate it, I just kind of go along for the ride until I inevitably get eliminated. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been subjected to it, which suits me just fine. However, in spite of my apathy for the title, it’s easy to observe how much my opponents tend to like it, so I realize it’s a good game, just not one I have any desire to play.
Nathan Beeler: Liar’s Dice is one of my favorite games of all time. The joy for me is not in the bluffing and acting as much as reading and calculating — activities I enjoy a great deal. It’s never failed to entertain. Not once.
Erik Arneson: What Nathan said. A brilliant game that never fails to provide a memorable, entertaining experience. Once upon a time, I was officially ranked as the fifth-best Liar’s Dice player in the world. At least, that’s how I like to remember it: http://www.boardgamers.org/yearbook06/lidpge.htm
Matt Carlson: I’m not even sure where I was introduced to the game, but I brought it out years ago for the in-laws to replace a poker night. It went over swimmingly. As others have said, it is extremely new player friendly (It’s so easy to grasp the rules and luck can be on your side.) Over the years I have collected several different sets of six-sided dice, with the excuse of using them for this game. I admit to pushing the player limit from time to time, but the excitement of the wins and losses is usually enough to tide over the eliminated opponents. I particularly like the changing nature of the bluffs, as dice are removed the “smart” bids keep getting lower. This moving target helps to keep the excitement high. I like a bit of theme when introducing games to new players, so Liar’s Dice doesn’t come out often but I’m always going to be willing to play.
Joe Huber (18 plays): This may be the game I’ve played most among games I don’t really care for, other than Tic-Tac-Toe (which I do not record my plays of). It’s a fine game – but it emphasizes elements of gaming that I really don’t care for. Unlike Larry, I _have_ won a game of Liar’s Dice – but only when it means that I’m required to play _another_ game of Liar’s Dice. I’ve managed to avoid the game since 2010, at least…
Mary Prasad: Fun filler and family game. I’ve played many times over the years, online and at game conventions mostly – but once in a while I break out my own copy.
Greg Schloesser: A true masterpiece. I have played this one well over 200 times, thank to the game being the default “go-to” game with our Westbank Gamers group in New Orleans. It has been featured as a regular tournament since Gulf Games’ inception and is always popular. The game has proven a big hit in just about every environment. It should never be out of print.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Patrick B., Nathan Beeler, Erik A., Matt C., Eric M., Mary Prasad, Greg Schloesser
- I like it. Chris W.
- Neutral. Larry
- Not for me… Joe H.