If you’ve ever watched any Kdramas, or Kvariety shows, you’ve probably seen games played from time to time. Playing and competing seem to be inherent in the nature of many Koreans. Play hard and to the best of one’s ability and take your losses well, this is an adage many of us should live by.
Some of these games such as Tuho, the one where arrows are tossed into a pot, have a long history. Korea is a very old country in terms of civilization, and there are a few other ancient games that are still played today. Some of these games show obvious Chinese heritage such as Baduk (Chinese=Wei-Chi, English=Go) and Janggi, a Korean form of chess, somewhat similar to Chinese Chess from which it developed. Yut, also known as Yutnori, nyout and other names, doesn’t seem to have come to Korea via China. In many ways it appears to be a totally Korean game, although it has some similarities to the Chinese game of T’shu-p’u and the Parchessi/ Chaupad family of games from India.
To me Yut is special, not only is it very Korean in nature it is remarkably easy to learn, fun to play, and easy to take anywhere. It can be played by all ages and it is one of those games that inevitably makes you laugh and have fun. It is on the surface a two person game, but usually it is played by more people who divide up into 2 teams. It is partially the team aspect that increases the enjoyment level because that turns it into a social game with bickering and arguing over moves, joy over good throws of the dice and a celebration when you take an opponent’s piece off the board.
Yut is a very old game and some records suggest that it may have first been played sometime in the third century AD, putting it at around 1,800 years old. That game may not have had exactly the same rules, but they were close enough for us to recognize it as the same game. Originally the game board was circular and specific names and meanings were given to each space. Most of these old meanings have been forgotten and are not important for actual play. Nowadays you usually see square boards, although we did buy a circular board printed on paper at a Traditional Folk Village. Yut is usually associated with traditional holidays like Seollal (New Year) and Chuseok (Thanksgiving). In the past it is said it was also used for fortune telling.
The game uses four 2 sided dice, basically a round length of wood split to be about 2 thirds thick so that it has a flat side and a round side. In the photograph you can see the two sets of Yut dice I bought in Korea and then the small stick ones I had made for myself until I could get the real thing. The cowrie dice are there because they are the 2 sided dice used to play the Indian game of Parcheesi which is similar to Yut. Two sided dice are probably the oldest dice used by man and the easiest to make or find. The Ancient Egyptians also used 2 sided stick dice.
You can even use coins from your pocket to play. The markings on the round side of the dice are just there to help you quickly see which side is up or down. Sometimes you will see a mark on one of the flat die, this is for a more modern version of the game and the mark will stand for either Seoul or Busan, which leads to a special move. But for now I’ll be focusing on the traditional method of play.
The playing pieces are called mal, and the board yutpan. Each of the two players, or teams, has 4 mal. These can be checkers type pieces or even coins. All mal start off the board. The dice throws have names, although being an old game the names are from Chinese and were translated into Korean sometime after 1444 AD. The flat side up is what scores, so
1 flat side up and 3 rounded sides up is called ‘Do’ (Pig) and allows the mal to move one space forward.
2 flat sides up and 2 rounded sides up is ‘Gae’ (Dog) and allows the mal to move 2 spaces forward.
3 flat sides up and 1 rounded side up is ‘Geol’ (Sheep) and allows the mal to move 3 spaces forward.
4 flat sides up is called a ‘Yut’ (Cow) and allows a move of 4 spaces PLUS another throw of the dice. If yet another Yut or a Mo is rolled another free throw is allowed. When using the 4 spaces and whatever is rolled on the 2nd throw you can split the rolls between two mal if you wish, or use the total for 1 mal. You wait until you’ve finished rolling the dice before deciding how to move your mal.
4 rounded sides up is called a ‘Mo’ (Horse) and it allows a move of 5 space PLUS another throw of the dice. If another Yut or a Mo is rolled yet another free throw is allowed. When using the 5 spaces and whatever is rolled on the 2nd throw you can split the rolls between two mal if you wish or use the total for 1 mal. You wait until you’ve finished rolling the dice before deciding how to move your mal.
One player from each team rolls and the highest score gets to begin the game. To prevent cheating while rolling the dice you usually have to drop them, and there used to be a stick and straw ring through which you had to drop the dice, but that’s hardly seen any more. Sometimes there is a straw mat on which to drop the dice because they do tend to make a lot of noise. Play moves anti clockwise around the board. The board has 24 regular spaces and 5 larger spaces. The larger spaces are places where if you land exactly on them you can change your direction and basically take a short cut. The starting and ending space are the same and the goal is to get all your mal around and off the board safely. Sometimes the starting space is marked, often times it is not, in which case just chose one of the four larger spaces that are around the edge of the board, designate it the start space and place all the mal next to it.
Once you’ve decide who goes first, usually by who rolls the highest score on one roll, play begins. I will call the 2 players/teams Gold (Kim Jong Kook) and Silver (HaHa) and use the RunningMan board I made for their concert in Dallas.
On the first throw Gold throws a 2 (Gae) and moves 2 spaces. Silver throws a 1 (Do) and moves onto the first space.
Gold then throws a 1 (Do). Gold must now decide whether to move his mal one more space around the board or to bring a second mal onto the board and knock the silver piece off the board. Gold chooses to knock Silver off the board.
Gold now has 2 mal on the board on spaces 1 and 2. Silver has no mal on the board and it is his turn to throw. Silver throws a 2 (Gae) and knocks the Gold mal off the second space.
Gold rolls a 5 (Mo) and then a 2 (Gae). Gold now has choices, whether to move the mal that is on space 1 5 spaces forward to the larger space which would allow him to turn down the shortcut towards the middle and use the throw of 2 (Gae) to move down that path, or he could go to the larger corner square with his 5 (Mo) and use the 2 (Gae) to knock the Silver mal on space 2 off the board. He could also choose to bring another mal onto the board and move forward 7 spaces around the board. This last choice is probably not the wisest as Gold would then loose an opportunity to take the shortcut. Gold moves to the corner square with the mal from space 1 and brings another mal onto the board to knock off the Silver piece on space 2. (So is Kim Jong Kook playing like his RunningMan persona or what?)
Silver throws a 4 (Yut) and then throws a 2 (Gae). He brings 2 mal onto the board on spaces 2 and 4. He could have moved one mal 6 spaces forward to knock off Gold’s mal but chooses not to.
Gold throws a 2 (Gae) and must choose between knocking Silver’s mal off space 2 or moving his mal 2 spaces down towards the center. He chooses this move because he’s worried that next move Silver might knock that piece off the board.
Silver throws a 4 (Yut) and a 1 (Do) so he brings one mal onto the board and doubles up on space 4 and brings another mal onto space 1.
Once you double up you can move both pieces on one throw which, if you are lucky , can move you speedily around the board. On the down side if your opponent lands on you both pieces are taken off the board. You can also triple and quadruple your mal. This may not have been a wise move on Silver’s part because he now has all 4 mal vulnerable to Gold’s next throw. This is where the luck v strategy comes into play. The game of Yut is one of constant change and it is often tough to decide on the next move, which is why when you play as teams there’s a lot of bickering as to which is the best move. Usually the players in the team also take turns throws the dice so that can also lead to conflict or joy for the team depending what number was thrown.
By now you’ve got the idea of how to play the game and you may have noticed that is is a little similar to the children’s games Sorry and Ludo. That is because they descended from the ancient Indian game of Parchessi and could be considered cousins of Yut.
To end the game some people play that an exact throw is needed to move off the board and others play that as long as you throw enough to get off the board that is ok. Just check with your opponent as to which rules you’re following. Remember you leave the board at the same spot you started, and all your mal must be off the board first to win the game.
I hope I’ve convinced some of you to play Yut and hopefully one day I’ll be able to play you in a game. Good Luck.
We found these two gentlemen playing Yut while we were exploring some of the side alleys off of a large produce market. They were somewhat surprised that we were interested in their game. I really liked the long throw of the dice onto the mat, and the fact that it looked like a homemade game of Yut.
Photo credits to Elle and Debora Marzec. Please do not copy or use without permission and accreditation.