Pick-Up Sticks – Palitos Chinos

Pick-Up Sticks is a simple game, played with a set of sticks in different colours.  After the sticks are bundled up in one hand and then let go on a flat surface, the fallen sticks must be picked, one by one, without touching or moving the rest; when this cannot be done, the next player takes over.  Each colour has an assigned point value, and once all the sticks have been lifted, the player with the highest score wins the game.  The origin of this game is still disputed, and might have even evolved in parallel in different corners of the world.  One origin might be connected to I Ching Chinese Divination, which involves yarrow sticks, which were later used as a game for gambling or for fun; this game might have been adopted in other Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea.  Native American cultures such as the Lenape (in Delaware), and the Sac and Fox (in Iowa), have traditional games with sticks, carved or adorned with different designs at the tips, but it has been debated whether they were created by them early on, or adapted from tantamount games that British and French settlers might have brought from Europe, such as Spellicans and Jonchets.  Other games with similar rules are Jackstraws, and Spillikins.

In Europe, there is a version of pick-up sticks called Mikado (Japanese emperor), and in Mexico, they are called “Palitos chinos” – “Chinese Sticks” which seem to suggest an Asian origin.  Mikado sticks are nowadays coded, as follows, by number of sticks of the category, colour, point value per stick, and name (using Asian words for different titles and occupations): 1 blue stick – 20 points (Mikado); 5 yellow sticks – 10 points (Mandarin); 5 orange sticks – 5 points (Bouzu); 15 green sticks – 3 points (Samurai); and 15 red sticks – 3 points (Kuli).  In Mexico, Palitos chinos have been mostly made with plastic since I can remember; the colours and point values are similar to Mikado, but the main stick is always black, which once retrieved from the pile, may be used as a tool to collect more sticks.

To make a pick-up sticks game at home, all that is needed is  a pack of bamboo skewers and some acrylic paint or markers in different colours:

The tip of each stick is painted according to the colour code of Palitos chinos or Mikado, as shown below:

All ready to play!

FUN FACT:  Pocky™ is a Japanese snack consisting of biscuit sticks coated with chocolate or other flavours, created in the 1960s by Glico™, a multinational corporation based in Osaka, Japan.  Since the 1970s, new flavours, and a shorter and thicker version, were introduced catering to female customers; in recent years, Pocky™ sticks have enjoyed a revival not only in Japan, but internationally.  In Europe, Pocky™ is produced under license with the name Mikado, for their resemblance to the pick-up sticks game pieces.

Famous Glico™ Billboard in Osaka, Japan (Photo by my daughter, 2021)

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