This post is part of a four-part series on Mogolian Naadam (Three Manly Sports). Naadam is a festival traditionally held within the first half of July every year in Mongolia. You can read the other sections here: Horse Racing, Wrestling, Archery.
Ankle bones are a popular game to play in Mongolia, and the Mongolian term for ankle bones, shagai (шагай), is used to encompass all dice. Shagai isn’t an official sport of Naadam, but many consider it to be an honorary 4th member, as it is played mostly in the summer months.
Each side of the ankle bone corresponds to a different animal: Sheep, Goat, Cow, and Horse. The different sides are as follows:
There are several different games that you can play with the ankle bones. I will highlight only three that I have encountered.
What I know as traditional shagai is similar to a game of jacks. You take a large handful of bones and toss them in front of you. Your goal is then to flick pieces with the same sides facing upwards into each other. Once you successfully hit a matching ankle bone, you pocket it and flick again. Mess up, and your turn is over. There are also a variety of additional rules that people pile onto the basics: One such is that if all the shagai are showing the same side, everyone tries to collect as many as they can in a fevered free-for-all.
Another game is called the horse race. You line up a long row of shagai in the horse position, and everyone picks one shagai of their own to be a jockey. You have a handful of 4-5 shagai, and you take turns tossing them onto the play area. For every horse piece you get, your jockey moves down the line that many places (If you throw 2 horses, you move two places up the track, 3 moves you 3 places, etc.). The first to reach the finish line is the winner. I’ve only played this game once, and it took an agonizing amount of time to play. We eventually forfeited because it was just too challenging for us to get horses.
There is also the wall game, as I call it. A small wall of shagai is set up across a distance from the players. Each player then takes turns flicking an ankle bone towards the wall in an attempt to send it crumbling down. It’s very similar to how the archery competition pans out. He who collects the most points is the winner.
Living in the city, I don’t see too many people playing with ankle bones. Everyone I’ve visited, however, does have a small set of their own, even if it is just a small pouch containing three or four bones.