The Shagai

ShagaiShagai are the astragalus or anklebone of a sheep or goat, and are used throughout Asia and elsewhere both as divination tools and for children’s games.

Now that you have your very own set of shagai (or maybe more than you had before), your world opens up to many other, more traditional games you can play with them. Surprisingly, Ulus: Legends of the Nomads is not the first game to be played with these ancient knucklebone dice, and it is very unlikely to be the last.

Shagai, under many names, have been played with across much of the world and for thousands of years. In cultures that keep herds, whether of sheep, goats, horses, or other animals, these bones make for very convenient and available dice. Kids and adults alike have been coming up with fun ways to use these bone dice since their ancient beginnings. Here we’ve collected some of these simple but highly enjoyable games for you to try out, but by no means is this a comprehensive list. Some better-known games, such as the multi-colored turtle, simply require far more shagai than we could stuff in the box.

As you go through and play these games, keep a few things in mind. First, these are essentially ‘folk games’. There is no High Council of Shagai Activities providing official rulesets or patch notes, so for every game presented here, there is probably an alternate version. Second, if you don’t like the rules of a particular game, by all means change them! The High Council isn’t coming for you, do what you and your friends think will be the most fun. Maybe you don’t like rolling for points, so you come up with a rule that’s more directly skill based, for example. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, the real goal is always to have fun. Not only can you alter games to your tastes, you can come up with new games or activities whenever and however you like.

So, finally, here they are:

 

Horse race

Need: 4 shagai as dice, ~15 or more as track, 1 per player

Players: 2+

Rules: Set up a ‘track’ of shagai in a straight line, horse side up, and the players’ shagai along it at the start. Players take turns rolling the four dice shagai. For every horse rolled, that player may move their shagai one space along the track. When a player reaches the end, they must come back around the other side. The first player to come back to the starting line wins.

In one variation, players move not by rolling shagai, but by flicking their own ‘horses’.

 

Marbles

Need: all of your shagai

Players: 2+

Rules: To set up, hold all of your shagai in your hands and drop them on the ground. The first player (traditionally the youngest) picks one, and then flicks it at another shagai that landed with the same side facing up (horse to horse, sheep to sheep, etc.). If they hit, the player may collect one of them, adding it to their own personal pile, and continue. A player’s turn ends when they miss, or when they touch a different-facing shagai with a shot or their hand. It then becomes the next players turn. Note that in some variants, each player resets the remaining shagai pile, but this isn’t absolute. The winner is the player who has the most bones in their own pile when the main pile is depleted.

 

Cat’s game

Need: an odd number of shagai, ~9

Players: 1+

Rules: Set out pairs of shagai with the sheep side facing up. Toss another shagai (or some other object) into the air, and before it lands, try to pick up a single shagai with your throwing hand without disturbing any of the others.

 

Open catch

Need: 10+ shagai

Players: 1-2+

Rules: The first player holds all of the shagai in one hand, and then throws them up. As they come down, the player tries to catch them on the back of the same hand. If they catch any, the player then throws the caught shagai back into the air and tries to catch them again in their fist. The player then collects these shagai as points, and it goes to the next player’s turn. The winner is the player who has collected the most shagai when the pool runs out.

 

The four shagai

Need: 4 shagai per player

Players: 2+

Rules: Players take turns tossing shagai like dice, and get points depending on how they land (see below). Other players may try to grab those shagai, and if they get all four, they also get that amount of points. The winner is the player who achieves a certain score determined before the start of the game, or who leads in points by a predetermined margin.

  • One of each side: 8 points
  • Four of the same side: 4 points
  • Two pairs: 2 points

 

Four animals

Need: Many shagai

Players: 2+, more is better

Rules: Place all but one of the shagai into four equal groups (herds), each with the same side (or animal) showing. Players take turns rolling the remaining shagai. On their turn, players take one animal matching the side shown by the rolled shagai, or put one back if there are none of that animal remaining in the herd. Once all four herds are empty, the winner is the player with the most animals collected.

 

Tossing three shagai

Need: 3 shagai per player

Players: 2+

Rules: Players take turns tossing three shagai like dice. All three on the same side scores 2 points, while two on the same side scores 1 point. The winner is the player who first reaches a predetermined score.

 

Twelve years

Need: 2 shagai, or 2 per player

Players: 2+

Rules: Each player takes a turn tossing the two shagai like dice, and counts a point for each horse. This goes in twelve rounds, mirroring the cycle of twelve years in the traditional calendar. The winner is either the first player to reach 12 points, or whoever has the most points at the end of the last round.

 

–Graham Pannier

Back to Top