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A Million Ways to Play Marbles, at Least

by Bernard DeKoven 

Now here we have your basic marble. 

Your basic marble is made of glass. Now it's true that there are other, even more basic marbles that are made of clay. And I suppose that sun-hardened clay marbles are even more basic than your kiln-dried pottery marbles. 

On the other hand you could have steel marbles. You could probably even have lead marbles, if you want. Wood marbles. Ice marbles. 

Hey, ice marbles. I like that. Couldn't make water marbles, though. Maybe you could make marble-size balloons and fill them with water. 

Or, how about balloon-size marbles? 

Which brings me to the point about size. 

Your basic marble is exactly five-eighths of an inch in diameter. And then, of course, you get your more basic marble, which is maybe a half inch or maybe even an inch in diameter. I suppose if you want to get even more basic than that, your really basic marble is whatever you can hold a bunch of without dropping. Though, I admit that you could be thinking about how many is a bunch and what your standard-size hand is. Though you could also be thinking about whether you could consider a pool ball to be one of your basic-sized marbles, which, I guess if you really want to get basic, you could say depends on the size of the hand that holds them. But if anybody had a hand big enough to hold say a lot of pool balls, well, that would make them just as basic as anything else in the basic sense of it. But I wouldn't call bowling balls marbles. No way. Though you could play marbles with bowling balls. 

All right. So much for the definition of your "basic marble." But that doesn't tell us what "playing marbles" is. So, how do you play marbles? 

Well, there's your basic, well, your general rule that you play marbles by shooting one into the other, if you know what I mean. What you try to do, generally, is to get one marble to hit another. 

Of course, if you're speaking in general terms, you could also get one marble to hit another by dropping one marble onto the marble that you want that marble to hit, if you catch my meaning. 

I suppose you could also roll it down a ramp, or something. Maybe through a tube. 

Hey, that'd be neat. We could get all these junk pipes and put together this big, complicated thing to roll marbles through. Oh, and we could make some parts of it swivel so we could make infinite adjustments, you know, and shoot a marble anywhere. I wonder how far we could make it shoot? Trajectory! 

Yeah, you could throw marbles. You could launch them into the air on, well, marble launchers. You could launch them from spoons, too. 

You could carry them in spoons. Look, we could each have a spoon and see if we could pass a marble around in a circle without ever dropping it. We could see how many marbles we can keep going at the same timeŚmaybe in both directions. Maybe some of us would lie down and we'd have to pass them up and down, too. Or maybe if we were moving. 

How would it be to play tag like that? We'd each have a spoon, I guess. And there'd be this one marble, and whoever had that one was it. And he'd have to try to catch us without dropping his marble. No, that'd make it too hard. Everybody should have a marble except it. No. 

All right, so back to your basic question, "How do you generally play marbles?" 

Generally speaking, I'd say it depends. 

First of all, I'd say it depends on where you're playing. You're supposed to be playing marbles on a marble court. I suppose if you want to be playing on something that wasn't a marble court, you could play marbles there too. 

See, if you're playing marbles on the dirt, then you got your dirt rules, and if you're playing on the rug, then you got your rug rules. What would it be like playing on a hill? I never heard of any hill rules. 

I guess the idea would be, well, let's see, if I shot a marble uphill, it would roll back to me, right? Well, maybe, if I can get the right curve or can bounce it off the right things. Now that'd be an accomplishment! So, maybe if I could even hit one of your marbles, and still get my marble back, well, say within arm's length of this spot, huh, what do you think of 

On the other hand, if we were playing downhill, you know what would be the thing to try? How about trying to get the marble to stop rolling? That'd be hard, I bet. Especially if you have to make it stop inside this circle here. 

Now, if what we're talking about is the real way to play marbles, well, that's another thing altogether. 

The real way to play marbles is to play them on a court, like I said before. And, well, sure you can have a lot of different courts, if you want. I mean, there's your round court and your square one, and maybe your oval, or what about your star-shaped one. And there's your court with things drawn insideŚlines and circles and things. 

How about making this maze see. I mean, we could draw this really hard maze and try to play marbles without crossing any of the lines. I know, you'll start from one end, and I'll start from the other, and then, when we get close enough, we can try to knock each other's marbles out of the maze. Look, we'll make five openings on this side, and five on mine, and we'll each take five marbles, and we'll start each marble on an opening, and we'll take turns, and whenever it's your turn, you can try to go further into the maze or hit one of my marbles. Oh, and if your marble goes over a line, you got to start it all over from the beginning. Yeah, I guess we should try one with the lines a lot farther apart. 

Which is another question about how far apart we should start out from. I mean, if we started from really far away, we could bowl them, maybe. Maybe we should try it with bowling balls? 

At any rate, the question is, "What is your standard, basic, true marble game in general?" 

Are you talking about the standard basic true marble game in which you try to roll marbles into targets in general, or are you talking about your standard basic true marble game in which you generally try to hit other marbles? 

Well, if you're talking about all marble games, then you have to consider the ones that don't use targets. Unless you think that trying to roll a marble around in a cup has a target to it. 

Ever try to roll a marble around in a cup? Ever roll the marble around so fast that it just shot out of the cup? Ever try to catch it before it rolled away? Before it hit the ground? 

Of course, if you're talking about the serious game of marbles, that's another thing again. 

What you think of, seriously, as a serious marble game is the kind that lets you really concentrate, really focus, you know, holding the marble just right, looking at all the possibilities, deciding, aiming, shooting. 

Well, rolling, actually. Of course, one could flick it into the air a bit. It would be really interesting if we tried to flick one marble over another so it landed just behind, just on the other side. Maybe landed and kept rolling and maybe even hitting your marble too. 

I suppose even dropping would give us a real game too. I mean, you can get really good at dropping if you do it a lot. A head-height drop would naturally be worth more than a knee-height drop. 

Now, a two-marble drop would also be interesting. Suppose the idea was to drop two marbles onto one of your other marbles in such a way as to send them all rolling into your opponent's marbles. 

Of course, if we were talking about steel marbles, the game would be much heavier. On the other hand, clay marbles would give rise to an interesting experience of fragility. Ice marbles. Now, there's a possibility. 

Hey, that way we could play water marbles, with eye droppers. What if we used colored water? You know, if we played it on a piece of paper... on a slanted piece of paper, then the drops would move. And it would look neat when the game was over. I mean, the paper would be all streaked from where the drops moved. And splattered too, I bet. And I bet we could make a really pretty thing that way, playing marbles. 

About the author: Bernard DeKoven, AKA "Dr. Fun," is a staff designer at Mattel Media. He's the author of Connected Executives, an entertaining and practical guide for effectively integrating meetings into business communications, and of The Well-Played Game, from which this minor explosion of playfulness was drawn. He's the visioneer of The Intergenerational Play Project and of the Institute for Better Meetings, through which Bernie teaches his innovative "technography" method for promoting collaborative work. Also worth reading: Bernie's essay  On Being IT

The above excerpt is Copyright © 1978 by Bernard De Koven and is reproduced with the permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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