Knucklebones is an ancient game played with animal bones that has evolved into variations played with metal or rubber pieces. It is similar to dice with four possible point values. The game involves throwing and catching bones, performing tricks, and developing hand-eye coordination. It can be played with various materials and has different names.
Knucklebones is an ancient game that was originally played with the joint bones of animals such as sheep. The game has had a number of variations and appears to have sprung up in different parts of the world, proving that humans can be extremely innovative, even with minimal supplies. It is still played today, although playing pieces are not typically made of bone; a closely related game is jack, which is traditionally played with pieces of metal and a small rubber ball. Some game stores offer stock sets to play, along with instructions for an assortment of variations of the game.
The game is based on the distinct character of the joint bones. The joints are knobby, rather than smooth, and have clearly identifiable sides. When thrown, the bones tend to land on one of four sides, avoiding the curved ends. In essence, this game could be seen as an early version of dice, with four possible point values instead of six.
To play the game, people throw bones on the ground and record their point value. The Romans had a complex scoring system for the game, with the highest score going to a ‘Venus’, a throw in which four bones were thrown and four different faces were displayed. Other scores were calculated based on the point value of the sides; depending on the situation, the game could be played until someone threw a Venus or until a certain score was reached.
Knucklebones could also be played much like jacks, with a bone being thrown and caught in or on the hand, or the player performing a variety of tricks such as trying to pick up all the bones on the ground while one was in the air. Some games involved repeating tricks shown by another player, such as throwing three bones in the air and catching them all on the back of the hand. The toss and catch process would have the added benefit of helping children develop good hand-eye coordination, a very useful skill.
In addition to being played with literal bone pieces, knucklebones can also be played with playing pieces made of clay, metal, or horn. The Romans made pieces encrusted with precious stones or engraved with various symbols, much like dice, which appear to be of Asian origin. They knew the game as such or tala. Other aliases include dibs, jackstones, five stones, dibstones and chuckstones.