Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What the Mongols Did for Fun: Playing with Shagai

By Qadanchin Bayar

Mongols are a very resourceful group of people. The barren landscape and extreme weather conditions in which they live make agriculture impossible, thus forcing them to find sources of food in cattle, game, fish, and other foodstuff obtained by trade.

It is the combination of the abundance of sheep and horses, the harsh weather, the gregarious nature of the Mongols and their thrifty use of their resources, that fostered the development of activities like horse races and the different variations of “Shagai” or games with anklebones.

A Shagai is a small, moving bone located in the “knee” articulation of the back legs of certain mammals (the tarsus), especially those animals with cloven hooves, and whose back legs bend the opposite way of the front legs. This can be seen in dogs, cats, horses, sheep and cows.

Top: Goat side. Bottom: Camel side.

These bones were also known as “Tali” and “Astragalus” in Rome and Greece, and were the precursors of dice, given their somewhat regular shape and four distinctly shaped sides. A theory worth investigating would be that early pastoral cultures with good access to goats and sheep would have used these bones as dice before they achieved a degree of tool skills that allowed them to carve more regular dice out of other materials.

Mongols use Shagai to play different games all through the year, and especially during winter, when the temperatures force most of them indoors. The hardier persons like to play “Ice Shagai”, a game that can trace its roots to the times of Chinggis Khaan, an ardent player himself.1

To play Ice Shagai, the participants set two “goal post” stones on a large frozen surface, most of the times on a wide river. Between these stones, they then set five Shagai in a line. The players place themselves 80 meters away from the Shagai and throw a ball made out of shaped hide, with the objective of hitting an anklebone and making the ball slide further between the marker stones. This game is incredibly challenging, not only in terms of skills, but also in endurance. It takes a very hardy Mongol to play on the ice at winter temperatures of minus 30°degrees Celsius!2

Luckily, there are plenty of other games that can be played with Shagai, that don’t require being outdoors. They can vary in terms of complexity and duration. However, at the time this was written, they cannot be documented within the SCA period. Since we don’t know the Mongolian name of each of these games in their native language, I will call three of them the “Horse race”, the “Mongolian Jacks” and the “Anklebone shooting game”. Due to space limits, I will only describe the horse-race game and the Mongolian Jacks, and will briefly describe the anklebone shooting game.

The horse-race can be played by two or more players, with a “racetrack” made of a line of at least ten bones. The longer the track, the longer the game will last. Each player puts one bone on its “horse” side (see above picture) besides the beginning of the racetrack line. After deciding who goes first, the players will take turns throwing an anklebone as the dice, and when it lands on the “horse” side, they will move their bone on the starting position one step further along the racetrack (measured by bone size). The player whose “horse” reaches the end of the bone racetrack wins.3

Mongolian Jacks are played a bit like modern Jacks, but without a rubber ball. A given number of bones (the more bones, the longer and more difficult the game) are thrown on a hard surface. One player immediately has to pick up all the bones that have fallen on the “horse” side from the pile, without touching any other bones. If he does, the turn goes to the next player, who gathers the remaining bones and throws them again, to repeat the process. The player with more “horses” wins. An interesting variation of this game is using a small square piece of chainmail as a ball, throwing it upwards and picking the bones with the other hand. If either the player touches other bones that are not “horses”, the bones fall from the hand, or are picked with the other hand, the player loses the turn.4

Top: Sheep side. Bottom: Horse side.

Lastly, the anklebone shooting game in which, after throwing several bones on a hard surface, a player has to identify pairs of bones that have landed on the same side (sheep-sheep, horse-horse, goat-goat, etc.) and flicks one of the pair of bones to try to hit the other bone of the same pair (like playing marbles), but without touching other bones or bones fallen on different sides. The rules of this game are more extensive and make the game increasingly more difficult for the winner as it progresses.5

As we can see, there is no shortage of game possibilities to be played with these humble bones. They can be dyed or marked to establish a “target” bone; they can be thrown down on a slanted surface to try to hit any of the bones below, or be used as imaginary cattle to play betting games... the possibilities are endless.

Shagai are easy to obtain from sheep, they don’t require specialized skills to prepare, and by their nature, are free. These factors make the Shagai very popular and abundant among the Mongols, who love to get together to play, listen to music and chat at any given occasion.

How to get your own Shagai

Let’s face it. Urban dwellers don’t have too many sheep roaming around, and the chances to get back lamb legs that haven’t been cut through the knee joint aren’t that great. However, if there is a “Halal” meat-shop in your neighborhood (where meat comes from certified sources and is handled according to certain health/religious practices), you have good chances of finding complete lamb legs, or asking the butcher to sell you only the section you want.

Another point to consider is how squeamish you are by handling raw meat and bone, or if you are vegetarian. In this case, you are better off finding a store that sells either plastic replicas of anklebones (also called knucklebones) or making them out of sculpturing clay. It is advisable also to practice safety precautions when you manipulate the raw meat and cut open the legs with a sharp knife.

In my case, I stumbled on a few difficulties that make for a great learning experience. I got a pair of front legs and proceeded to boil them. Needless to say, I will be eating lamb for quite a bit...
After much hacking and whacking, I discovered that the front knee is made of several small bones, none of which looks like those in the pictures above. I then decided to try with the section close to the hooves, without success. Baffled with this, and thinking that my lamb was genetically altered, I searched the web for clearer instructions. I found confusing references to knuckles and ankles, but nowhere was it mentioned that the shagai, tali or astragalus is located in the back legs.

My inspiration came when I searched for the word “astragalus” in the dictionary, and it mentioned that it formed part of the “tarsus”. The middle joint bones of the front legs (or arms) are called “carpus”, from which we get “carpal tunnel syndrome”, whereas the back joint bones (or foot bones) are called “tarsus”. Eureka! Enough with the anatomy lessons.

I bought my back legs of lamb, this time buying only the joint section, and cut them open without boiling them first. I found the Shagai in between the long spur of the joint, and the lower leg bone. It was easier to extract it without boiling the section first, because the tendons are softer and the bones can be separated easier.

Once you obtain the Shagai, it should be boiled in water for 30 minutes to make the gristle become easier to clean off. If you wish, you can then dye the bone using fabric dye, or mark it with a Dremel or a cutting tool.

Happy playing!

Notes and references

1. The Secret History of Mongols, translated by Francis Woodman Cleaves, Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard University Press, 1982, Cambridge, Mass

2. Mongolia Today – Online Magazine, Issue No. 5,

3. In conversation of May 24, 2002 with Gülügjab Tangghudai of the Silver Horde, Province of Ostgardr, in the East Kingdom (m.k.a. Luigi Kapaj).

4. In conversation of May 24, 2002 with Gülügjab Tangghudai of the Silver Horde, at Ostgardr, in the East Kingdom (m.k.a. Luigi Kapaj).

5. From the web-pages of Daniel Andre Roy

Useful links

· Eachna's Celtic Knucklebones Page, for methods to clean and play with knucklebones. 

· Roman Board Games, for the type of games Romans and Greeks used to play with knucklebones. 

· MacGregor Historic Games – Dice & Dicing Games, for plastic replicas of knucklebones. 

· The Silver Horde, for Mongolian culture within the SCA. 

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