Traditional Board Games

The Proper Shape of Awithlaknannai

Awithlaknannai as depicted in H. J. R. Murray's book.
Awithlaknannai as depicted in H. J. R. Murray's book.

Tuesday, 6th May 2014

Awithlaknannai is a game played by the North American Indians. Fully named kolowis awithlaknannai, it was adapted from the draughts-like game alquerque; the board was changed from a square into a long, thin shape, probably inspiring the name which means "fighting serpents". The change of shape makes the old alquerque really feel like a new game.

You'll often see the game awithlaknannai with a board like the one illustrated here. Movement is severely restricted; pieces on the edges have only two places to move to. The game is very claustrophobic, and it doesn't feel like there's much strategy to it. And that's because the board is wrong.

This board comes from H. J. R. Murray's excellent 1952 book "A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess." It was copied by R. C. Bell, D. Parlett and many other authors who took Murray's book as a source. But there are two pieces of evidence that Murray, or his artist, drew the diagram incorrectly.

The first is in Murray's own text. He says that the board should be drawn "so that three lines meet in each point", which clearly isn't the case in the diagram shown above or in his book. He also says that the larger board is drawn in the same way as the smaller one; although that isn't in his book, it is in Parlett's book and I've included an equivalent diagram among the extra images below. You'll see that there are lines along the top and bottom row: should the smaller board have them too?

Long after pondering this question I came across the book Games of the North American Indians, by Stewart Culin, who was Murray's main source for the game. Culin includes a diagram of a board made for him by Zuni native Nick Graham. I've included it among the images below. Graham's pattern was for the smaller game; it was rectangular and irregularly drawn, but clearly shows that the top and bottom rows should be joined with a line, justifying Murray's statement that three lines meet at each point.

So this is the board I adopted when I made my own games of awithlaknannai a few years ago. They use the short board, but with lines joining together the points of each outer row. The game is less claustrophobic and seems to offer more strategic choice than the incorrect diagram. It's my hope that, as more game manufacturers discover the true shape of the awithlaknannai board, more accurate versions of the game will become generally available.


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