Jwibulnori | 쥐불놀이
Jwibulnori is a game that might appear dangerous at first but has a lasting history among Koreans. The purpose of this game is to create beautiful streaks of light via a can filled with flammable items. Yes, you read that correctly. The original intention of this game was to exterminate insects and rats during the first full moon in the Lunar New Year.
To make the torchlight, you need to tie a basket or some kind of container onto a long string. Inside are flammable items such as herbs, mugwort, or paper. By spinning it around, the player will create beautiful shapes in the air (think sparklers). Players can compete with friends to see who can spin the fastest, throw the furthest, and who can make the most stunning shapes when the moon is high.
Yut Nori | 윷놀이
Yut Nori, aka Yut, is a family game at its heart. Although played during gatherings throughout the year, Yut is a must-do during the Lunar New Year. This is a truly classic Korean game that dates back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE – 668 CE). It’s personally my favorite Korean game and one that I’ve enjoyed with my family members back in the USA.
Included in the game are a board, four sticks, and eight small tokens (four for each team). The board was originally round, although it is now a rectangular or square shape. The markings indicate stations while the lines indicate the direction the player is to follow. It’s a relatively simple game, although it might seem confusing at first. Watch the video to learn about the rules in song-form, or head here for a more detailed written explanation. Considering how close to the heart Yut is for many Koreans, maybe putting it in a show about murdering people would come across as a bit strong.
Hackysack aka Jegichagi | 제기차기
This one is definitely going to be familiar to many- it’s essentially the Korean version of hackysack! To make jegichagi, jegi – coins with a hole in the middle – were wrapped in silk cloth or hanji (Korean paper) and kicked in the air with one foot. The ends of the fabric or paper were shredded into beautiful tassels that shimmer and shake as they fly through the air.
Like Yut, Jegichagi was originally a winter pastime. It was particularly popular among young boys during the Lunar New Year but has since seen rising popularity among young adults. You can play alone or in a team. There are variations to the kick, such as a toe touch between each kick, or another rule where one must use the backside of the foot to kick the jegi in the air. There’s even a version where the player catches it in his mouth! However you choose to play, one rule is essential: don’t let it touch the ground.
If you’d like to buy a jegichagi, you can find them easily in art and craft stores around the country, or in the popular dollar store chain Daiso.
Tuho | 투호
Tuho! What a staple game of Korea and certainly one you have come across if you’ve ever visited a folk village. Tuho involves red and blue arrows thrown into a pot to decide a winner. This game was traditionally played by royal families or the upperclassmen of society, the yangban. The Yegi, an ancient book of rituals, even features this beloved game. Although it remains popular in Korea, its birth dates back to the Tang Dynasty in China. According to a historical record of 1116, Yejong of Goryeo commissioned a rulebook of Tuho. They enjoyed the game after a royal banquet or a Giroyeon, a banquet held to honor government official alumni.
The best place to place the tuho pots were on a mat indoors or outside in the grass. Teams divide in two and stood around ten steps away from the bottle. The team with the most arrows in the pot would win! Alcohol was usually given as a reward or a punishment to the winning and losing teams, respectively. You might have to drink as much as you scored – which could be good or bad! Although the yangban was a male group in society, their wives also enjoyed the game as a chance to get out of the house. Wondering just how valuable Tuho is in the hearts of Korean people? Take a look at the former 1,000 won bill – yeah, it’s really there!
Hitting Tombstone aka Biseokjigi | 비석지기
Perhaps one of the simplest games on the list is Hitting Tombstone. The game uses small square pillars akin to tombstones knocked down by other tombstones that the player throws. Because it is often played outdoors, it tends to be a spring and summer game. There are different rules according to different regions in Korea, but the game is undoubtedly popular for its simple nature. We often play this game at the kindergarten where I work. Their favorite version of the game? Place the tombstone on your head and walk forward without it falling.
Seesaw aka Neolttwigi | 널뛰기
I might be reaching a bit far with this one. Neolttwigi aka Korean Seesaw is a traditional outdoor game, popular among Korean women and girls. It is enjoyed today during national holidays such as the New Year, Chuseok and Dano. Although it has the name ‘seesaw’ in English, it’s quite different from the seated version we grew up with in my country. Participants stand on each end of the board and propel the other person into the air, where they make poses or perform tricks.
Historians believe that yangban women developed this game in order to spy over the walls around their homes. Additionally, because women did not have a chance for exercise during the Joseon Dynasty, Neolttwigi was a great and quick way to alleviate their lack of daily movement.
Tops aka Paengi Noli | 팽이 놀이
Paengi Noli, also known as Paengi Chigi, is essentially ‘tops’. Many of us are familiar with tops, but there are variations in Korea that might differ from what you’re familiar with. The game is popular among all generations in Korea, particularly during the New Year. One version of tops in Korea uses a top and a stick with a long string. The tops are wound with twine and then let go. Players must keep their top spinning with the long stick; whoever makes the top rotate the longest is the winner! If you want to give this a try for yourself, you can find game stations at Namsangol Hanok Village.
Jacks aka Gonggi Noli | 공기 놀이
If you’ve never seen Gonggi in Korea, I have to wonder where you went during your visit. This game is immensely popular and homemade versions are sold in popular stores such as Daiso; handmade versions can be found all over Insadong. You might have seen these pebbles made from plastic or fabric and kept in a pouch. If you saw them and aren’t sure what they were, let me introduce this classic game.
Gonggi Noli is a children’s game using five or more small pebbles. This is a great game to play alone or in a group. Although there are modern versions you can buy, the great thing about Gonggi is that you can literally use flat pebbles from the ground and can play this game anywhere. First, players set the stones on their downward-facing hand. They must then toss the pebbles in the air and catch as many as they can by flipping their hand over. This game is popular around the world and would have made a great addition to the Squid Game narrative. Personally, I find this to be an annoyingly hard game, but I suppose that’s the fault of my slow reflexes.
Rubber Band Game aka Gomujul Noli | 고무줄 놀이
The Rubber Band Game is a children’s game where players hop over a long rubber band tied around two other children’s ankles. It was traditionally played with straw rope.
Players can use up to three bands and although you can play this game with two people, the game increases in fun with three or four people. The player in the middle, who is jumping, has to move with the words of a familiar song. When the player messes up their moves, the members will switch roles. The game increases in difficulty if the band moves higher up the legs. If the band goes as high as the other player’s heads, the player in the middle will have to stand on their hands to move their feet around the band.
The songs sung during the game have changed over time. Most of them are patriotic songs. During the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), children sang Japanese songs, whereas after 1945, songs of liberation were popular. At the start of the Korean War in 1950, military songs and anti-communism songs that followed. School songs, commercial jingles, or cartoon themes are the most commonly heard today.
Kite Flying aka Yeonnalligi | 연날리기
A lot of people don’t consider kite flying a game, let alone a competitive one, but boy oh boy are they wrong. I’ve already covered the history of kite flying if you really want to know the details. Korean kites were traditionally square ‘shield’ kites with a hole in the middle. Crafted from mulberry paper, they were beautifully decorated and flown from high peaks, pushed by the winter breeze. For a competitive version, players push their kites towards one another and try to cut the other’s string via friction. You can see this popular game played at Sky Park in Seoul during the Lunar New Year.
Belt Wrestling aka Ssireum | 씨름
Ssireum is a wresting game popular during various seasonal festivals around the year. The military famously uses this game to show off the soldiers’ strength. The game’s history stretches back to the Goguryeo kingdom (37 BCE – 668 CE), whose tombs had painted images of ssireum.
Ssireum was enjoyed by various members of society and competitions can last for up to three days. The winner would traditionally recieve a cow as a prize, although today you might just walk away with your pride.
There is even a Korean Ssireum Association, founded in 1981. We’re seeing the popularity of Korean wrestling spread overseas as the Kwave continues to grab hold of the world. Ssireum is a great representation of Korean traditional games, as it is one of the oldest customs of the country. One of the most famous Korean paintings by folk artist Kim Hong Do features ssireum as its focal point.
Gonu | 고누
Gonu is a game that involves moving one’s pieces to trap or capture an opponent’s pieces on a board. It sounds a bit similar to Yutnoli, doesn’t it? The game has two main variations. In one, the player must trap the game pieces of an opponent to win. In the other, you can win by capturing the pieces through certain conditions.
Here are the most basic rules: The player has 12 pieces in their hand. There is a board with 24 intersecting points. During a turn, players put one of their pieces on these points. The space where the piece is removed is either marked with a star or another marker is filled there so nobody can place their pieces there. Players repeat the process until you fill all points. Sound confusing? Watch the video above to get a better idea.
Slackline or Tightrope aka Jultagi | 줄타기
Although this is a game for the highly-skilled, it remains a beloved spectacle in Korea today. Slackline is growing in popularity due to Tik Tok, but this game/art form has been popular in Korea for centuries. It differs from the tightrope cultures of other countries because the player’s movements tell a story that matches an accompanied song.
Jultagi occurs at various times of the year. Acrobatic companies often perform shows in national museums, folk villages, palaces, and parks. Those brave enough to play can get a chance during national holidays such as Chuseok and Dano. Your best bet to see Jultagi is in the folk villages. If you want to see a great representation of Jultagi in Korean film, check out the The King and the Clown.
Rolling Hoop aka Gulleongsui | 굴렁쇠
Hoop rolling is a universal game. The game is played by rolling a large, metal hoop on the ground by means of an object, usually a long stick. The goal of the game is to keep the hoop up as long as possible. If you can perform tricks, such as spinning the hoop, this will gain you some points. You can find this game in nearly every folk village in Korea. I personally find this a struggle to play and will avoid embarrassing myself at all costs. One of the most famous hoop players is undoubtedly the Tae-Woong Yoon, who was a young boy when he performed Hoop Rolling the Seoul 1988 Olympics. Read more about him here.
Chariot Game aka Chajeon Nori | 차전 놀이
Now, although this is absolutely a traditional game, I’m afraid it is one you will be unable to play in your own home. In fact, you’re going to be hard-pressed to play it anywhere. Watch the video above and you’ll see why. That being said, it’s an important cultural aspect of Korean history.
Chariot Game or Juggernaut Battle is a traditional game, usually played by men, that originated in the city of Andong. There is speculation that the game originated as a commemoration of Wang Geon’s victory over Gyeon Won at the Battle of Gochang in 930 at the end of the Later Three Kingdoms period. The game resembles jousting, with two commanders atop large, log frames. The frames are maneuvered by their teams. These logs are dongchae in Korean, made up of two 10-meter long logs tied together with rope. The way to win is by forcing the other team’s dongchae to the ground. Just as we would throw a hat after graduation, the winning time here will toss their straw shoes (or slippers, in this case) into the air.
Swinging aka Geunettwigi | 그네뛰기
Ahhh, swings. A beloved childhood game. But what about swings that chuck you nearly 90 degrees into the air? Well, that’s Korean swings for you. Geunettwigi involves absolutely enormous swings and can be found in most folk villages around the country. It was one of the most popular outdoor games during Dano and Buddha’s Birthday. During the summer months, it was a great way to cool off and brush off those pesky mosquitos.
Earliest reports of swinging in Korea date back to the Goryeo Period (918 CE -1392 CE). It doesn’t surprise me that this game was enjoyed by more women than men, as it seems like a fun break from housework. The swing’s massive frame and height are a metaphor for the freedom many women desired. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, but I recommend giving traditional swinging a go the next time you come across it.