Grabbing the Anklebones | Mongolia

Name in Original Language

Шагай шүүрэх

Area Where Played



During their long history of nomadic experience, Mongolians have created many entertaining games and toys in accordance their livelihoods, which has been successfully passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Shagai is one of the most popular games played among Mongolians, and is played by people of all ages. In literal terms, the game is called the game of “small pieces with respectful names,” and the gold and silver shagai are the “respectful names” often referred to in many riddles and word puzzles. Many archeological findings in Mongolia have indicated the use animal bones, including sheep anklebones, for sacred rituals and funerals that are held in accordance to the rich cultural traditions of nomads, who breed livestock.

Historical records have indicated that Mongolians have been playing up to 200 different games using shagai or animal anklebones. In accordance with tradition, Mongolians separate and clean the anklebone when they finished eating the shank bones of animals, and toss the anklebone for good luck before adding it to their family collection of anklebones. If an anklebone lands in the horse position, the household members would cherish it, for it symbolizes a sign of good luck- their herd number will increase thus expanding their household wealth. Each nomadic household used to have their own collection of anklebones. The anklebone collections are called asset, herd or wealth etc. depending on the location of the household.

Detailed Description

Anklebones are kept in felt or suede bags, and hang from Ger wall heads – a lath edge of Ger top lattice wall or placed between bed head and Ger avdar – a wooden trunk box which is used as store keeping items. Most households keep two shagai collections in two separate bags- one for the shagai ‘snatching’ game and the other for playing other games with anklebones. Some households decorate their felt shagai bags by looping it with a red clothes to hang the bag from the gher wooden plank wall head.

Mongolian shagai games do not require dedicated space or conditions to play, therefore, it is commonly played in households. Players must start by taking up a comfortable sitting position, at the northern part of the traditional Ger (traditional Mongolian dwelling). The person in the north-most end starts the game (Mongolians traditionally believe that the direction North symbolizes the beginning) and players take turns playing in a close-wise direction.

Traditional Mongolian shagai games have significant educational value. The game is an part of Mongolian cultural heritage, and provides an opportunity for children and youths to learn about different objects and processes, about nature and the environment, and their intrinsic relations and dependencies. During the game, kids learn to play in teams, and realize the importance of leadership, patience, inquisitiveness, attentiveness etc. Each game of shagai game has its own rules and procedures. These rules and procedures have numerous advantages for helping kids to learn self-control, attain concentration, control one’s emotions, allocate resources wisely, and enhance kinesthetic learning.

During talks held with elderly representatives from almost all aimags or provinces, the elders have a rising concern that Mongolian families are now reluctant to collect anklebones, and there is an absense of shagai games during family hours as oppose to their childhood.

Grabbing the ankle bones citation from the poem of J. Banzragch

Cutting the felt like the cushion
Making it thicker with many layers
Fixing it as a stage
Praising it as an augury
Spreading ankle bones on it
Sitting comfortably next to it
Talking about the reason
Finding the meaning
Teaching the methods
Showing the grabbing
Showed the bullet
Made by cutting from the armor
Prepared by fixing to make it fly
Had them make trainings
By catching the shot bullet
Protecting the muscled hero
Threw the armor and bullet up
Moving fast the hands on the stage
Grasped the ankle bones and raises the hands
Quickly holds the bullet on time.


The more people that play the game, the more competitive it becomes. First, the players sit surrounding a thick mat that represents the stage, and spread the ankle bones on the mat. Then, they will decide who should start first and take turns playing in the clockwise direction. A player should throw the bullet (armor) up, grasp as many anklebones from the edge as he/she can hold in their hand and catch the bullet by holding it on the grasped ankles in the same hand. When grabbing the anklebones, the player should not touch the other anklebones. If the player touches the other anklebones and moves them or drops any of the anklebones on their grasped hand, their turn would become invalid and the next player will start.

If the player does not make the above-mentioned mistakes, he/she will get to keep the grasped anklebones. The game continues in abovementioned way and when anklebones on the stage finish, every participant should count its own successfully grasped anklebones number and each player should incorporate anklebones on the stage equal to the least number of anklebone grasped by any of players and continue the game starting from the player who took the last anklebone in the previous game.

As the game continues and fewer number of anklebones that can be grasped in one time are left on the stage, a player who is sitting on right-hand site /a player who did his/her turn just before given player/ of the given player collects and squeezes anklebones in his/her hand without removing anklebones from the stage to help the given player to grasp anklebones successfully and it is called – packing. It is permitted to leave one anklebone, called the “tail,” when grabbing this pack. If the player assumes that the pack cannot be contained in his/her hand during his/her turn, this player takes one ankle bone from the pack and the next person starts grabbing. In some cases, if fewer than 2-5 ankle bones are left, they should be placed here and there and a player picks them one by one between the period when the bullet goes down. It requires quick movement, sharp vision and good orientation.

In the end, the player who has no ankle bones to combine is eliminated and finally, the one who could collect all of the ankle bones wins.

The smallest anklebones by the size are selected, specially prepared and collected for the Game “Grabbing the Anklebones.