Once a month in Lake Highlands, dinner is served early, chores accomplished, and some of our families are left to fend for themselves as neighborhood women gather for an evening of fun, conversation and food.

It’s Bunco time, and whether you spell it Bunco or Bunko, this game of dice, luck, prizes and companionship is catching on all over Lake Highlands with new Bunco groups starting up all the time. Popular with busy women, they see the game as a way to keep in touch with friends.

It’s just an excuse to get together with a group of women you don’t get to see on a daily basis,” says Susan Solomon, who has been with a neighborhood Bunco group since it started nearly seven years ago.

“We don’t see each other during the month. I think that this (Bunco) is what has kept us together.”

Julie Alexander, another of the group’s original players, says the women they share an evening with typically aren’t people they see any other time.

“It is almost like a friendship between 16 strangers who are friends,” Alexander says.

When her family moved to England for two years, Solomon was so firmly hooked on the game that she made sure her substitute knew that when she returned, the substitute player was out and Solomon would be reclaiming her rightful spot.

Like many of the women, Alexander sees Bunco as one of the few times she can put aside the responsibilities of family and work for an evening.

“Sometimes people don’t take time for themselves,” Alexander says. “I know for a fact that once a month, I have somewhere to be, and it is just for me. This is my one night out for the month, and I’m going!”

So what exactly is Bunco? For starters, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment – three dice and a score-keeping pad per table, along with one hand bell, and you’re in business. Typically made up of 12 women, with four at each table, total membership varies with each group – and occasionally, couples will play. Each member pays $5 a month for prizes for the winners and losers – and for the Booby prize for the worst loser.

Bunco evenings are held at different members’ homes each month, and the hostess typically is responsible for providing refreshments and prizes.

The game’s object is to reach 21 points, which are earned when the rolled dice match up with the designated number for that round. For example, if the designated number is a three, and a player rolls the dice and gets all threes, the player gets an instant “bunch” and 21 points. More likely, the player will only roll one three or none and earns points accordingly.

Everyone tries to earn their way to the “Head Table” where they want to be simply because it is the head table. The head table also is the keeper of the bell, which is rung when a team at the head table reaches 21 points. Appropriately enough, this neighborhood group doesn’t have just any bell.

“We have a cow bell, and it is loud,” Solomon says.

While game rules vary from group to group, everyone agrees the game is almost ridiculously easy to learn and, frankly, the players make no excuse about its simplicity.

“I used to play in a bridge club, and I stopped simple because it stopped being fun,” Diane Lowy says. “It became too intense. You don’t have that with this game. No skill is involved. It’s a game of chance.”

Which leaves lots of time for socializing and catching up on neighborhood news in a relaxed, stress-free setting. While four people play at each table, the seating arrangements change often, giving everyone a chance to eventually talk to every person in the group.

“You change tables every five minutes or so, and so you are sitting with three different people all the time,” Alexander says.

“It is so easy,” Solomon says. “There is really no talent to it whatsoever. In less than five minutes, you know how to do it. If you can roll dice, you can play.”

Any attempt to add a more competitive edge usually is rebuffed.

“We have had some people in the past who wanted to be more serious about Bunco,” Lowy says. “We just ignored them!”

Even when someone can’t make a meeting and a substitute can’t be found to replace her, they have a contingency to deal with it.

“We do have what we call a dummy,” says Lowy, who adds they really don’t like having to deal with a dummy.

“Someone has to roll for the dummy, so it gets confusing,” Lowy says. “You have to pay attention, and we just don’t want to have to think that much!”

Though hard-working and, for the most part, law-abiding citizens play the Bunco game of today, many players might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t always the case.

To see how this craze really started, you would have to go back to England in the late 1800s when Bunco was known as 8-Dice Cloth. The World Bunco Association (www.worldbunco.com) reports the game was unknown in the United States until it was introduced to San Francisco in 1855 by a crooked gambler during the Gold Rush.

The swindler made some changes to the game’s rules and renamed it Banco as he traveled from the East to West coast with numerous stops at the gold fields. There he found men making easy money willing to squander it on gambling. A few years later, the name was changed again to Bunco (or Bunko) and was played at numerous gambling locations known as Bunco Parlors. Soon, the game developed a reputation as a confidence game and was associated with scams and swindling.

By the end of the century, Bunco had returned to respectability as a family game and was played in many homes. But not for long. During Prohibition and the Roaring ’20s, gambling parlors started popping up throughout the country, and Bunco gambling parlors resurfaced. The most infamous speak-easies and Bunco dice parlors were located in and around Chicago, Ill. And while many present Bunco players may not realize it, there really was a Bunco Squad made up of detectives who raided those Bunco-playing parlors!

Not to worry, though. After Prohibition, this unsavory style of Bunco declined, and not much was heard of the game until the early 1980s. Since then, the game has returned to the neighborhood scene as a popular outlet for social interaction.

And what about the men in these Bunco-playing households? Most say the game is good for their wives, and some even take the opportunity to do a little socializing themselves.

“What’s kind of cool for us guys is when the women are out playing Bunco, we will go out to dinner and see a movie,” Skip Alexander says. “Usually something they wouldn’t want to see.”

Even if a movie isn’t in the plans, though, Alexander tries to stay out of the women’s way.

“When she has Bunco at someone’s house, she leaves,” Skip Alexander says. “When she has Bunco here, I leave.”

Once introduced to Bunco, it’s not unusual to find that many players join more than one group or will substitute for a number of groups – some far outside the confines of Lake Highlands. And while it’s usually an evening of camaraderie, some groups do get very serious about the roll of the dice.

And at some of the more competitive gatherings, it can get downright dangerous. In those cases, when someone gets Bunco, each woman at the table gets a change to grab – or lunge – for the dice and win the points. Battle wounds – scratches from long fingernails – aren’t uncommon.

Alexander says she has heard of such groups but it’s not the case with their group – though she says she does come to win. When the socializing before the game goes on a bit too long for her, Alexander says she takes command.

“I am very competitive with Bunco. I will say: Ladies, get to your tables. Roll the dice. I want to play!”

And while Alexander admits that sometimes the parties may get a bit loud with the laughter, shrieks and loads of conversation as they catch up on a month’s worth of news, she says the game is all good, clean fun. Since most of the women only see each once a month and don’t know each other that well, there isn’t even much gossiping going on.

“We really don’t gossip that much,” says Alexander, laughing. “Gossip is kept to a minimum because you really don’t know who knows who!”