The Dreidel Reconstruction Project

Dreidel is an awful game. Every Jewish game designer knows  that they’re doomed, come the 25th of Kislev, to bite our tongues or be branded the enemy of fun — fun that, for some reason, the adults all decline to participate in.

Chanukah has amazing themes. It’s about the fallout from Alexander the Great’s attempt at a world empire. It’s about an ethnic minority fighting both assimilationist social forces within its own society and military forces from without. It’s about a bronze age civilization reaching into its next phase. Also, it’s about a miracle, though the pshat and drash on what that miracle is (and, therefore, what any miracle is) disagree wildly.

We light lights on these dark days for the same reasons so many cultures do: because it’s so dark. We need to see the light of each other to reassure ourselves that the sun will, in fact, come back. To give us an opportunity for joy and hope, even in the winters of our lives, of the life of our people, and of the lives of all peoples as they face the brutality of hegemony.

To celebrate that, we light the candles of the chanukiah, under which we do absolutely no work. We eat candy, we drink tea and coffee and wine, we talk, and we play a dismal little game that, at best, everyone gives up on before one cousin gets all the candy.

Let’s fix Dreidel.

Jewish game designers, let’s get on this!
What if you’re not Jewish? If you’re not confident of your grasp on the halachah and minhagim regarding the chagim and Chanukah in particular, please sit this one out and watch how it goes. If you must participate, please do so in the traditional mode of asking an open question, expecting a question in return, including when the answer looks like a definitive statement.

The game must:

  • Have Dreidl in the name and feature it centrally, if not entirely.
  • Be playable with a reasonable number of dreidels, from one to, I dunno, a dozen or something. The number you might have in your box of Chanukah stuff.
  • Obey all mitzvot and minhagim regarding the chag. I, of course, want to hear your reasoning and drash on this! Particularly the drash. Let’s hear how Antiochus was wowed by this game!
  • Use only items a family is likely to have around for Chanukah: gelt, the already-burning candles/oil lamps, and the drunk adults are all valid components, for instance.
  • Be playable by all children old enough to clumsily spin a dreidel.
  • Be playable by mature kids who can develop strategies, weigh risks, and do other mature, adult-like behaviors.
  • Be playable by adults, who have a much shorter attention span than kids and need to be entertained with systems like deal-making, ribald puns, cost-benefit analysis, and drinking.
  • Be completely open and released explicitly into the Public Domain. You may reserve no rights to any element, including but not limited to the rules, the title of the game, or the design of any components.

Prizes

1st Prize: In retrospect, centuries from now, this will be how everyone has always played Dreidel! It will be an obvious minhag that every child learns.

2nd Prize: In retrospect, centuries from now, this will be how everyone has always played Dreidel, but everyone knows that lots of people play it wrong.

Directions I’d like to see explored

  • Coöperative play.
  • Team play.
  • Incentives for adults and mature kids to help young kids.
  • Ability to drop in and out of the game from turn to turn.

Post your games in the comments here, either by pasting in the whole rule text or with a link to a download site. Share with us your reasoning along the way, of course! This is as much a Jewish cultural discussion as a game design discussion!

Mazal tov!

17 thoughts on “The Dreidel Reconstruction Project”

  1. Do I count as Jewish if it’s my dad’s side and I wasn’t raised religious? This is a serious question.

    Fun Fact: My dad grew up in a Jewish household in the 1920s and never heard of Chanukah until he was an adult.

    1. Chanukah is a pretty minor holiday. It’s gotten bigger as its themes of non-assimilation have come more and more in conflict with the commercial juggernaut of Christmas, so it’s not too surprising that your dad didn’t hear about it until adulthood.

      The reason I care about who’s participating here is because interpretation is a Jewish religious practice stemming from experience of the specific traditions. If this is part of you exploring your Jewish roots, then of course! I, like most contemporary Jews, recognize patrilineage in addition to matrilineage, conversion, etcetera.

      But knowing how the game works is not the same as knowing its position in an active set of traditions, including ones with which you have an ambivalent relationship. So it’s your call. If this is something that matters to you as part of your exploration of your undertended ethnic traditions, you’re welcome!

  2. Cool idea!

    Quick note: There’s no “ch” in “minhag”. It has the same N-H-G root as “driver”, “nahag”. (Nun-hey-gimel = also a dreidel tie-in? Surely there’s a drash in there somewhere!)

  3. I’d like to participate, but drash and peshat are unfamiliar concepts to me (although the more general ideas of questioning and interpretation as part of Judaism are not). I feel very out of my depth.

    1. Pshat is the surface meaning; what you tell a child or a goy. They’re typically simple and kind of jingoistic.

      Drash is the thoughtful, mature meaning; how you talk with grownups who can entertain ideas they might not agree with, imply connections to pieces of information you don’t have, require compromise, or that rely on a knowledge of grownup interpersonal relationships.

      And you are well equipped to have his conversation, of course!

  4. Goodness, you can play just about any game with dreidels that you can play with dice.

    Yahtzee dreidel
    Liar’s dreidel
    Can’t Stop dreidel
    Driedel Hazard (aka Craps)
    Dreidel Pig

    You can even adapt proprietary games, like Roll Through the Ages to use dreidels.

  5. Initial thoughts (won’t have time to do a full game design, but interested in group development anyway)

    – Use chanukiyah as scoreboard, start with a single candle and goal is to make it “last” eight days
    – Riff on the “we played dreidl to pretend to the passing Greek soldiers that we weren’t studying” by involving books as well
    – Beit Hillel v Beit Shammai as to whether you start with 1 and go up to 8 or start with 8 and go down to 1

  6. I wrote one of these last year when the usual whining about Dreidel being a terrible game started up:

    Dridel-to-Go: http://mneme.dreamwidth.org/82883.html

    in DTG, you spin a Dridel three times every time you choose to spin — because 3 is the number corresponding to Gimmel, and of course you always want to roll Gimmel.

    You can choose to spin three as many times as you like because you always want to eat more delicious gelt and latkes — but there’s always a risk of rolling too many Shin and losing everything, because if you eat too much you get a tummy ache.

    Alternatively, you spin three times because when fighting, you must be ready to fight at all times — when the sun is high in the sky, at night, and even when it is near the horizon, not just at a time of your choosing. And the potential element of loss is because no matter how strong you are, even as strong as Judah of Maccabee, you must be wise enough to know when it is best to retreat and bind your wounds, rather than fight on for another day.

    1. Note that obviously, DtG is a straightforward adapation of the traditional Dreydl game that’s designed to contain actual gameplay (rather than a completely new game with radically different elements). The primary features of Dreidl are:

      1. It’s a gambling game.
      2. the meanings of the four letters (great, ok, nothing happens, lose).
      3. It can be played with a single dreydl that’s passed around.

      This all seems to lend itself to a push your luck game, where the primary decision you’re making is how many times to spin the dreydl, given shifting circumstances.

      For a completely different game, how about:

      Each player should take 9 gelt of the same color. If you don’t have 9 distinct gelt for each player, you can mark them by dripping wax onto the foil, marking them distinctly with a knife — or simplify slightly by only having each player have five gelt. Take turns.

      Everyone also takes a napkin and divides it into 9 squares (ie, in thirds, both ways). Put one piece of gelt on each square of your napkin. All other players do the same.

      Terms:
      Your napkin is your base. The center is your spawn point.

      On your turn, you can do one of:
      Move cross-napkin from a corner square to any matching opponent’s corner square (1,1 to an opponent’s 1,1, etc)
      Move any piece of yours on a napkin
      Spawn on your own napkin.

      Whenever you move into an occupied square, spin the dreydl:
      Gimel: eliminate the attacked piece, and your piece must move into the space it occupied.
      Hey: eliminate the attacked piece, and your piece does not move.
      Nun: Push. Nothing happens.
      Shin: The attacking piece is eliminated.

      To spawn, you must either have two pieces on opposite sides of your unoccupied center square, or at least one piece next to your unoccupied center square. If you have two pieces on opposite sides of your unoccpied center square, spawning is automatic (but it does not move). Otherwise (or if you choose), spin the dreydl:
      Gimmel: generate a new piece, and you may move it to an adjacent empty square.
      Hey: Generate a new piece.
      Nun: Nothing happens.
      Shin: The spawning piece is eliminated (parthinogenesis is risky).

      The winner of the game is the first player who occupies all (or two if there are more than 3 players in the game) opposing spawn points.

      Obviously, this game is loosely inspired by Andy Looney’s Martian coasters.

  7. If we want to focus on Chanukah minhag with all these elements, then it seems like a great opportunity for a role-playing game (RPG). Some of the holiday traditions that I really enjoy are being together with family and friends and sharing stories. Whether having short campaigns that last until the menorah’s candles go out each night or long campaigns that span all eight nights, the story of Chanukah has many levels of depth for all types of parties:

    – For a family or a group with young children, a parent/adult is the storyteller and the rest of the family/group play the roles of Jewish people “bullied” by the Greeks who eventually join Judah Maccabee’s revolutionary army.

    – For a family or a group with older children, people can take turns telling the story and the others play the roles above. Because asking questions is also an important aspect of the Jewish culture (and one I like to emphasize), passing the storytelling responsibilities around is a good way to see what the children have learned and challenges them to analyze: “how do you interpret what happens next?” It also allows everyone to participate in setting challenges throughout the game.

    – For a family or a group with just adults, things can be taken even further. A mature audience can start to explore and question different sides of the story by adding roles of Antiochus and his soldiers to the party. This does break the full-group cooperation into teams, but there are always multiple sides to an argument and it broadens the perspectives. Curious parties can even look into “what if” scenarios by altering key events in the story.

    As the story is told and people have to measure the level of success of their choices, guess what we use instead of various dice like D20’s? That’s right, dreidels! One dreidel is the same as a D4 and can be viewed differently (speaking of pshat and drash) depending on the challenge or skill being measured. The traditional dreidel perspective can assign gimel as “critical success,” hey as “success,” nun as “fail,” and shin as “critical fail.” The traditional RPG perspective can assign numbers to the values (1 to 4, -2 to 2 skipping 0, etc.). In order to alter the odds, multiple dreidels may be spun.

    The storyteller can dictate the number of dreidels per spin (which may change per challenge), but it is a perfect chance to bring in the chocolate gelt. All players may begin with a few pieces of gelt and the rest are placed in the center to award to players for doing well in challenges. The gelt currency can be spent as the players see fit. Do they need to negotiate with other players? Are there some supplies they need to purchase for the revolution? Is there a Greek soldier to bribe? If health points are used, then eating the chocolate can even revive health (if the children do not enjoy it all first!). Of course, gelt may also be spent back to the center to receive more dreidels during a challenge spin. For the dreidel perspective, levels of success/fail can cancel each other out or (especially for younger audiences) take the value of the greatest level of success rolled. For the RPG perspective, the sum is accumulated. This can lead to a trade-off question of whether it is worth buying X more dreidels to spin for a chance to earn Y more coins.

    When the campaign reaches its climax, the final dreidel spins come into play. The Jews return to the temple to find the lack of oil and they have to make more. As each day passes, the storyteller spins the dreidel to determine whether or not the lamp remains lit. Here is where the miracle comes in: no matter what the dreidel spin says, the lamp stays lit! With an older group, the spinning may be bypassed and the storytellers just note the miracle as it occurs; we are designing these games to replace adults being slaves to the current game’s lack of control over gameplay after all.

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