Jang-sik Jang
Senior Curator, National Folk Museum of Korea

Johan Huizinga coined the term homo ludens to define humans as animals that play. The playful nature of Koreans as homo ludens is represented most definitively by the game, yutnori. It has been well loved by young and old and men and women alike throughout history. The game is especially important as a children’s game that helps develop strategic thinking skills while still being simple to learn.

Yutnori is a board game that is played using a yut pan (board), yut garak (sticks that act as dice), and markers that indicate players’ position on the board. The board consists of a cross within a circle, with twenty-eight places centered on a square in the middle. Some say this is meant to represent the constellations of the twenty-eight mansions with Polaris in the center, while others say that it shows the stars of Ursa Minor, which revolve around Polaris. In both explanations, astronomy and constellations play a central role, and for this reason, the board is sometimes called the cheonmundo (celestial diagram).

The board is unique to Korea. Stewart Culin (1858.1929) wrote in Korean Games that yutnori is a prototype of the numerous board and dice games around the world. This shows the deep impression that the game left on this scholar of traditional game culture.

The principle instruments used in yutnori are the sticks, which are made halving two sticks. If sticks are not available, bean halves or seashells can be used in their place with four pieces forming a group. The sticks are a Korean version of dice. They can be created out of any object with two distinguishable sides. The sizes of the sticks vary from region to region. When made from long wooden sticks, they are called jangjak yut (stick yut) while pieces the size of chestnuts are called bam yut (chestnut yut). This latter type can also be tossed into a little bowl, and in this case, they are called jongji yut (bowl yut).

Regardless of size, the principle of the stick toss lies in determining the scores of dogaegulyut, or mo, depending on how the sticks land, which determines how the players’ pieces move around the board. Do is when one of the four sticks lands on its curved side, leaving flat back on the top; gae is when two sticks land upturned; gul is when three land upturned; yut, when four land upturned; mo is when all four land flat-side down. Respectively, these stick arrangements allow a player to move one, two, three, four, or five spaces around the board. Getting yut or mo, which is rare, allows a player to take a second turn.

Yutnori is not just a game but a festive event involving communal songs that exist in different versions from region to region. These tunes were called yutnori, where nori means “songs”, and each score of do, gae, gul, yut, and mo had its own song. The following is the first verse of the song of do.“Doya, the sun, moon, and stars are clear. It must be the way of heaven. The mountains, trees, and grass are clear. It must be the way of the earth as kindness, justice, and wisdom is clear. It must be the way of people.”

Such songs add fun to the game. While the rules of yutnori are simple, there are numerous variations that add flexibility and complexity. If the result of the toss is determined by luck, what ultimately moves the playing pieces is strategy based on human wisdom. Luck and wisdom, coincidence and fate, fun and seriousness, and beginning and return.all these elements come together to make yutnori even more interesting. Yutnori remains strong as a tradition unlike other folk games that are fading from popularity. During Korean New Year and Chuseok, people gather to play the game, but it also remains a popular game at funerals. In Andong, older people play the game at any time of day, showing its lasting relevance in the daily lives of people. With the oldest known record of yutnori dating back to the eighth century, it is clear that Koreans have been enjoying the game for over a thousand years.