Merchant Dice

Players | 2 or more


  • 9 cowry shells
  • A smooth flat playing surface
  • Gambling trinkets for betting ( you can keep track of points instead)

The Basics

Casting – Cowry shells have rounded back side and a flat “face” side. Gather up all 9 cowry shells and toss them onto the playing surface. Count the number that land face-up.

Who Goes First  (the “shooter”) Each player casts the 9 cowry shells. The person with the best cast (the most cowry shells face-up) is the shooter and goes first. Game play continues around the playing surface.

The Game – Each player antes up by placing equivalent trinkets into the pot. All players must agree on the suitability of the tokens placed in the pot. This is a good place in the game for creative period insults, swordfights and other histrionics. Each player plays until they have accumulated all the trinkets they want, they have lost all their trinkets or until they find something more interesting to do.

Styles of Merchant Dice

  • The shooter chooses which style will be played in the round for which they are shooter. Vary the styles or make up a new style to keep the game interesting
    • Lottery Style
      • The shooter calls a particular number from 0 to 9 then casts the dice and hopes to land that many face up. If he doesn’t hit the exact number, everyone else gets to cast and try to hit it. Whoever hits the number wins the entire pot. If no one hits the pot after each player has cast once, everyone antes up again and the pot builds. The same shooter calls another number and play continues until the pot is claimed.
    • Gold (Best Cast Wins)
      • Everybody casts in turn and the highest cast (the most cowry shells face-up) wins the pot
    • Mud (Worst Cast Wins)
      • Everybody casts in turn and the lowest cast (the least cowry shells face-up) wins the pot
    • Gold and Mud
      • Everybody casts in turn. The lowest cast chooses a single trinket from the pot. The highest cast takes the rest of the pot.


Medieval merchants sometimes carried cowry shells, which were highly valued in the early Middle Ages for their use in dye production. At times they were so common that they were used to make change. They were also used to play a very simple gambling game, to pass the time between customers. We have seen historical references mention a casting game, played by casting a handful of cowry shells, and making a count of how many shells landed face up or face down. From this information, Leidrun Leidulfsdottir created these rules as a proposed set of rules for play as a game to experience the Middle Ages. (Researched and developed by Leidrun Leidulfsdottir and shamelessly pirated by Vivien NicUldoon.)

Icon of Merchant Dice Merchant Dice (114.0 KiB)