By Clare Leschin-Hoar, Globe Correspondent, 3/7/2004
It's Bunco night in Franklin and the chatter is in full swing -- births, deaths,
work, relationships, family. You can barely hear the rattle and thunk of dice
hitting the tables over bursts of laughteNearly a dozen women have invaded Priscilla
Mingus's home for the evening to play a simple dice game with origins dating
back to 18th-century England.
In its most recent variation, Bunco has become a trendy game among women in the suburbs.
Long on luck, short on strategy, the game typically calls for 12 players who vie for the most Buncos -- the right combination of dice rolls -- to win the night's $30 pot. It can be found in living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens throughout the western suburbs, from Franklin to Ashland to Northborough.
Sitting at Mingus's dining-room table on a recent Thursday, Karen Anderson threw three threes, earning herself a Bunco -- when all three dice land on the same number.
"I got it!" she shouted.
Someone at the head table rang a bell. Half of the group members got up and proceeded to change tables and partners for the next round -- freshening drinks and conversation along the way.
Cyndi Davis is credited with starting this particular Bunco group. Four months after moving to the area from Atlanta, where the game is extremely popular, Davis was looking for a way to meet and connect with other women.
She asked a few neighbors and quickly had gathered a group of 12 women, all committed to playing regularly.
"[The first time] they all showed up at my house, and what really cracked me up is half of them didn't even know each other," Davis said. "We're a really tight group now."
Medway resident Cindy McLaughlin said there were a few groups in her town that played Bunco monthly, but they were full and had no room for another regular player. Rather than playing infrequently as a substitute, McLaughlin started a new Bunco group about three years ago as part of the Medway Newcomers and Friends social club.
"I'm hearing a lot about it," McLaughlin said, "and a lot of people who wanted to play in our group are now starting their own groups."
The revival of a game that's more than 100 years old came as no surprise to Phil Orbanes, president of Winning Moves Games in Danvers and a former head of research and development for Parker Brothers.
"Throughout history, games have bubbled up through the public domain and burst on the scene," he said. "I think Bunco is in the midst of bubbling up right now."
Leslie Crouch, founder of the California-based World Bunco Association, said at last count there were roughly 750,000 women playing the game nationwide.
"Bunco has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two years," said Crouch, whose grandmother played the game in the 1930s.
It's the social aspect of the game that's the draw for most, and unlike bridge or poker, it's not a game of strategy.
It does, however, require a commitment of a dozen regular players and a contribution of $5 or $10 each (depending on the group), which gets distributed as prizes.
"That's the appeal of it. The reason there's a commitment is that it requires 12 women, and you really have to be there or it screws up the game," said Pamela McIntyre, 50, who is a member of the Franklin group.
"If it was just like a women's night out it's easy not to go," she said. "But because people are depending on you, you do it."
While each group can make up its own awards, nearly all offer prizes for the most Buncos, the most wins, and the most losses for the evening. The night's "big winner" would typically take home $30 to $40 at most.
Players say the game also allows people to share other interests -- and sometimes just plain whimsy -- as part of their gatherings.
Tracy Billig of Sudbury said her group combines a book club with a Bunco group, while McLaughlin's clique uses a theme, such as a pajama night or Yankee swap at Christmas.
Kendra Owen of Northborough said that in her group, the player with the most losses gets a pair of fuzzy dice to hang from their rearview mirror until next month's game.
Bunco's attraction has even extended into fund-raising.
The Friends of the Ashland Public Library held a "Bunco Bash" on Jan. 30 and earned approximately $1,500 in one evening. Paying $20 in advance and $25 at the door, 68 women showed up to play, nearly 20 of whom had never played before.
"My plan was to do it once a year, but so many people came that had never played before, that we're planning to do it again after football season," said Patti Karam, a member of the Friends who organized the evening.
According to Orbanes, Bunco originated in England and was known as 8-Dice Cloth. By the late 1800s, it had emerged in San Francisco during the gold rush.
"Back then, it was more of a gambling game . . . a confidence game, more for scams," Orbanes said. "During the Roaring '20s, Bunco parlors began to pop up around the country where people could gamble illegally."
According to the World Bunco Association, the game, after being popular in many cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, went into decline after Prohibition. It resurfaced again in the 1980s.
Orbanes surmised that one of the reasons it has become so popular for women has to do with the nature of the game.
"If you were going to compare poker with Bunco -- men like the ability to take risks, to bluff or be aggressive in the betting," he said. "Bunco doesn't rely on those factors. It's throwing the dice and seeing what happens."
While the pieces to play Bunco are simple to assemble -- three sets of three dice, a bell, and score sheets, Winning Moves Games released a boxed version of the game last year, which quickly became their best-selling product.
"We disproportionately sold more Bunco games in Massachusetts than any other state," Orbanes said.
Crouch said that a lot of women in the armed forces have been ordering boxed sets of the game from military bases around the world.
John Ackerman, owner of Compleat Gamester in Waltham, said he didn't sell the boxed version of the game until after a flurry of calls around Christmas.
"We didn't have it at Christmas and had a lot of calls for it, but didn't know it existed," Ackerman said. "People were hunting for it, and that's our first indication that there's a good game out there."
Ultimately, Orbanes said, Bunco's appeal is in its simplicity. "Bunco allows you to relax when you play. It's a light source of fun and entertainment, and we all need that -- to relax and not stretch our brains so hard."
(c) Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.