Sometimes it is called knuckle bone games…
Nomadic people make up to 1/3 of the population of Mongolia, which have a unique way of lifestyle. One feature among the nomads is that nothing is wasted. Nomads consume almost every bits of their domestic animals. For example: if a sheep or goat is slaughtered for food, then every bit if it is used. After consuming the meat of a sheep, nomads use knuckle bones (each sheep or goat has 2 ankle bones) from it and play over 100 different games. Among them, most played games are flicking, horse racing and turtle game known among the Mongols as “Alag melkhi”.
The ankle bones are collected and used for traditional games and fortune-telling throughout Central Asia, and games involving the ankle bones may also be referred to by the name of the bones. They may be painted bright colors. Such ankle bones have been used throughout history, and are thought to be the first forms of dice. In English language sources, shagai may be referred to as “ankle bones”, and playing with shagai is sometimes called ankle bone flicking.
Ankle bone flicking game is the most common among the traditional games. It requires 2 or more people to play this game. Intention is to flick and collect as many bones as possible before your opponents do. It looks quite easy when you watch the game but if you play the game with the locals quite a different story, you will easily understand that the game requires calculation, skills and tactics. Flicking games can become quite tense and rivalry between players can mount. Locals believe that the flicking game improves children’s reaction and eyesight.
At the beginning, horse racing game, which uses sheep and goat ankle bones, looks easy. But one you play it with your friends or with the locals, you’ll find that it is not an easy one. More than 2 person can play this game. Intention of this game is that your chosen horse (sheep ankle bone in this case) needs to reach the finishing line before the other horses. This game requires 4 ankle bones and you have to throw them gently so that your horse can ride faster. You can understand that 4 ankle bones can be used as form of dice. You may also need some luck to win this game.
Another game that locals play often is called “Alag melkhii” or the turtle game. This game requires 96 sheep and goat ankle bones, which will be used to erect a turtle. To play this game, people will need a dice. This game is more fun if there are many participants. The intention of the players is that they should collect as more bones as possible before the other opponents. At the end, when game finishes, a person with most ankle bones wins the game.
Mongolians also use these ankle bones to fortune telling. For fortune telling, you would require only 4 ankle bones. There are 4 sides on each bones: horse, sheep, camel and goat. Depending on how your shagai (ankle bones) land, you can predict your fortune. Locals usually prefer of the ankle bones land on the side of horses, but do not appreciate if the ankle bones land on goat side.
There is another kind of game called “Cats game”. A number of “sheep” (or “goats”) are lined up two-by-two. The player then throws another object (often a piece of chain) up into the air and catches it again. In the short time while the object is floating, the task is to pick up one piece with the same hand, but not to disturb the others. Looks easy but hard to accomplish. Mongolians still exchange ankle bones today as tokens of friendship. When you travel in Mongolia, please ask your tour guide to teach these games to you and play with the locals. It is a good way to interact with nomadic people in Mongolia.