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Interview with Lou Zocchi: "The first dice idea I was shown is still a secret"

Jonas (he/him)
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Lou Zocchi at GenCon 2007 (photograph by Alan De Smet)

Lou Zocchi (born 1935) has been active in the gaming scene for close to fifty years. A game designer, publisher, and distributor, Zocchi is probably best known for his dice. He became the first manufacturer of polyhedrals in the US, starting around 1975. In the 1980s, he invented several news shapes, for instance the hundred-sided “Zocchihedron”. To this day, Zocchi is a strong proponent of dice quality, advocating for precision dice (see for instance the videos embedded below the interview).

I had the pleasure to interview Lou Zocchi about Dice, Gamescience, and Everything. Well, not quite everything. Hope you enjoy it!

(A German version of this Interview will be published in issue #107 of Anduin.)

You were one of the first manufacturers to produce ten-sided dice, and a few years later you invented a true d100, the Zocchihedron. Before that, how did you do percentile rolls for systems like Chaosium’s Runequest (BRP)? Did you use d20s?

20-sided dice were imprinted to read 0-9 twice. If you needed a true 20 outcome as well as a D-10 result, half of the digits were inked with black and the other 0-9 digits were inked green. If the die rolled a black number, it was used as is. If it rolled a green number, you would add 10 to its outcome, so a green 3 would be considered a roll of 13.

T.S.R. was the first company to make a ten-sided shape and sell 7 piece dice sets. They were the first to provide a d-20 which read 1-20. While everyone else making dice changed their 0-9 twice twenty-sided dice molds, I made the mistake of putting a + sign on half of the digits on my 20-sided dice.  These were very slow sellers and many gamers didn't want to add 10 to the numbers which came up with the plus sign. After losing a large market share to those who had 1-20 numbered dice, I made a 1-20 shape also.

Who was or is Cliff Polite, and how did the d10 come to be? Were you the first manufacturer of ten-sided dice?

When I saw the T.S.R. 7 piece set had a separate D-10, I wanted to make a D-10. Cliff Polite was a game buff, stationed at Keesler A.F.B. and he worked in their art department. I gave Cliff a T.S.R. D-10, and told him I needed drawings of a 10 sided shape which I could send to my mold maker. To my surprise, Cliff truncated a D-20 into the D-10 shape you see me selling today. If you count each of the diamond shaped faces around the equator of the D-10, you'll discover that there are 10 such diamonds. I was the first manufacturer to supply customers with a ten sided die you could buy separately. The only other way to get a D-10, was to buy the T.S.R. 7 piece set.

When you produced your d3, d5, d14, and other new polyhedrals, what kind of demand did you anticipate?

When I made the 3, 5, 14, 16 and 24-sided dice, I did not expect the customers to buy them quickly because in most cases, there were few uses which required such shapes. I made the first 5 sided die, by boring out the numbers on one of my D-10 molds, and making plugs which could generate 00-90, as well as 1-5 twice, and 00 to 40 twice and 10-50 twice, as well as a set of chess piece faces, which could be used to teach someone how to play chess. There was not much interest in any of these shapes. Later I created the 16-sided die, and found slow sales until someone using a D-16 won a button man contest. Shortly thereafter, the D-16 sold better. 

jasri wrote:
It's possible that Zocchi
misrembers this, and the
d24 contest was run in
Polyhedron #51 (results in
#55). (Did I mention that
RPGGeek's article search
is amazing?)

After I invented the 24-sided die, I gave several to the publishers of KNIGHTS OF THE DINNER TABLE, and I asked them to run a contest which offered free 24-sided dice to the gamers who made the best suggestions for its use. This worked out very well, and Koplow asked me for permission to manufacture and sell copies of it. 

From gallery of jasri
After I invented the true 5-sided die, which is shaped like a Vicks cough drop, D&D players kept telling me there was no need for a 5 sided die. So I asked them to tell me what is done when you use a magic missile?  They replied, you roll 4+1 to get the result.  Then I asked what is the total of 4+1? They said 5. So if you roll a 5 sided die you don't have to add 1. Then they said, "What happens when you roll a one?"  I said, "you reward the player who has never questioned any of your decisions, and you punish the player who argued with every thing you said."  After making the 3 sided die, I got the same argument from D&D players. "There is no need for a 3" they all cried. So I asked them if there are any reasons to roll 4 minus 1. Oh, yes, but I hadn't though about 4-1. In addition to the numbers 1, 2, 3 imprinted on the tips of the die, in the center of every die are the letters R. P. and S.  When I tell them that R stands for rock, most of them reply that P stands for paper and S stands for scissors. Because many live action role playing games use the R.P.S. method to resolve combat, this die is a big help in those games where you find yourself playing against a cheat, who is slow to show his hand.

Zocchi wrote:
Obviously 1 mm is a very small amount, and he wanted me to take 1/15th of a millimeter off of the 14mm thick prototype. "How did you come up with such a strange finding?", I asked.
How did you make sure your polyhedrals like the d5 have a fair distribution of results?

Kevin Cook
United States
Colorado Springs
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Kevin Cook has the worlds largest dice collection which I think is on the computer as DiceCollector.com. He told me that a Doctor of Mathematics who taught at a college in Canada, had built a dice testing machine to see if dime store dice rolled as randomly as casino dice.
His test showed that the dime store die rolled one face 6 times more often than any of the others. Because there is only one dimple on face #1 and 6 dimples on its opposite side, I told him that I suspected that the #6 had come up most often because it was on a side which was lighter than the side with one dimple. He never commented on my remark, so I still don't know if I was right.

Because I didn't know how thick to make my D-5, I sent him 11 prototypes, each of which was 1mm thicker than the next. After several months had passed, he told me I needed to make my die 13.85mm thick in order to assure that it rolled every face an equal number of times.
I phoned him for more details.  Obviously 1 mm is a very small amount, and he wanted me to take 1/15th of a millimeter off of the 14mm thick prototype. "How did you come up with such a strange finding?", I asked. He said, after his machine had rolled the 10mm thick die more than 5,000 times, he plotted its results. Then he rolled the 11mm thick die more than 5,000 times and plotted its result. Then the 12, 13 and 14mm dice were rolled. He repeated this testing on 6mm thick plastic and 12 mm thick plastic to confirm the performance results, which indicated that a die that was 13.85mm thick would roll each of its faces an equal number of times.

I told this story to everyone buying a 5-sided die. One day, while in a hobby shop, I told the store owner to witness the performance of this new unusual shape. I rolled it 10 times on her glass topped show case and was mortified to see that the die stopped on its large triangular faces every time. Later, I realized that glass and metal surfaces have no give back or bounce which is what causes the D-5 to roll upright.
Because wood and plastic surfaces give the D-5 a bounce back, I urge players not to use glass, metal or cardboard surfaces. Because many players use a wooden table covered by a table cloth, I suspect that the table cloth dampens the bounce back.

From gallery of jasri

You’ve produced the d-Total (“seventeen dice in one”). It is based on a new shape of d24 designed simultaneously by Dr. A.F. Simkin and Franck Dutrain. During your career, did you often receive suggestions for new, interesting dice shapes?

The D-total rolls like 18 other dice shapes, 2 of which no one makes.  Who has a d70 or d80?  The D-Total is the second time someone has given me shapes I've never seen before. Franc Dutrain was a young guy who wanted to manufacture dice. The tool and die people told him not to come back until he could pay them $10,000. He scrimped and saved for years to get the money. When he paid them, they build the tool and made 30 copies of the die to prove that the tool worked. Then they told him to come back when he had another $10,000 and they'd make him 10,000 pieces. With only 30 prototypes to sell, he had no way to get out of his problem. He sent a prototype to Kevin Cook, in hopes that Kevin would buy his tool. Kevin told me about it and I asked Dutrain to send me a sample.  The next day, I received a phone call from Dr. Simkin.  He asked me if I would like to see a 24-sided die which could roll 5 different dice shapes. I asked him to send me one. A week later, both dice arrived on the same day, and each was the same shape and size of the other.  When I saw that Dr. Simkin had laid out his 5 numbers in a helter skelter pattern, I asked him to lay out the number results, like the numbers on a wrist watch.
He liked the idea and sent me another prototype with 8 digits, laid out like a wrist watch.  That is when I paid Dutrain to mail his mold to me.

While the design of the d-Total is intriguing, isn’t it a bit of a paradox for a dice manufacturer to sell a die that can replace all the other dice you produce?

Zocchi wrote:
...still a
Although this die does everything a dice set can do, it does several other things no dice set today can do. A number of these dice are sold to players who like the idea of using one die instead of a dice set. Furthermore, when rolling the D-total, your players have no idea which element of information you are reading on that die roll, so they can't argue with you. I'm sure many people are dice collectors and buy the D-Total just because they don't have one, while other gamers buy one to impress those who game with them. 

The D-total is the 3rd dice idea I've been shown.  The 2nd idea I was shown was to make a 0-9 D-10 into a 00-90. 

The first idea I was shown is still a secret. 

What about those dice testing reports which you mentioned in our pre-interview emails?

I sent several of my dice to be tested on the dice testing machine, and I was pleased to learn that my dice provided a performance very close to that of a casino die.
jasri wrote:
Link to the first independent test:
d20 Dice Randomness Test
(Awesome Dice Blog, 2012)

Two independent dice tests have been conducted and reported on the computer. The first test compared a Gamescience D-20 and a Chessex D-20. Both were rolled 10,000 times. Under ideal conditions, each die face should have come up 500 times. The testers decided that faces which came up 33 times over 500 or under 500 would count as a roll of 500. The chessex face #5 came up 488 times, and was the only face to fall within this category.  The gamescience  die had 6 faces that were within 10 of the 500 mark, and 13 faces were within 33 of the 500 mark. Gamescience face #14 came up only 295 times because the #7 on its backside, had a protruding clip mark. I used to think that the protruding clip mark was not important, but I know better now.  I urge everyone who has a protruding clip mark to cut it off with a razor knife. Doing so will make your die roll more randomly.

RPG Item: Dice
Kevin Cook feels this test had several mistakes. Both dice were rolled on a felt topped table, with a felt covered backing board, just like you see in casinos.  If both dice didn't bounce off of the backboard, the numbers rolled were not tallied. Kevin pointed out that most of us don't have a felt topped table or felt covered backing board, to roll our dice on. Because most of us play on a wooden table, or a table clothed wooden table, this test should have been made on those surfaces. Furthermore, only two dice were used in this test. 

What if the Chessex die used for this test, was not typical of all Chessex dice? What if they had used a Gamescience die without a protruding clip mark on face #7? If someone is going to repeat this test, I'd like them to use 3 or 5 dice from each source to make sure that one which is out of tolerance, doesn't screw up the test.  Furthermore, I'd like to see if dice which have all the digits on one side only, inked, and the other faces are without ink, does the weight of the ink cause the plain sides to come up more often?

The second test is "How True Are Your d20s?" This independent test compares Crystal Caste, Chessex, Koplow and Gamescience dice. To illustrate how uniform each die is, they made 6 dice stacks of each companys D-20. If these dice were uniformly made, all the dice in each stack should reach the same height. Only Gamescience dice reached the same height in each of its 6 stacks. They also measured the thickness differences of each die and reported that Chessex dice measured .010, Gamescience dice measured .003, Koplow measured .006 and Crystal Caste measured .022. This puzzles me because they had two additional measurements listed for Crystal Caste. CC opaques measured .006 and CC translucent dice measured .012 differentials.

Zocchi wrote:
I see RPGs and CCGs
as the most striking
changes in our hobby.

You still attend conventions. Do you also offer seminars?


What was the best (happiest or most successful) time Gamescience had in all these decades?

Each time I bring out a new shape, I feel very good. Probably the D-100 in 1986 and being inducted into the Game designing hall of fame in 1987 were my proudest moments. Winning the H.G. Wells award in 1980 for my Basic Fighter and Advanced Fighter Air Combat game and the 1981 Games day award from England for my Star Fleet Battle Manual, getting my The Battle of Britain game published in 1968, publishing Flying Tigers in 1969, and in 1970 the Avalon Hill Luftwaffe: The Game of Aerial Combat Over Germany 1943-45 board game. Luftwaffe remained on the Avalon Hill all time best sellers list for the next 25 years. I've had so many good years in gaming, it's hard to single out just one.

Board Game Publisher: Gamescience

In 2009, you sold Gamescience to Gamestation, but rumor has it you bought it back some time ago. Can you please clarify and tell us some details about this?

Because Gamescience and Gamestation are in litigation at this time, I feel it is unwise to go into details. We are attempting to start back up again, but having trouble finding a molder.

Are the Gamescience dice from the Gamestation period different in any way?

I was unhappy with their lack of quality control.

What is the current status of Gamescience, and what can we expect from you in the future?

We are trying to find a reliable molder.  When we get one, it will probably take more than a year to fill all our back orders.  

Reflecting on the decades of hobby gaming history you’ve seen (and played a part in), what differences between then and now are, in your opinion, the most striking?

When I started in this hobby in 1959, only The Avalon Hill Game Co was publishing serious wargames. Milton Bradly and Parker Brothers offered military titles, which required the players to roll the die and move the indicated numbers of squares. The first to reach the end of the board, won the war. No merit titles is all they put out. I played every Avalon Hill game published until 1968. I was on their play test panel and play tested Bismark, Stalingrad, Afrika corps, Jutland and many others. 
RPG: Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition)

In 1972 I started selling Dungeons & Dragons because I was a friend of Gary Gygax. Fantasy role playing replaced board gaming in popularity until the introduction of Magic: The Gathering. I like board wargames best, and playing miniatures second best. I see roleplaying and card gaming as the most striking changes in our hobby.

When did you first play a role-playing game? What was your reaction at the time? Did you perceive it as a new type of game?

I had been selling D&D for more than 15 years when I was eventually lured into a game. I knew what it was and what was expected by my character. I enjoyed it, but I still liked playing board war games better. By this time there were many others selling role playing games, including myself, so although I knew it was different, my dice sales kept me in close contact with it.

As the designer of some Star Trek gaming material in the early 70s, I assume you are a big fan of the series? Do you also like the newer series and movies?

I do enjoy Star Trek, except for the series where they tried to go back to its beginning, before Kirk.

You spent more than 20 years in the Air Force. How did that shape you as a person, and, possibly also as a game designer?

I frequently used my quite Air Force Duty time to work on my game designs. I was an Air Traffic controller and an Air Traffic Control instructor. While working in the Control tower on Saturdays and Sundays when there was no flying, I took some of my game designs to work with me, to work on.
Board Game Designer: Lou Zocchi

You have been performing shows as a magician and ventriloquist for about sixty-five years now. What’s behind this passion of yours?

When I perform a trick that makes children scream in delight, or fills them with wonder, it is very fulfilling. I can make a crying child stop crying with one of my special tricks. It is just plain fun.
You might be able to watch on your computer, some of what I do if you enter veengle.com Louis zocchi magician. You should find an edited version of my magic show, and maybe a 3:45 video of 10 improbable things I can do with a match box. 

jasri wrote:
Both videos can be found at the Youtube channel for Louis Zocchi
From gallery of jasri
You play a few instruments, and, like with dice, you seem to have a penchant for the extraordinary. Can you tell us more about Zocchi the musician?

I started out playing the ukulele, then the violin, viola, trombone, trumpet, Guitar, Electric Bass, Musical saw, snoot flute, slide whistle and 22 foot long garden hose. I'm not a great musician, but I feel that I am competent. Most of the novelty instruments I play, require almost no skill or practice, which is why I play them. I won the Air Force World Wide talent contest in 1971 in the instrumental solo category by playing EXODUS on an 8 point cross cut carpenters hand saw.

Is there something in your life you regret and really wish you could have done differently?

Yes, and I'm sure we all have those regrets until we make the next regrettable decision.

Which games did you play as a child, and what made you become a game designer and publisher?

I liked to play monopoly and chess. When I couldn't get anyone to publish my game, I did it myself. While preparing to print my 2nd game, a friend who helped me lay it out, told me that if I would use the 3 blank pages to advertise his games, I'd have something else to sell. When his titles appeared in my game, I got letters from other self publishers wanting me to advertise their titles and that is how my distributorship started.

Which is your latest game design? And when did you last play one of your own games?
Board Game: The Battle of Britain

I'm continuously reworking my The Battle of Britain game design, which I enjoy playing more than my other works. However it has been longer than 10 years since I played any of my own game designs. 

Zocchi wrote:
I've had so many good years in gaming, it's hard to single out just one.
What games have you played most recently, and what games do you hope to play next (if any)?

The Avalon Hill Waterloo game  was the last game I played and I'm hoping to play it again because I have an opponent who is as skilled as I and really challenges me. I also like to play Risk with 3 or more people.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Below is the two-part dice videos promised above, from GenCon 2008:

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