Although the game of marbles may have largely fallen out of popularity with modern schoolchildren, at one time it was a very popular childhood game with some real world consequences, such as the sudden loss of a favorite "aggie" or "cat's eye." Expressions such as losing your marbles, knuckling down to business and playing for keeps can all be traced back to the original game of marbles. There are still official marbles tournaments held in various locations around the world, and the marbles themselves can still be purchased in most local department and toy stores, but there are not nearly as many players of the game as there once were.
To play the most basic game of marbles, a suitable playing field must first be set up. A sandy playground lot or a baseball field's backstop area would be ideal, although any flat outdoor area with minimal grass would be suitable. Using a stick or a string compass, one player circumscribes a large circle anywhere from a few feet to approximately ten feet in diameter. The area inside this circle is the official playing surface, and should be cleared of any large debris that could affect play.
Once the field has been created, all of the players need to contribute a certain number of small marbles to the center of the ring. These marbles are arranged in the shape of a cross, with each marble spaced a few inches apart. The marbles in the ring are considered targets for each shooter. At this point, the players should decide if they are playing for fun or "for keepsies." If playing for fun, the same marbles are placed back into the ring after each game. If playing for keepsies, the winners of each game keep all of the played marbles and each player antes up new marbles for the next round.
To determine who shoots first, either a player shouts out "First!" or each player uses a larger shooter marble to lag for position. Lagging means to start behind one line at the bottom of the circle and shoot a shooter marble towards a line at the opposite end of the circle. The shooter who lands closest to the line goes first, followed by the second closest shooter and so on.
The first shooter can position his or her shooting marble anywhere around the outside perimeter of the circle. The goal of the basic game of marbles is to knock the target marbles or another player's shooter completely out of the ring without sending your own shooter out of bounds. The first shooter generally aims towards the center array of marbles and places his shooter in a crevice formed by tucking the thumb behind the second knuckle of his or her index finger. The index finger holds the thumb in tension until the player takes his or her shot. This is called knuckling down, and the release should be forceful enough to propel the larger shooter marble into the ring and force at least one marble out of the circle.
As long as the shooter continues to send marbles out of the ring without losing his or her shooter, the turn continues. The shooter must play the shooter marble where it stands in the ring, but the direction is still at his or her discretion. All marbles knocked out of the ring during a turn are collected by the shooter and counted.
If the shooter fails to knock out a marble, his or her turn is considered over and the next shooter knuckles down outside of the ring. This second shooter can either aim for the smaller target marbles or the first shooter's larger shooter marble. If the shooter does manage to knock another player's shooting marble out of the ring cleanly, the other player is no longer considered a valid player for that round.
A game of marbles ends when all the marbles have been knocked out of the ring. Eligible players count the number of marbles they have collected and the one with the most marbles is declared the winner of that game. Subsequent rounds may be played to determine an ultimate champion, or play may simply continue until enough players have run out of marbles to make future rounds impossible.
Thankfully, glass marbles suitable for tournament play are not prohibitively expensive, although some older marbles are considered very collectible depending on their age, condition and manufacturer. Back in the days when a game of marbles was a form of neighborhood challenge, some successful players compiled quite valuable collections of glass or stone marbles. Modern commercially produced marbles may not be as collectible, but at least they are still being sold along with other nostalgic games such as jacks and pick-up sticks.