As the title of the game suggests, it was once played with actual bones. The playing pieces were knucklebones from mutton (sheep) legs. The Ancient Greeks called them "astragaloi." They could be used both in gambling games like dice and for telling the future (Grunfeld 162).
The game described here, which is actually called Knucklebones, is the ancestor of modern Jacks, also called Fivestones. According to Sophocles, Knucklebones was invented by Palamedes, who taught it to Greek soldiers fighting in the Trojan War, although it probably came from Asia originally. The Romans also played Knucklebones, and Roman soldiers brought the game to other countries. However, they were not solely responsible for the spread of the game because different versions of it are played all over the world, including places the Romans never visited (Grunfeld 162).
The rules for this game come from Games of the World edited by Frederic Grunfeld, pp. 162-163, with some additional information from The Way to Play by the Diagram Group, pp. 130-132.
Players: 2 to 4 (it's possible with more, but it can get awkward with too many people), it can also be played as a solo game
Object: To complete different phases (or "figures") of the game which involve tossing, catching, and picking up the "knucklebones" in different ways.
Equipment: Relax, you don't need real knucklebones to play this game. It can be played with various small objects, like stones, mini dice from a game store, or modern jacks. Whichever you choose, you will need a set of five.
The Jack: Because there is no ball in Knucklebones, like there is in a modern jacks set, one of the knucklebones will be used in place of the ball. This knucklebone is actually called the "jack." Of course, knucklebones (or the small objects you'll be using in place of the bones) don't really bounce, so when you toss the jack, you'll have to catch it before it hits the ground.
Basic Rules: The players play their way through different phases or "figures" of the game, completing each with no mistakes before moving on to the next one. As in modern Jacks, if a player accidentally bumps one of the other knucklebones besides the one he's picking up, drops a knucklebone, or fails to catch the jack in time, his turn ends. On his next turn, he will have to repeat the figure he was on from the beginning. He won't be able to move on to another figure until he finishes the one he's currently playing correctly.
Figures: The phases of the game can vary, depending on how the players want to play. The players are allowed to choose which figures they want to use and the order of the figures, although they have to be played in a sequence, one after another. Some of the figures are known by multiple names because the game was played in many different places, but the basic concepts are the same.
One basic figure that you can use to start was shown in a fresco found in Pompeii. The player throws the five knucklebones straight up with one hand, catching them all on the back of his hand (if he can). Then, he tosses them again from the back of his hand so he can catch them in his palm. You can use this figure to determine the order of play. The player who can catch the most knucklebones in this figure gets to be the first player.
Some of the figures in Knucklebones are almost identical to modern Jacks. Here is a basic description of some common Knucklebones figures:
Winning: The winner is the first player to successfully complete all the figures the players have agreed on in sequence.