How to Play Zilch

Zilch is a dice game that Steve’s family plays. Here is what I remember of the rules (presented in a much more organized fashion than I managed to do during a picnic with friends on Sunday):


You need six dice, a piece of paper, and a pen or pencil.

Object of the game: To have the most points.

How the game goes:

  1. One person acts as the scorekeeper and has the pen and pencil.
  2. To be able to start gathering points, you need to first have a turn that breaks 1000.
  3. One person starts and goes through their turn. (See below.) If they break 1000, the scorekeeper writes their total score on the paper.
  4. Otherwise, they get no points for that turn and play commences clockwise.
  5. When someone passes 10,000 points, the last round begins so that the other players have a chance to try to surpass that person’s score.
  6. The person with the most points wins.

A typical turn:

  1. Pick up all the dice at once. If you “fumble” and miss a dice, one falls out of your hand, etc., then your turn is over. You have “zilched” and get zero points.
  2. Roll the dice all at once. Again, if you fumble and the dice don’t all come out of your hand in a smooth roll, if one falls off the table, if one lands at an angle (like against an object), then you have zilched and your turn is over.
  3. Otherwise, look at your roll and decide what “points” you want to keep.

A brief intermission to explain how points work:

  • 1 = 100 points
  • 5 = 50 points
  • Any triple = number x 100 points
  • The exception is when you have three 1’s = 1000 points
  • Any four of a kind = points scored for a triple x 2
  • Any five of a kind = points scored for 4 of a kind x 2
  • A four of a kind and a pair (333322, for example) = 500 points
  • 3 doubles (221155, for example) = 500 points
  • 2 triples (333222, for example) = 1000 points
  • 123456 = 2000 points

Another brief intermission to give some scoring examples:

  • 222135 = 200 + 100 + 0 + 50 = 350 points
    • You have three 2’s. So the point value is 2 x 100 = 200.
    • 1’s are 100 points.
    • 3’s are worth nothing on their own.
    • 5’s are worth 50 points.
  • 111123 = 2000 + 0 + 0 = 2000 points
    • Four 1’s mean that you have the score for a triple-1 (1000 points) multiplied by 2.
  • 222233 = 400 OR 500 points (hint: take the 500 points!)
    • You can score this two different ways.
      • Four 2’s = 2 x 100 x 2 = 400.
      • Or, since you have a four-of-a-kind with a pair, you can take the 500 points (and keep rolling!)
    • When there are different possibilities for points, you can decide which points you want to take.

Okay, back to a typical turn… back to the beginning…

  1. Pick up all the dice at once without fumbling.
  2. Roll the dice all at once on the table without fumbling.
  3. Decide what “points” you want to keep. Set those dice aside as your score for that roll. If you don’t have any points (you didn’t roll a 1 or 5 and don’t have any of the other possible scoring combinations – for example, you were unlucky enough to roll 223466), you’ve zilched and your turn is over.
  4. At this point, you can decide to continue to roll with the remaining dice, or keep the points you have and end your turn (with points). (Usually one person is the scorekeeper and writes down the points at this time.)
  5. If you decide to keep rolling, then roll the remaining dice and score the points from those dice.
  6. You can keep going as long as you want — but as the number of dice gets less, your chance to “zilch” by not rolling a 1, 5, or other combination gets higher! And once you zilch, you get ZERO points for the entire turn (even if you had points from previous rolls).
  7. If you have been lucky and managed to get points from all 6 die, then you can KEEP rolling until you stop… or until you zilch.

Maybe that was confusing, so let’s have some actual examples of the game being played.

  1. Steve rolls 124456. He has a possible score of 150 from the 1 and 5.
  2. Steve chooses to only keep the 1 (100 points) and rolls the other 5 dice.
  3. On the second roll, Steve gets 44456. From this roll, he has three 4’s (400 points) and a 5 (50 points). He chooses to keep all of those points for a total of 100 + 400 + 50 = 550). The 6 does not count for any points and is “left over.”
  4. Since he needs to break 1000 to get “on the board,” he rolls the last die.
  5. Doh! He rolls a 4, which doesn’t count for any points. Steve has zilched. Next person!
  6. Corrie rolls 155566. 1 = 100 points, three 5’x = 500 points. She keeps the 500 and re-rolls the 166.
  7. Corrie’s second roll gives her a 235. Only the 5 counts for points, so she keeps that (550 total now) and rolls the 2 and 3.
  8. She’s lucky and rolls a 1 and 5 for an additional 100 + 50 points. She now has 550 + 150 = 700 points. Since she “used up” all the dice, she can roll all six again and continue.
  9. She rolls 124446. She has 100 + 400 (from the three 4’s) = 500 points, for a total of 1200 points. Corrie has broken 1000, but since there are only 2 more dice to roll, she decides to end her turn. The scorekeeper writes “1200” under her name. The next person’s turn…

Some more notes:

  • The game is meant to move quickly. Snatch the dice up, roll them, pull out your “scored” dice, re-roll, keep going.
  • Any fumbling, accidentally dropping a dice or holding on to one, or even a slight hesitation can cause someone else to yell “zilch!!” and your turn is over. The group establishes how “cutthroat” they want to play.
  • If you’re playing with really cutthroat people, watch out. It has been known to occur that someone might withhold a die, concealing it in their hand, when passing the dice to the next person. If that person isn’t careful and picks up the (5) dice to roll, they have zilched because they didn’t pick up all 6 dice at once.
  • It’s very admirable when someone has the guts to roll their last die with the higher probability of zilching. The higher their score was previously, the more admirable it is.

That was probably wayyyyy more complicated than it needed to be, so please comment if you have any questions and I’ll try to clarify! There are other variations of the game out there (they mostly vary in terms of scoring); if you don’t like my flavor, you can check them out.

4 thoughts on “How to Play Zilch

  1. Interesting. My family plays basically the same game but it is much more simple and we call it “Bust”. Simpler b/c 1) we only count 1s, 5s, and triples, and 2) b/c play stops at 10,000, so the point of the game is to be the first person to reach *exactly* 10,000.

    The exactly is the tricky part, b/c while you are trying to get only 250 pts, you will inevitably keep getting 1000s, which you can no longer use – and your opponents will slowly creep up and steal your victory from you.

    We must play sometime, so I can learn your way… maybe the next game night.🙂

  2. Doodah – How interesting — that sounds harder to me! When I was reading other people’s versions I realized that most people don’t have 4-2 points… I need to check with Steve and see if I made that rule up…

  3. ok so me and my mom were playing the game and she reached 10,200 points. i took my final turn and got to 10,200 points with one dice left. did i have to roll the final dice or could i say we tied?? she made me roll and i rolled a friggin 4. i wasnt too happy…

  4. Melanie – Doh! I clarified the rules and you aren’t allowed just to tie, so you did have to roll that last dice.

    At least you got close — I played one time where I didn’t even get “on the board” before Steve won.🙂

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