This month The Korea Blog is taking a look at popular games played throughout the nation. Last week, Featured Writer Steve Miller introduced the popular children’s game Gonggi. Since Seollal took place this previous weekend, marking the start of the Year of the Water Snake, this week’s game is one that played by many families when gathering for this holiday. It’s called Yut Nori (윷놀이) or just yut (sounds like yoot) for short.
The origins of the game aren’t clear, but it appears that it may have originated as early as the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE – 668 CE). Documents from the time indicate people of Baekje played a board game similar to Chupu, which is believed to be similar to Pachisi, a board game that originated in India. The games referenced here have a similar gameplay strategy, which means they may be related in some way. In mountainous areas and small farming villages, the board and game have been reportedly used for fortune telling, although that is no longer the case.
The board (mal-pan, 말판) can be made of several different materials and sizes. In fact, sometimes, it’s even drawn on the floor. There are four straight courses and two diagonal paths. Each course around the perimeter has five stations and the diagonal ones have six. Instead of dice, yut-sticks are used. The yut-sticks are traditionally made from wood and are a few centimeters thick. They are split into halves, with one side being flat. In another variation of the game, the sticks are considerably smaller and placed a small bowl and shaken like dice.
There are small tokens called mal (말, the Korean word for “horse”). There are four tokens for each team. Game sets usually come with plastic or wooden pieces made of white/black or red/blue color schemes. However, there are no steadfast rules of what a token can be made from – only that they must be clearly identified as belonging to one team or the other.
The sticks are thrown into the air and how they land determines how far tokens may advance. By looking at the yut-sticks and counting how many are down and up, a total score is achieved. Each combination has a name. One stick over (flat side up) and three sticks up (round side up) is called do. Two up and two over is called gae (dog). One stick up and three over is called geol. All sticks over is called yut, whereas all sticks up is called mo. A do is worth one space and so on. Yut is worth four spaces and a mo is worth five. A player throwing a yut or mo is also entitled to an extra turn.
The game is played between two teams, although rarely it is played with more. There is no limit to the number of people per team, leading to some games with huge numbers. These teams can be so large that members may never get a turn to throw the yut-sticks during gameplay. While these plays may not get a chance to cast the yut-sticks, they can still help the team by helping to formulate the team’s strategy. The start of the game is determined by each team throwing the yut-sticks; the team with the highest score moves first.
Each team then throws the sticks and moves a mal according to the score achieved. One turn usually consists of only one cast. However, a player achieving a yut or mo earns an extra turn; if he/she throws another yut or mo, he/she earns an may go again, so there is no limit to the number of times a player throw. The score earned on a single throw can be played to different tokens, but not split among different pieces—for example, a geol (advance three spaces) cannot be split into a do (one space) and a gae (two spaces).
The goal of the game is to return to the home station. This is achieved by moving the mals around the board. The team that successfully returns all four tokens back to the starting point first, wins. There are four possible courses a team can take in the game. Either a team must run the game by moving along the exterior (default) route, or they may have the opportunity to shorten their trip by using the center pathway.
A turn consists of either placing a new token on the board or moving one of the already established mals along the course. When landing on one of the corner or center stations, the team can choose to take the shorter way. If a token lands on a station occupied by the opponent’s team, the opponent’s mal is removed from the course and returned to the starting position, and the current player is allowed to go again. If a mal lands on a station occupied by one of its own tokens, they have the opportunity to travel together in a group. While this does advance two or more tokens around the board quickly, the move comes with some risk. Should the opposing team land on a group’s station, all the pieces are returned to the starting point.
There are several variations to the game, including some that allow instant teleportation around the board. Yut is a great game and one of the best things about the game is that there is no limit to the number of people that can play. Next week Steve continues the series by introducing a game dating back thousands of years, but is still widely popular. Until then, what game does your family play together?