What is Shagai?

"Shagai" is the Mongol word for anklebone. The Shagai of sheep are most often collected and used for games and such. Shagai of other herd animals are sometimes collected as well but the larger ones are not well suited for games. After you cook and eat the meat off the leg bone, take the Shagai and clean it. It is not uncommon to paint them bright colors.

How do you read it?

When rolled like dice, Shagai will typically land on one of four sides named:


On a rare occasion, uneven ground will allow a Shagai to land on a fifth side referred to as cow.

Friendship custom

It is customary that a man would carry four Shagai in a pouch with him. When he would make a new friend, they would exchange one Shagai from their pouches to symbolize the bond.

Fortune telling

Shagai is also used in fortune telling. Four Shagai are rolled and depending on which sides they land on, a person will have a question answered. The sides with the convex humps are considered lucky to roll, with Horse being more lucky than Sheep, while the sides with the concave indents, goat and camel, are considered unlucky to roll. All four landing on the four different sides is considered very lucky.


Shagai "Marbles":

Many games are played by kids of all ages using Shagai. The most common of which involves large collections of Shagai rolled at once playable by two or too many players. 50 Shagai is good. The idea is to get all the Shagai into your possession.

When it is your turn, you first roll all the Shagai in play. You do this by cupping your palms and piling all the Shagai on them (and your forearms too if necessary, so keep your elbos together) and gently tossing them all down. All of them should remain still the way how they fell. Should any Shagai be piled upon another, another player should take a single Shagai from the outer edge and throw it at the pile to break it up. The rule is to shoot one Shagai into another that landed on the same side. If you hit the target, without disturbing any other, one of those two Shagai becomes your "possession". Pick up either one with your other hand and add it to your pile. If you accidentally use the same hand you shot with, you lose your turn and do not collect the Shagai you just hit. You then continue shooting until you miss. If you miss the target, it becomes the next player's turn to roll and shoot. The turns go clockwise. All terrain features are part of the game, so you can bounce a Shagai off another surface (including your own forearm) to make a difficult shot.

The Shagai game becomes tricky when there are less than 5 left. If all the Shagai pieces land on the same side, all the players try to catch as many Shagai as possible, and then donate the same amount of Shagai pieces to the player who caught the most. The same rule applies to when there are 3 or more Shagai. If you have 4 Shagai landed on 4 different sides it is called "4 difficult" and all the players try to grab this throw as well. When it comes down to 2 pieces, the game becomes a little stretched out. On your turn, you must through the same sides on the pair of Shagai in order to shoot. If you hit the target, collect 2 Shagai from each player and roll the collected Shagai again and resume the same game pace.

When a player is reduced to 0 Shagai and expected to give Shagai to another player, they are out of the game. However, should at any time that a player is expected to give their Shagai to another player, and they have at least one Shagai but less than the amount that should be given, then they (with the fewer Shagai) instead receive that number of Shagai from each player and it becomes their turn. (i.e.- there are two pieces in play and another player just successfully shot, but you have only one Shagai remaining, he gives you one piece and it is now your turn)

Any time there is a tie, such as four Shagai all land on one side and two players each grab two, it is resolved by a Mongol version of Rock, Paper, Scissors known as "Khuruudakh". (To finger) Each player makes a fist with their right hand and they extend one finger each at the same time. It can be any of the five fingers. Thumb beats Index finger, Index beats Middle finger, Middle beats Ring finger, Ring beats Pinky, and Pinky beats Thumb. Any matching or nonadjacent fingers are a tie and done again. This is repeated until one player has won three times. The person who wins the Khuruudakh tie breaker now goes, collecting any Shagai from other players as the rules dictate.

When it becomes a player's turn out of the normal clockwise order, (ie- from grabbing the most Shagai when they all land on the same side) then the turns continue clockwise from that player.

Whoever gathered the most Shagai or all the Shagai pieces wins.

Horse Race:

Setup: 4 Shagai to be used as dice, 1 Shagai for each player (minimun 2, no max) and many Shagai for the race track (as long as you want, should be at least 10, can play with 50 to 100 for a long game) The Shagai for the track are all lined up and placed with the horse side up. If the track is very long but you have limited space, have the track turn at right angles every 20 or so pieces so it follows a squared off S pattern. Each player chooses their piece and places it, horse side up, next to the first Shagai of the track, all side by side. It can be on either side of the track.

Turns: Each player, on their turn, rolls the four Shagai "dice" and advances their horse piece one Shagai for each horse rolled. If the player rolls no horses, then they do not move, but if they roll three horses, then they move three spaces. When the player's horse reaches the last position on the track, it must come back along the other side.

The first player whose piece returns to the first position wins.

Who else uses Shagai?

Shagai games are also played by Tibetans, though the rules tend to differ from the games played by Mongols. There also have been acheological digs of Celtic burials in Anatolia where the deceased was buried with collections of Shagai.

Shagai are available here:

© 2001, by Luigi Kapaj, in the SCA: Gülügjab Tangghudai (Puppy)
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