|Player Count (recommended)
I’m going to do something a little unusual today. I’m going to review a game you can probably make for yourself right now if you have a few spare dice laying around. If you’re reading this review I’m willing to bet you’re exactly the kind of cheeky scamp that certainly does. You can buy a copy of this game if you like, but I didn’t fancy doing that to write the review. You’re getting my home-brew version. To play Perudo all you need is five dice per person, and a willingness to roll them. Cups are nice too if you have them.
For reasons that temporarily escape me, I’ve resolved to write reviews of a few classic, mainstream games here and there. I’ve already reviewed Scrabble, and a review of Monopoly is on the horizon. From the sublime to the ridiculous. But here’s the thing that we often forget as hobbyist gamers ever in search of the new hotness – the games of our ancestors were often pretty damn good. We sometimes look down on the pastimes of antiquity, seeing them as impossibility quaint. For a lot of games, particularly board games, that even has the virtue of often being true. There is though a rich variety of games of chance and skill that have retained relevance through the churning anarchy of the slow revolution of centuries.
One of them is Perudo, a game with which there is an associated romantic myth of origin that dates all the way back to the 16th Century. It was apparently taught under duress to Spanish conquistadors by the Incans and then brought to Europe via the treasure fleets that transferred much of the Incan wealth back to Spain. It propagated through South America to the Caribbean to become one of the favourite pastimes of the buccaneers that flocked to the lawless pirate towns of Port Royal and Tortuga. It’s a game of wits and bluffing that’s steeped in piratical tradition. You might know it better as one of its variants – liar’s dice.
I love a good origin tale, regardless of whether its bunkum. There’s little to no evidence of any of this, but it doesn’t stop the tale being an accessibility affordance. Sometimes the resistance people have to playing games is sociological – frivolity is the pastime of callow youth. A good story about a game and the people that play it can be enchanting. Consider the invented tale of Skull and how it was used to settle leadership disputes in biker gangs. Introduce a game like this with a story – with a myth – and you’re already half way to everyone being excited to play. Let us, you and I, play the game of pirates. Let us play Perudo.
It’s an astonishingly simple game, as many such games are. Each player takes possession of five dice – ideally individually coloured but in the end it couldn’t really matter less. They shake them up, ideally in an opaque cup but your hands will serve as a workable substitute. They examine their roll, and then they bid.
Ones are wild in Perudo – they count for anything. You might look at your roll and say ‘I bid five fives’. In this you are not saying ‘I have five fives’. You are saying ‘In the pool of all the dice around this table, there are at least five dice showing a five or a one’. That’s a safe bet to begin with – every player has five dice and the presence of the wilds means that every single die has a one in three chance to show the number you need. You play the percentages in Perudo right up until you start to play the people.
Once a bid is made then momentum moves to the next player. They can raise if they want, and they probably will at least to begin with. To raise they either increase the number of dice, or the number bid on each face. ‘Five fives’ can raise to ‘six fives’ or ‘five sixes’. At any point a player can halve the number of faces by bidding on ‘wilds’, but as soon as someone raises the face value of a wild they instantly also double the number of dice. Raising from ‘five wilds’ means moving to ten of another die face. Eek.
If raising seems a bad idea they can exclaim ‘Dudo’, which means ‘I doubt’. That means they’re calling you out. They think you’re full of it. They think that you have made an incorrect bid. It’s a high-risk strategy – if you were right in your bid they lose one of their dice. If you were wrong, you lose one of your dice. It’s a necessary move sometimes though – if you don’t dudo someone, you might get dudoed yourself.
Or, if they’re feeling really flashy, they might call ‘calza’, which means ‘shoes’. Wait, that can’t be right – shoes? Well, who am I to distrust google translate?
You call out ‘shoes’ and that means ‘I think you are right’. Not – ‘I think there are at least that many dice of that face around the table’ but ‘I think there are exactly that number of that dice around the table’. It’s an incredibly bolshy move to make but if you pull it off you can recover one of your previously expended dice and look very, very smug about it in the process.
And that’s (almost) it. There’s some tomfoolery when someone is left with a single die and is declared ‘Palafico’, which Google Translate tells me means ‘Palavic’ which I can only assume is some irregular verb form of Palavar, as in ‘Ooft, what a palavar’. That’s a frippery on the edge of the game though – an erratic occurrence that serves to give that player a fighting chance to even the odds a bit before they’re thrown back into the raging waters of the game proper. The core of Perudo is to be found in the bidding, and let me tell you – it is glorious.
On the face of it Perudo seems like a simple game of chance. It’s a bit like Texas hold ‘em poker in that respect – you’re playing the odds and everyone can calculate them if they understand the game enough. What Perudo does though is create an incident pit where probability and psychology merge into a pathologically poisonous puzzle. It’s an algebra equation passed through a blender on its way to a roulette wheel. The arithmetic is relatively simple. The calculation though is intensely complex. It’s twisty, because it has to wrap its way around the non-euclidian geography of human deceitfulness. You’ll fail at Perudo if you think of it as a game of numbers. Really, Perudo is a game of navigating the tricky waters of entropic decay and distrust.
To begin with, everyone has five dice. Everyone knows the same percentage of state about the game as everyone else. However, every bid the importance of that percentage changes. If I bid one six you have no idea really about what I have under my cup. I can theoretically satisfy any bid around the table with my own slice of the probability pie. However, bids will soon move beyond that threshold and into uncertain territory where every new bid must cede ever more certainty to the whims of chance. I must cast myself on the mercy of fate, guided only by the bids that other people have made.
If someone is heavily raising towards sixes that suggests they have sixes or wilds. Or, you know, that they just want me to think they have sixes or wilds. Maybe they’re going by the fact I’m heavily favouring sixes myself, assuming my roll will subsidise the sixes they don’t have. Around the table, a third of the dice will have a value that works with a bid…
… except that’s not really what your calculation involves. You may all have the same percentage of known state but the value of that state isn’t shared equally. If someone says ‘Six sixes’ and I have no sixes in my cup that tells me a lot more than the numbers would imply. In a four-player game it says ‘Probabilistically speaking there are probably only five sixes around this table now’. If on the other hand I have five sixes of my own it says ‘We can probably edge this up to eleven, based on the probabilities’. It also says that that the bidder probably has a couple of sixes of their own because people tend to bid when they can predict the outcome on the basis of their own secret knowledge. Of course, none of this is certain and every new roll of the dice can bring unexpected results. If you roll all wilds and bid ‘Five wilds’ I all-but-guarantee a dudo is coming your way. The statistics of the wilds doesn’t shake out the same way as for other numbers. Partially because of the fact they only match one face of the die and partially because the psychological cost of a raised bid becomes ever so much greater.
Through that you filter the traps and tricks people are using to get you to bid beyond the means of the table. I for example frequently like to bid a number I don’t have early on and then swap to whatever the dominant die face for bidding is later. People think ‘Oh, he must have wilds’ and they tend to become over-confident with their own bids as a result. As soon as I think a probability threshold has been passed, I dudo in the knowledge that all the bidding around the table has been skewed by my own.
I mean, it never works because someone always pulls the ripcord before I’m ready but I still like to do it.
The great thing about Perudo though is that it isn’t about your bid. It’s about what your bid forces other people to do. I see people playing Perudo very passively, raising only a single die at a time until someone cracks. Really you need to think of each bid as a cycle. It’s not about what it does to the player after you, it’s about what it does to the player before you. The last thing you want is to have the ticking bomb of a terrifying bid land in your lap. The worst bids are the ones that are plausible but not plausible enough to calza. If you pass them on you’ll be challenged. If you don’t you’ll probably be wrong. You don’t want that bid on your conscience, because you have one of your precious dice on the line.
So instead you bid to the upper end of plausibility, knowing that you’re in reasonably good shape if you’re called on it and that someone else will probably dudo it before it becomes your problem. In Perudo it’s always dangerous to be the player that is involved in a challenge. It’s much better to send challenges down the table to two unrelated players because in that case it doesn’t matter which is right. Your own relative position is improved regardless.
It’s for this reason that one of Perudo’s variants is called liar’s dice. You don’t win Perudo by playing the percentages. You win it by playing with the truth. You win it by making other people play percentages despite the fact you’ve been rigging the deck from the start. You want players doubting each other so that when it comes time to doubt your bid you have a cup full of dice that slant the odds in your favour.
It’s when dice start leaving the game you see that things become especially interesting. That’s when the entropy curve starts to favour some players over others. If I have five dice and the other two players have two and three respectively – I have fully half of the information in the game in my cup and it becomes correspondingly easier for me to dominate the game. So much easier in fact that you’ll find over-confidence rapidly eats away at your ability to actually do so.
The loss of each dice means people play tighter and more carefully, because paradoxically fewer dice actually means more randomness. My one die might be anything. My three dice probably have one match for whatever you’re bidding. As the number of dice in the game dwindle, the opportunities for successful calza calls increases. The game becomes more predictable, and the bids become less ostentatious because the variability of the information loses much of its energy. It’s a slow heat-death of randomness and with every dice that leaves the game the bids get ever more intricate and cunning. It becomes about duelling and misdirection, sending the bids where you know they can’t possibly be met.
And you can have all this with the spare dice you probably have rattling around a box at right this very minute.
There are some problems with Perudo though – with larger player counts it tends to drag on, especially if you are a participant who has been knocked out of play. If you go out early enough there might still be dozens and dozens of bids left to play and Perudo is not great as a spectator sport. It also suffers from some moments where you can be put in a literally unwinnable position through no fault of your own – where the mechanics of some special conditions in the game combine to put you in a position where your loss is guaranteed.
If you’re going head to head with another player, you can’t call calza. That means you either dudo or raise. That leaves you occasionally in a position where the bid is correct but you are forced, even if you believe otherwise, to move into an incorrect state because you don’t have any other choice. It’s not that this is a ‘forced error’, because that would be fine. It’s like someone flips a double-headed coin and says ‘Heads or tails but you can’t pick heads’. There’s a similar thing that occurs when a player is declared Palafico – you can’t calza during that round and it’s normally done when there are sufficiently few dice in place that the call is at its most powerful. It’s galling to know that you can’t calza when you think the bid is correct, and must raise to a bid that may be mathematically impossible. It feels like a mechanical flaw in an otherwise perfectly engineered machine, and its only forgiveable because of the fact it is intermittent.
Perudo is also a game where once you start losing, you tend to keep on losing unless you approach the game from a different angle. That angle is based on deception and the unknowing complicity of everyone else in manipulating the perception of probability. If you can’t get that to line up (perhaps because everyone involved is too canny) each time you lose a dice it makes it more likely you’ll misjudge the table and lose more. If you have one die and everyone else has four or five then your fate is entirely in their hands. In that case your skill doesn’t matter – you’re just going to have to see what everyone else decides and try to interpret something from that.
But still… I’d rather play Perudo than 90% of the games in my collection, and for a game that has its creation date pegged at 1800 in BGG that is quite an accomplishment. Don’t even bother buying it – there’s nothing in the box you can’t improvise from what you likely already have in the house and you’ll look ten times cooler assembling an impromptu Perudo set than you will pulling out yet another anonymous box from your game shelves. That’s the alchemy of fun, turning the every-day and mundane into gaming magic. Give it a go. Treat yourself to a few rounds of Perudo.