7 New Pick-Up Sticks Game Variations You Haven't Tried

Once you know the basic rules of pick-up sticks, you can go all out with the variations for endless fun.

Published December 20, 2023
Game of mikado or shangai

You know how there are just some children's games that prove how timeless it is to have fun? The classic pick-up sticks game is one of them. Kids today can have just as much fun as they did generations ago, and there are some modern variations that let you change things up when you want to as well.

Need to Know

The standard pick-up sticks set includes at least 30 thin sticks made of anything from wood to plastic. In some sets, the sticks are marked with different colors, which help you score the game.

How to Play Pick-Up Sticks: Basic Rules

Before you get crazy with the variations, it's good to have a handle on the standard pick-up stick rules (don't worry; they're super easy). Here's how your grandparents (and maybe their grandparents) played this simple game for two or more players.

  1. One player gathers all the sticks into their hand, holding them vertically with the ends resting on the playing surface (like a table or the floor). In one motion, they let the sticks fall into a pile.
  2. On their turn, each player tries to pull out a stick without causing any other stick in the pile to move. They can also use another stick to help poke or flick sticks out of the pile. They keep pulling sticks until they accidentally move one (moving a stick by accident ends the turn).
  3. When all the sticks are picked up, players count up how many sticks they have. The person with the most is the winner, or you can score them by color with blue, red, and green all worth two points, black worth five, and yellow worth seven. If there's a multicolored stick, it's worth 10 points.
Fast Fact

No one knows exactly when pick-up sticks were invented or even by whom. Several Native American tribes are credited with starting the game, as are the Chinese. Either way, it became a staple of childhood fun by the 19th century.

Modern Variations to Shake Up Pick-Up Sticks

Once you've got the basic rules down, it's time to shake things up with some fun variations. Try one of these creative options.

Wooden pick-up sticks
Quick Tip

You can adapt any of these variations to different ages by making them harder or easier. For example, just relax the rules when playing with littles and let them bump the other sticks without a penalty (use a timer for each turn instead).

Dark Mode Pick-Up Sticks


Need something to do at a glow party or just a way to stay entertained at a sleepover or during those long winter nights? Grab a bunch of glow sticks and play a pick-up sticks game in the dark.

You'll need to agree on the scoring of the colors ahead of time, but otherwise, the rules are the same. It's just a little more challenging when you can't see anything but the glowing sticks.

Pick-Up Sticks Dare Game

Instead of having the sticks be worth different points for each color, choose one color to be worth a dare. If the person gets that color (say black), they need to do a dare for double the points. Dares can be as simple as eating a gross food combination like a peanut butter and pickle sandwich, or you can make them more complicated (just keep it safe).

Gratitude Pick-Up Sticks

Instead of scoring the sticks by color, why not turn them into a gratitude game? Each color can be a specific kind of thing you're grateful for. This is fun to play on Thanksgiving or anytime. You can make up your own gratitude color code for the sticks, but we like this one:

  • Red - Something you love to eat
  • Green - A thing you're grateful for in nature
  • Yellow - Someone who did something nice for you recently
  • Blue - Something you appreciate about where you live
  • Black - Someone you love
  • Multicolor - A personal quality you're glad you have

Pick-Up Sticks Conversation Game

You can turn family game night into an even more meaningful bonding experience by using a pick-up sticks game to start a conversation and keep it going. This is way better than the simple "How was your day?" conversation because it's a lot more specific.

When each person picks up a certain color of stick, they can ask another player a question based on the color. You can rotate who gets asked the questions, especially if someone has just answered that color of question.

  • Red - What's something funny that happened to you?
  • Green - If you could be an animal, which one would you be and why?
  • Yellow - What is a weird dream you've had?
  • Blue - What is one thing you wish?
  • Black - What would you like to change about the world?
  • Multicolor - What do you like about another player?

Challenge Mode Pick-Up Sticks

If you're a little dexterity-challenged already like we are, pick-up sticks is already kind of a tricky game. But you can make it harder by making some little changes. These are a few awesomely frustrating options:

  • Wear thin rubber gloves to pick up the sticks.
  • Use tongs or tweezers for picking them up.
  • Add an elaborate hand gesture or clapping pattern that each player has to do before picking up a stick.
  • Have players wear sunglasses so it's hard to see the sticks and their colors.

Outdoor Pick-Up Sticks Yard Game

outdoor pick up sticks

Winter or summer, giant pick-up sticks make a pretty awesome yard game. It's easy to make a set by buying some 36-inch dowels and painting the ends in the colors you choose. Then take them to the backyard and get started. If there's snow on the ground, consider it an extra level of difficulty.

Teeny Tiny Pick-Up Sticks

You can also go the opposite direction and make a tiny version of the pick-up sticks game that's going to require incredible dexterity. Use toothpicks for the sticks (you can color them with Sharpies) and use tweezers to pick them up.

A Game That's All About Fun

No matter what kind of pick-up sticks game you choose to play, it's all about having fun (and a delicate touch). Whether you make your own variations or play it the old-fashioned way, you'll have a blast.

7 New Pick-Up Sticks Game Variations You Haven't Tried