Alternative Board Games: Mancala/Congkak
Whether you have hit the age of retirement or not, having some down time can be important and it’s great if you can find something new to entertain yourself and your family. Many people in this situation may turn to board games, but what about some of the lesser known options that are on the market?
The game highlighted here is very simple in premise but is filled with strategy and tactics, one of the hallmarks of a great game. Mancala is generally the umbrella term, at least in the West, but many variations exists such as Congkak, Awale, Bechi and Oware amongst others. The game applies the simple premise of capturing as many pieces as possible. How this is done, or how the board is laid out, can vary from version to version, but I will use the example of Congkak, or more specifically, Congkak as I play it, based on the rules I know.
Different variations, even within Congkak, may be the name for the game itself, the board shape, the amount of pits per board, the words used for different aspects of the game and so on. This is a simplified overview for the beginner and those new to this game. The ‘official’ rules can be hard to come by, if such rules even exist for every aspect of this game.
Example of Congkak Board and Shells part way through game
The wooden board is long and thin, comprising of seven pits on either side (often called a ‘house’) and one at each end (often called a ‘storehouse’); these pits are an inverted hemisphere in shape. The board can be about an arm’s length in length and a hand span in width. The game starts with each house (except the two storehouses on either end) filled with seven ‘game pieces’, these are cowrie shells. The first step is to pick who moves their shells first - and you move them clockwise - but how are they moved? You simply pick up all the shells in a single house on your side and place them one by one in the houses that come after them clockwise, placing them in your house to your left (including the storehouse at the end of the board). You skip the storehouse at the end of the board to your right (the other player’s storehouse), but still place shells in the other houses on your opponent’s side of the board. Each turn you can pick any house each time as long as it is on your side of the board (and of course contains shells) and not your storehouse at the end.
You take turns doing this. But of course you need an aim so you can devise a winning strategy. The aim is to claim as many shells as possible and in fact in this particular game the aims is to end up possessing all or nearly all of the shells available. So how do you capture them? It is very straightforward, when your last shell lands in an empty house on your side of the board, you capture all shells parallel to it on your opponent’s side. You put all your captured shells in your storehouse. This keeps going until one side of the board is empty of shells, the player with shells left on their side keeps them.
At this point you would count up your shells by placing those you have in your storehouse back into your house, seven in each, one player (unless you tied that round) will be unable to fill at least one house, whether they have no shells left to fill it (or them, if more than one) or even if they have six, they must put these shells to the side back into their own storehouse, while the excess shells the other player has is also put into their storehouse. The houses are refilled from left to right. Once left with an empty house, this becomes known as a burnt house. A burnt house cannot have any shells placed in it as you go round the board as normal and is instead skipped. This leads to many more tactical possibilities, but in general leaves the owner of the burnt house at a disadvantage.
The loser of the round then starts and the whole process is repeated until one player’s houses all become burnt, then the other player is the victor. As I said before, a simple premise, but one filled with possibilities, the more you play the more intricacies you would hope to discover, giving you another advantage over your opponent. It takes a few goes to get the swing of it but after that you may master the basics and delve into strategies that you have devised, based on the style of your opponent and making the most of the board.
A fun game for a huge range of ages, so you, your spouse, your friends, your children and the grandkids can all get involved.