How Yahtzee Works

By: Julia Layton & Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
Yahtzee is a remarkably simple game. It includes just five dice, a cup and score pad. Public Domain

Would you risk it all for a Yahtzee? If you've ever played this fun dice game, you know that it's as much about strategy as it is about chance. The idea of shooting dice might conjure images of street corners or casinos, but this enduring game, which is marketed for players ages 8 and older, owes is origins to a Canadian yacht-owning couple.

In the 1950s, the couple entertained seafaring friends with their "yacht game," which they sold to toy maker Edwin S. Lowe. On April 19, 1956, Lowe trademarked the game as Yahtzee. Initially, it did not prove to be as popular with the public as it had been with yacht guests. But that didn't stop Lowe. He put his mid-century marketing skills to work and began hosting Yahtzee parties, a strategy that worked well enough that more than 60 years later, 100 million people around the world play the game [sources: Yahtzee Online, Science News, WMW].


Lowe eventually sold Yahtzee to Milton Bradley in the 1970s, and now Yahtzee is currently owned by Hasbro. Popular Mechanics listed it as the most popular game of 1956 – it was officially launched by Lowe in 1956 – and Hasbro claims it still sells 50 million Yahtzee games each year.

It's been rereleased in many editions since 1956, including an electronic one-player version, and it's easy to find many sites to play Yahtzee online. Nevertheless, low-tech, dice-rolling Yahtzee board game is still popular, at least among adults. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, 16.7 percent of adults in America played board games, a slight drop from the 17.7 percent reported in 2003. [source: Census 2012, Census].

While board games aren't as trendy as barbecuing, which is enjoyed by 34.7 percent of Americans, they beat out crossword puzzles (13.2 percent) and sudoku (11.6). Yahtzee could thank its simplicity and similarity to 5-card draw poker for some of its enduring popularity; 20.3 percent of Americans reported playing cards in 2010.

Technically speaking, Yahtzee is more of a dice game than a board game, but it's in the same aisle of the store. It's astonishingly old school for how much play it gets these days: Open the box and you'll find five dice, a cup, some little plastic discs and a paper score pad. In a nutshell, the point is to roll an assortment of combinations, each of which carries a different number of points. In the end, the player with the highest score wins.

There's a bit more to it, but that's the gist. Read on to learn the rules of Yahtzee, how to play, and most importantly, how to win.

Yahtzee Rules

Yahtzee may be a game of chance, but there's a fair amount of strategy involved, too. Public Domain

We'll begin with some Yahtzee basics: What's the goal and how do you get there? You need at least two players for a game of Yahtzee, unless you're going with the electronic version, and the total number of players is limitless in theory. But waiting for more than a few opponents to roll the dice can become tedious, so large groups may want to break into teams or have multiple games going at the same time.

The Yahtzee goal is pretty straightforward: You're trying for 12 different combinations of the five dice, and you get a certain number of points for each combination you roll. Each combination has a slot on the score card, and the goal is to fill each slot with the maximum number of points available for that combination. The player with the highest end score wins.


The 12 rolls and their corresponding point totals are:

  • Ones: The best roll is five 1's. You get one point for each 1.
  • Twos: The best roll is five 2's. You get two points for each 2.
  • Threes: The best roll is five 3's. You get three points for each 3.
  • Fours: The best roll is five 4's. You get four points for each 4.
  • Fives: The best roll is five 5's. You get five points for each 5.
  • Sixes: The best roll is five 6's. You get six points for each 6.
  • Three of a kind: Add up face values of all five dice.
  • Four of a kind: Add up face values of all five dice.
  • Full house: Three of any number along with two of any number will get you 25 points.
  • Small straight: Any four consecutive numbers gets you 30 points.
  • Large straight: Any five consecutive numbers gets you 40 points.
  • Yahtzee (five of a kind): Any five of a kind gets you 50 points.

You have three rolls on each turn to get the combination you want, and you can keep as many dice from each roll as you want. This is where the similarity to draw poker comes in. If on one turn, you roll a 2, three 3's and a 6 on the first roll, you might decide to keep the 3's and roll the other three dice again. If on that second roll you get, say, a 3 and a 5, you'll keep the 3. On the third roll, you're aiming for one more 3 so you can get the maximum number of points for the combination, which is 15 (or, of course, a 50-point Yahtzee). If you roll a 2 on that last roll, you'll enter a "12" in the threes slot; or, if you would rather score for your four of kind, you could tally up the sum of the dice.

There's also a "Chance" slot on the score card. Let's say you decided to keep the 2 and the 6 from that first roll and go for your large straight, because you already got your 3's and your three of a kind on a previous turn. And let's say you roll three 3's on your second and third rolls. That means you're left with no useful combination. In that case, you'll fill in your chance slot. The point total for chance is the total of all dice.

Those are the basic rules of Yahtzee, but there's more to it. If you're running out of time and you can't score for the boxes you have left, or if you don't want to use up a potentially high-scoring box with a measly roll, you can enter a zero in any slot. You'll have to decide when to sacrifice a box, or when to hold out and go big. This is where strategy comes in.

How to Win at Yahtzee

The roll of the dice is all up to chance, but winning Yahtzee doesn't have to be. There is some strategy you can apply to the game.

There are two main strategic angles: Get the highest number of points available and get enough points in the upper level to score a bonus.


The score card is divided into two sections. The upper level consists of the single-number slots, ones through sixes. There's a 35-point bonus if the total of all points in that level is 63 or greater, which is something to keep in mind when deciding which slot to fill with a roll that applies in more than one place. For instance, if you roll three 2's and two 6's, you might automatically apply that to your full house (25 points) instead of your sixes (12 points). But, if 12 points will get you to the 63-point mark in the upper section, the 35-point bonus is even better than the 25-point full house.

There's also the more obvious, overarching strategy of filling up the most valuable slots early so if you end up having to take any zeroes at the end of the game, you're out fewer points. This basically means that if, at the beginning of the game, you roll three 5's, a 6 and a 2, put 23 in the three of a kind box instead of 15 in the fives box.

One more strategy tip: Go for the Yahtzee! Remember, that means five of a kind. Your first Yahtzee is worth 50 points, and any additional Yahtzee is worth 100. You can win a game on that second Yahtzee alone. So by all means, if you roll five 6's and each slot is filled except for sixes, ignore the open slot and call it a Yahtzee.

Originally Published: Mar 23, 2010

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More Great Links

  • Hasbro. "Yahtzee Instructions." (April 2019)
  • Patterson, Ivars. Science News. "Solving Yahtzee." March 13, 2003. (April 2019).
  • U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2004-2005. Arts, Entertainment and Recreation. (April 2019)
  • U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. Arts, Entertainment and Recreation. (April 2019)
  • Wolfram Math World. "Yahtzee." (April 2019)
  • Yahtzee Online. "Yahtzee History."(April 2019)