Traditional Games in Mongolia

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

What kind of games might you play if you lived in a harsh environment, moving around with your family to care for herds of animals? In this lesson, we meet the Mongolian people and learn about what games they play for fun and for good luck.

Mongolia: Tough People in a Tough Place

Perhaps you've heard of Mongolia or the name Genghis Khan. If so, you know a little of the historical background of Mongolian people who take pride in their nomadic, horse-riding ancestors who broke through the Great Wall of China to defeat the emperor and rule the land for generations. Today, the people of Mongolia, a Central Asian country between Russia and China, still have many tribes living as nomadic people herding horses, sheep, goats, yaks, and camels as well as several settled areas and cities. It takes strong people to live in a place so dry with extremely cold winters.

map

One of the ways the Mongolian nomads pass their time during the coldest parts of the winter is to play games. Old and young alike play games, often together across generations as families live in extended groups of parents, grandparents, siblings, and children in a large tent. Communities consist of up to seven of these family tents and share herding duties and social activities.

Shagai

Gold plated Shagai, the Mongolian term for knucklebones
Knucklebones

One of the most popular games among Mongolians is Shagai, the word for knucklebones. This game uses the four-sided knucklebones of sheep as a form of dice. These bones are cleaned and polished, sometimes painted, before playing with them. Each side represents one of four animals of importance to Mongolians, including the horse, sheep, camel, or goat. There are many different games using these bones.

Alag Malkhii

Alag Malkhii, meaning the multi-colored turtle, is the most popular game using knucklebones. Not only does it help pass time, but playing this game is believed to bring luck to the families who play and fertility to the herds when played to celebrate the new year. The numbers of bones used will either be 81 or 108, both lucky numbers in Buddhist beliefs.

Mongolian Cultural Display
Mongolian Cultural Display

The players pile the bones in the center of the game surface, whether that is a table or even the ground when played outdoors. The bones are painted in five different colors to represent the five elements and placed in the shape of a turtle, an animal of symbolic value to the Mongolians as it represents the shape of the universe. Each player will take turns rolling a die to determine how many bones and which kind the players will collect. As each player collects five different colors, they create their own, smaller turtle. Once all the bones are collected by the players, the one with the most turtles completed wins the game.

Ail ger

Mongolian Children
Mongolian Children

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