Knucklebones, also known as scatter jacks, snobs, astragalus, tali, dibs, fivestones, jacks, or jackstones, among many other names, is a game of dexterity played with a number of small objects that are thrown up, caught, and manipulated in various manners. It is ancient in origin and is found in various cultures worldwide.

The name ‘knucklebones’ is derived from the Ancient Greek version of the game, which uses the astragalus (a bone in the ankle, or hock) of a sheep. However, different variants of the game from various cultures use other objects, including stones, seashells, seeds, and cubes.

Modern knucklebones consist of six points, or knobs, projecting from a common base and are usually made of metal or plastic. The winner is the first player to successfully complete a prescribed series of throws, which, though similar, differ widely in detail. The simplest throw consists in either tossing up one stone, the jack, or bouncing a ball and picking up one or more stones or knucklebones from the table while it is in the air. This continues until all five stones or knucklebones have been picked up. Another throw consists of tossing up first one stone, then two, then three, and so on and catching them on the back of the hand. Different throws have received distinctive names, such as ‘riding the elephant,’ ‘peas in the pod,’ ‘horses in the stabl,’ and ‘frogs in the well.’

Knucklebones is of ancient indeterminate origin and has probably been independently invented several times. It is found throughout various cultures worldwide. The talus bones of hooved animals (also known as astragali) are found in archaeological excavations related to the period starting from 5000 BCE much more frequently than other bones. Astragalus, being almost symmetric, has only four sides on which it may rest and is an early example of the game of chance. Knucklebones are believed to be an early precursor of dice. In contrast to dice, the astragalus is not entirely symmetric, with the broad side having a chance ~0.38 and the other side having a chance ~0.12. However, variations of the game can also be played with stones, seashells, or seeds.

Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, in a written fragment of one of his works, ascribed the invention of knucklebones to the mythical figure Palamedes, who taught it to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones. Ancient Greek geographer Pausanius in his ‘Description of Greece’ tells of a temple of Fortune in Corinth in which Palamedes made an offering of his newly invented game. Children’s games upon Mount Ida, gave him Eros for a companion and golden dibs with which to play. He even condescended to sometimes join in the game (Apollonius). It is significant, however, that both ancient Greek historian Herodotus and philosopher Plato ascribe a foreign origin to the game. Plato, in ‘Phaedrus,’ names the Egyptian god Thoth as its inventor, while Herodotus relates that the Lydians (a civilization in what is now Turkey), during a period of famine in the days of King Atys, originated this game and indeed almost all other games, with the exception of draughts.

The modern game may use a rubber ball, and the knucklebones (jacks), typically a set of ten, are made of metal or plastic. There are variants of how the players decide who goes first: it is usually through ‘flipping’ (the set of jacks is placed in cupped hands, flipped to the back of the hands, and then back to cupped hands again; the player who keeps the most from falling goes first), but may be via ip dip, or eeny, meeny, miny, moe, or a variant thereof. To set up the game, the jacks are scattered loosely into the play area. The players in turn bounce the ball off the ground, pick up jacks, and then catch the ball before it bounces for a second time.

The number of jacks to be picked up is pre-ordained and sequential; at first one must be picked up (‘onesies’), next two (‘twosies’), and so on, depending on the total number of jacks included. The number may not divide evenly, and there may be jacks left over. If the player chooses to pick up the leftover jacks first, one variation is to announce this by saying ‘horse before carriage’ or ‘queens before kings.’ The playing area should be decided between the players since there is no official game rule regarding that.

The winning player is the one to pick up the largest number of jacks, and the game can be made more challenging by playing with fifteen or twenty jacks (two sets). Regardless of the total number of jacks in play, the player who gets to the highest game wins. Game one is usually single bounce (onesies through tensies); game two is chosen by whoever ‘graduates’ from game one first, and so on. Some options for subsequent games are ‘double bounces,’ ‘pigs in the pen,’ ‘over the fence,’ ‘eggs in the basket’ (or ‘cherries in the basket’), ‘flying Dutchman,’ ‘around the world,’ etc. Some games, such as ‘Jack be nimble,’ are short games which are not played in the onesies-to-tensies format.

Knucklebones in Central Asian cultures use the astragalus of sheep or goat or the calcaneus of wolves. A variation, played by Israeli school-age children, is known as kugelach or chamesh avanim. Instead of jacks and a rubber ball, five die-sized metal cubes are used. The game cube is tossed in the air rather than bounced. In the Middle East, e.g., in Turkey and Iran, there is a similar game called ‘ye qol do qol.’

In China, the game is called ‘pick up pebbles.’ It is played with around seven pebbles or cloth bags filled with sand or rice. The player arranges the pebbles evenly first. They throw one pebble into the air and quickly grab a pebble on the table before catching the falling pebble. If the player touches more than one pebble on the table, they forfeit their turn. In Korea it is called gonggi. The first four levels increases the number of pebbles collected per throw, while in the last level, the players catch the pebbles on the backs of their hand. In Japan, the game is called otedama and originated from China during the Nara Period. It uses small bags of azuki beans called ojami.

In India, particularly in Tamilnadu, the game is called anju kal (‘five stones’). It is played with 5–7 stones. It is played between two or more players in turn. This is mostly played by girls in their leisure time from ancient times. The game is played in five rounds. Generally for first four rounds four stones are thrown on the floor.

In Polynesia, the game is called by various names including kōruru, ruru, kai makamaka, ti kai and tutukai among the Māori; kimokimo among Hawaiians; timo or timo timo among Tahitians; lafo litupa among Samoans; and lavo among Fijians. It was very common among the natives of the Pacific Islands and were documented by early European explorers. It was played by people of all ages and traditionally includes a meaningless rhythmic chant sung by the players. Like in the Philippine version, the game uses only one hand for catching the thrown stones and has multiple stages ramping up in difficulty and mechanics. The names, mechanics, and number of stages varies depending on ethnic group.

There were two methods of playing in ancient Europe. The first, and probably the primitive method, consisted in tossing up and catching the bones on the back of the hand, very much as the game is played today. In ancient Rome, it was called tali: a painting excavated from Pompeii, currently housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, depicts the goddesses Latona, Niobe, Phoebe, Aglaia and Hileaera, with the last two being engaged in playing a game of knucklebones. According to an epigram of Asclepiodotus, astragali were given as prizes to schoolchildren. This simple form of the game was generally only played by women and children, and was called penta litha or five-stones. There were several varieties of this game besides the usual toss and catch; one being called tropa, or hole-game, the object of which was to toss the bones into a hole in the earth. Another was the simple game of odd or even.

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