Cyningstan

Traditional Board Games

Games Round the World: North Africa

Beautiful Islamic architecture in Morocco
Beautiful Islamic architecture in Morocco

Saturday, 20th June 2015

I picked up a copy of Edward Lane's "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians" a couple of weeks ago, a timely purchase given that I was headed for North Africa in my armchair journey. Lane's book, published in 1836, covers three of the games I will be looking at today.

You may remember that I started this world tour in ancient Egypt, but the games of early modern Egypt are somewhat different to their ancient counterparts, and yet still very distinctive. So I have no objection to revisiting this fascinating country.

A remnant of ancient times is the diverse range of "mancala" games played across north Africa. From "wari" in the west to a completely different variety played on the same board, of two rows of six holes, in the east, and much bigger games played to the south, the great variety of these games defies the kind of passing description I can give here.

Mancala games, if you've not played one, have the unusual distinction that all the pieces are the same, not even distinguished by colour as in draughts and similar games. The ownership of the pieces is ascertained by which side of the board they currently reside, and an individual piece can and will change sides several times during the game. One is not, in fact, tracking individual pieces as in chess or draughts, but is counting their number in the various holes that form the playing spaces of the board.

Pieces are "moved" by lifting all pieces from a hole and dropping them, one at a time, in subsequent holes in a set course: usually clockwise around the board, or around the player's half of the board. The rules of capture change according to the game, but usually a capture is decided by the number of pieces in the last hole of the drop sequence, or in a hole opposite.

You can best get a flavour of these fascinating games by trying out Wari, a West African version, which is probably the most simple and easy to play. There's a leaflet about the game and a print-and-play file elsewhere on this page; it is also covered in depth in my latest book "A Book of Historic Board Games".

Two interesting strategy games from West Africa are both played on the same board, of five rows of six squares, the pieces being held one to a square as is common in Western games. The first is "dara". In dara, each player holds twelve pieces. These are placed one at a time onto the empty board. Once done, pieces then move to adjacent squares, attempting to form rows of three. Formation of a row of three allows the capture of an opposing piece. This should seem familiar to fans of morris games.

The other game played on the same board is "yoté". It is more reminiscent of draughts, but is much more interesting in my opinion. The board starts empty as in dara. But instead of placing all the pieces at the beginning of the game, the player has the choice of whether to place a piece in hand or move one already on the board, allowing pieces to be kept safe in hand until they are needed. Capture is by the short leap, as in draughts, but only one leap is made each turn. The game is made more dramatic, however, by the fact that after taking the enemy piece leapt, a second enemy piece is also chosen as a captive.

Moving across to the eastern end of North Africa, there is a strategic game played in Egypt till the nineteenth century called "seega". This game is played on a square board of five, seven or nine rows, though the smallest board is most common in the west. Each player has enough pieces to fill half the board, excluding the central square. The board starts empty, but players place the pieces two at a time anywhere outside the central square till all the pieces have been placed.

Once the pieces are all on the board, they move to non-diagonally adjacent squares as in dara and yoté. Capture in this game is by sandwiching an enemy piece between two of one's own, rather like the Greek and Roman games of petteia and ludus latrunculorum, and may well be a descendant of those games. But a piece having taken an enemy, may move and take again if possible, a rule that seems to have been borrowed from draughts.

The last game played in nineteenth century Egypt is tâb, a tactical war game that involves an element of chance. The history of tâb is easier to trace than that of seega. It is first encountered in the fourteenth century, and spread around the Muslim world from West Africa to India. Similar games found their way to mediaeval England and Scandinavia, perhaps through trade.

In tâb, the board is four rows of usually nine squares, and each player's home (back) row are filled with pieces of that player's colour. These pieces move around the board according to throws of casting sticks, a kind of dice with two sides each. The path of the pieces is one-dimensional but with some flexibility; on a piece reaching the end of a row the player often--but not always--have the choice advance it to the next or withdraw it to the previous row.

Pieces capture each other by landing on their victim by an exact throw. The skill in the game is in keeping one's pieces out of harm's way while at the same time trying to threaten the opponent. There is a print-and-play available on this page, and like wari, tâb is covered in some detail in "A Book of Historic Board Games".

There are interesting games in the southern parts of Africa, but with the exception of the many mancala variants, original games from that part of the world are few and far between. So next time I'll turn my attention north across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, starting with the rich variety of games known in Mediaeval Spain.

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