What’s the Jackstraws game?

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Jackstraws is a game played with carved wooden pieces that are more challenging than traditional pick up sticks. The game has origins in ancient cultures and has been used for gambling and divination in China. Jackstraws became popular in Victorian England and crossed the pond to the United States. The game includes thematically related pieces with point values and a support piece with a hooked edge.

Jackstraws is a game closely related to picking sticks. Instead of sticks, however, jackstraws is played with small pieces of wood carved into various shapes. The carved pieces make jackstraws much more challenging than picking up sticks, as it is difficult to remove pieces without catching them on others. Specialty game stores sometimes sell jackstraw sets alongside other old-fashioned games, and it’s also possible to make your own set.

Pick up sticks is an ancient game; various versions of it are depicted in ancient artwork and writing, suggesting that multiple cultures independently developed essentially the same game. For those unfamiliar with the rules of stick collecting, the game involves a bunch of sticks or straws being dropped onto a flat surface. Players must remove individual sticks without disturbing others, demonstrating remarkably steady hands and good coordination.

If a player disturbs a stick while it is moving, the round ends and play passes to the next player. Some players use this rule as a strategic point, distracting players as they move in hopes of forcing them to disturb the stack of sticks, creating a new arrangement that might make it easier to draw pieces.

Pick up sticks in turn was the foundation of many other games, especially in China where a game similar to the pick up stick was used for gambling and another variation was used for divination. The precise origins of jackstraws are a little unclear, but a version of the game appears to have become immensely popular in Victorian England, at which point it crossed the pond to the United States and became known as jackstraws.

The pieces in a jackstraw set are often thematically related, such as in a set that includes farm implements such as ladders, rakes, shovels, and hoes. Sometimes the pieces are sculpted more abstractly, aiming to create more jagged or fuzzy edges that make the game more challenging. When jackstraws are dropped, the protruding edges of the pieces tend to lock together, making it very difficult to lift a single piece without disruption.

In addition to the jackstraws themselves, the game typically includes a support piece with a hooked edge to help people grip and manipulate the pieces. Each piece in the game also has a point value, with more challenging pieces being worth more points at the end of the game. At the end of the game, the points are tallied and the pieces can be re-thrown or placed in a container for another use.

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