Tag Archives: Game

Gender values in Manqala

10 Jun

(in which Sheikh Jahbooty shows his feminine side)

So I made these Chess wedges, the kind you might use to play Martian Chess


or BT&T (Barsoomite Go)


And I wondered if it was worth it. I mean those games are beautiful on the wooden chess wedges, and the wedges look like some sort of wide Martian crystal dagger or something, so they are aesthetically pleasing all by themselves.


But I guess I was having a sort of crafter’s remorse, like “Was it worth the time and effort I put into making these things?” Eventually I took two of them and put them together and they make a really cool looking half of a Chess board. So I thought, “If I knew a bunch of games to play on half of a chessboard I would completely feel like it was certainly worth the work I put into them because they could be put to more versatile uses.”


this game is still gorgeous

And Richard Hutnick has that list of 32 games to play on the 32 squares of half a chessboard, and a bunch of those are actually quite good.

this game is clever and pretty

this game is clever and pretty

But while I was just sort of listlessly stacking pennies on the board, I realized:

This is the starting position of Bao la Kiswahili.

This is the starting position of Bao la Kiswahili.

Subhan’Allah! How awesome is that? I decided then and there to teach myself how to play Bao. But I didn’t want to just learn it. I wanted to train. I wanted to try out different strategies and get good at the game. I don’t know how I decided this, but I decided that Bao was a game that it was worth the expenditure of time and energy to learn to play well.

And I learned that player one has a really aggressive opening strategy that is central to playing the early game well. The strategy is: threaten to capture the nyumba and another chumba at the same time. (If the nyumba has been safaried, then the strategy will be to threaten to capture two chumba that both contain a lot of kete.) Also, since an aggressive player’s strategy will be to force you to defend your nyumba while he captures your other spaces, leaving your nyumba intact when you have the option to safari from it has to be a seriously considered act. Don’t leave your nyumba intact unless it’s very early in the game and safariing is clearly a losing move.

Once you finish the namua stage, meaning after the 44th move, when the last reserve kete has been added to the board, you begin the mtaji stage, and I feel like the real meat of Bao begins. In namua, the game is just too easy. Does the opponent have a particular chumba you want to capture? Do you have kete across from his kete? Then you can capture. Take a kete from reserve. It ends it’s journey to the board in the hole you pick. And you capture.

But even though the really fun and challenging part of Bao starts in the mtaji stage, there is no guarantee that you can get there. It is apparently called mkononi, and it is a victory while there are still kete in reserve, before even all the kete have entered the board. When it happens it’s disappointing even if you are just playing practice games to teach yourself.

So I thought, what is the purpose of the namua phase? Is it just to save time? You only have to get 20 kete on the board before you can begin playing, and getting the rest of the kete onto the board is part of the game, thus saving time in setup? Which two-cycle manqala games lack the namua phase?

Specifically I wanted two-cycle manqala games because I liked how seeds never leave the board in Bao. There is an end state that the players are trying to reach, having your opponent’s front row empty, but there is nothing in the rules that forces that to happen after a certain amount of time. One-cycle manqala games are as different from two cycle manqala games, as chess is from shogi, or draughts is from sapos. In one-cycle manqala games (and chess and draughts), captured pieces leave the board and do not come back. The game inexorably draws to an end, as the pieces run out. In two-cycle manqala games (and shogi and sapos), pieces come back onto the board. After 1000 moves, you could be no further towards the end of the game than when you started. In fact, in Bao, your front row tends to fill up with a lot of large quantities of kete as you get closer to winning, which means that as you get closer to winning, you become more vulnerable to captures that can turn the tide of the game. For some reason, this really appealed to me, so I wanted to find other games that had these characteristics.

Soon I discovered Omweso, and Isolo. The rules for Isolo that I found on-line were vague, but there was something of particular note. There are slightly different Isolo rules for boys than for girls. The rules for boys use less bowls and less seeds, and only when necessary, a boy can bring in the extra seeds and bowls to stay in the game if he’s losing ground. So normally, a boy would use 15 seeds and 14 holes, but if he’s losing he can bring in the other 2 holes and other 17 seeds, and from then on, play the game just like a girl might. This, I learned, was typical of manqala games. Games that are thought of as boy games use less holes or less seeds or they might be single lap games (games where you scoop a hole, sew the seeds, and that is your turn. If the last seed ends in a hole that already has seeds in it. You do not scoop out all those seeds and continue sewing.) Games that have lots of holes and multi-lap sewing are thought of as games for girls, games like Sungka.

But why do these gender values exist in manqala games? Why are girl games more difficult?

Well, here are my hypotheses:

1) Girls are better at math than boys are. – I don’t really have any data or supporting arguments for this one. I just have to admit it as a possibility.

2) Girls invented manqala games so they’ve been playing them longer and want, as a community, more challenging games. – Is it just me, or are ladies the people that lead humanity into the agricultural revolution? I mean, when we see people living on the edge, between hunter gatherers and agriculturalists, we usually see the men continuing to hunt and gather, or perhaps herd, while the women farm. That’s the way it is, right? It’s probably just a biological thing. In the age before sports bras, it was really not fun for a lady to chase down an antelope. But if we think about the materials used to play manqala games, they were usually seeds, sewn into holes in the ground. This is a farming activity. It is not a hunting activity. It could be that girls made up simpler games for the hunters to play, so the boys wouldn’t be stumped by these farmer games.

3) In the societies where manqala games became cultural institutions, it was important for girls to train to be really good at math. – I can recognize about seven things. If you show me a group of things and there are seven of them or less, I can know immediately how many things there are. If there are eight things, I mentally split them up into groups that I can recognize, two groups of four, thus eight. If you were an ancient farmer with a sack full of yam sprouts, it might be especially useful for you if you could recognize 17 yam sprouts, without having to count them. If you spend part of every day playing a game where 17 cowrie shells end up in a bowl together, eventually maybe you just get used to seeing large numbers of things, so you know what 17 of something looks like, without counting. So maybe the female manqala games arose as a way to train young farmers to be able to plan their use of supplies better.

4) Maybe they are only more difficult for me. – I have to admit this is a possibility as well. Maybe I play manqala games the way a boy does, with boy strategies, and a lady would play feminine manqala games with her own tactics and values so she wouldn’t find them more difficult. Maybe ladies would find masculine manqala games just as difficult as I find feminine manqala games.

But then this begs the question: How am I playing differently? So far I only have one answer for this, and it’s based on my subjective experience, rather than statistical data, so I may be completely off on this one. Ladies are much less interested in look-ahead. What I mean by look-ahead is the ability to have some sense where the game will be ten moves from now. But why should this be?

My first thought was that ladies get less of a rush from beating each other at games, but I’ve known some crazy competitive ladies so that might not be true. Those ladies were obviously getting a rush from being winners, even if they were playing something goofy, like Trivial Pursuit.

But maybe competitiveness in ladies is a cultural thing. We have to admit that for most of human existence, ladies did not have to compete for mates. Technically they still don’t. If I want a child, I have to convince a woman to do something with me that would make her pregnant for nine months. If a lady wants a child, she has to convince a man to do something with her that would make him tired for an hour. If you say to your partner, “I will raise the child alone,” it’s just a lot easier to get a man to commit to an hour’s worth of effort than it is to get a woman to commit to the months of effort that she would expend being pregnant. Men are more competitive because we have to compete for the far more selective affection of ladies.

And when I think of my own experience, I have to admit that when I sit down to play games with ladies, they are always card games or dice games. My wife loves to play backgammon with me. We can play half a dozen games of Magnate, back to back. Aquarius is one of her favorite games, and it’s so infuriatingly luckish (or psychedelic, depending on how you want to look at it) that I feel like I have to remove half the “shuffle goals” cards before I play that game. My mother taught me about a dozen card games. She introduced me to Rummy-Q, and Mah Jong. On the other hand, my father taught me chess and Go.

And maybe the ladies sitting under a tree or under the eaves of a building or in the shade of a wall thought, “This game is cool and all. Maybe dudes would like it. But if we’re just going to sit here for the hottest part of the day, we should play a game that leads to completely unforeseeable circumstances. I don’t need to think ten moves ahead and prove that I’m smarter than the lady across from me. That would gain me relatively little. I would much rather have a game with exciting twists of fate and turns of fortune.”

Admittedly, all of these theories have their problems, but I think that the key difference between feminine manqala games and masculine manqala games is that feminine games are more chaotic and unpredictable. Masculine manqala games favor long term strategy over short term tactical resourcefulness.

In manqala games, unpredictability doesn’t come from dice or cards or any other kind of randomizer. It comes from chaos (in the mathematical sense). In some games, the chaos is thick, almost impossible to see through. One of the first manqala games I learned was this sort of game. My friend, Old Skillet, taught me a variant of the game Congkak that we could play with the manqala equipment we had on hand. This is a game where the chaos starts thick and heavy. It is unsurprisingly thought of as a game for women in Malaysia. But for me it was the doorway to a marvelous and fascinating new world of gaming. And one of the things I liked most about the game was the unpredictability. You could tell where your first few laps were going to go, but twice around the track was too much to keep strait in my head. At a certain point you just had to pick up the pieces and make the move.

I loved the chaos.

This is why I find Bao to be disappointing until it reaches the mtaji stage. The namua stage doesn’t have enough unpredictability. It’s too masculine. But then, does this mean that I have feminine taste in Manqala games?

girly man?

girly man?

I prefer to think that I’m a more complete individual.

So if I’m going to find a two-cycle manqala game that I like, I will have to find a game that has a lot of chaos. The game I finally settled on is Omweso. You can play it on half of a chess board with 64 pennies. And most importantly, the chaos runs so thick on an Omweso board that when you are winning, it is possible to sew around the board half a dozen times before dropping your last empiki in an empty space. Theoretically, it’s possible to play a move that never ends, just keeps cycling around your half of the board over and over. I’ve never seen such a move, so I imagine they must be rare, but mathematically they are possible. Captures in Omweso are devastating. It’s not weird for the first few captures to be of eight empiki each. That is one eighth of the pieces on the board switching hands on each capture. It is possible to see which moves your opponent has available, and which moves you could do, but a strategy of how to play several moves ahead is almost useless. It’s a case of no battle plan surviving contact with the enemy.

Also, the back row in Omweso is very kinetic. And controlling the back row is hugely important in defending your pieces from capture. But guess what, as you get closer to winning, you have less control over your half of the board, as it fills up with constantly shifting and impossible to predict pieces. I feel like Omweso is a metaphor for two people trying to have a gunfight while surfing during a typhoon.

Bao is a great game. If someone wanted to play me in a game of Bao, I would be very happy to. I like Bao la Kiswahili. I just like it less than I like Omweso.

The Emperium

13 Oct

I think it’s worth taking a blog post to write about the official Traveller setting, specifically because I have never used it.

When MegaTraveller came out, I shifted to that system. It included some rules that were significant improvements on the Classic Traveller. For one, it was way better organized and compiled. All the rules were in one place now. I didn’t have to try to remember which little book or supplement I needed to look in to find some specific rule. Also, it allowed for a lot more customization. You kind of had to be a bit of a math nerd (which I suppose you can guess that I was given that I’ve already admitted to knowing Lojban), but you could take some time out and design an entire line  of space fighters, or cars, or hoverbikes. This kind of detail didn’t exist in Classic Traveller. But finally, what made me switch was the Universal Task Profile.

Why should anyone care about the Universal Task Profile?

In table top role-playing games, there are two type of contests, two ways in which you determine if a character performs an action successfully, the way the players describes it, or if the character fails. The first way is called a standard contest. This is when a player declares, “My character wants to shoot the orc,” and the game master looks up the situation in the rules and the rules say that character has a 30% chance of hitting the orc with an arrow at that range in that lighting, using that bow, given the orc’s agility and the character’s skill, etc. Standard contests are what makes RPGs thick books that take a long time to read and difficult to remember how to play without the rule book handy.

The second type of contest is a negotiated contest. This is when a player announces, “My character is going to use the bioscanner to try to figure out what kind of alien fungus is infecting the cabbages,” and the game master knows damn well that there is no rule in any of the rule books that tells you what to roll or what chance the character has of successfully figuring this out. And that’s when the negotiation starts. The GM says, “He has a 30% chance,” and the player responds, “But my character has a high quality bioscanner,” so the GM gives a bonus, and the player says, “Also, he has a degree in xenobiology,” so the GM gives another bonus, and the player says, “And I’m going to ask our native guide,” but the GM says, “No, the native people have never seen anything like this, so that doesn’t help.” And after all the negotiation, the player rolls some dice, and the story moves forward with the character still unaware of what the fungus is, or now armed with knowledge of the alien fungus. Negotiated contests are why people still play tabletop RPGs when we have such good MMORPGs nowadays. In a tabletop RPG you can negotiate with an actual person so your character can literally try anything.

The Universal Task Profile streamlined that by such a large degree that one page of rules could clearly show 20 standard contests, and standard contests were made so simple, that a negotiated contest could be resolved almost instantly, recorded in a notebook, and from then on, be a standard contest. The game master didn’t have to think about what dice to use or what kinds of things constituted bonuses. There was now one way to do everything, see if a blaster hit a foe, see if an engineer fixed a spacecraft, see if a linguist understood an alien communication, everything. It was in fact such an advance, that today, all role-playing games organize their resolution systems this way.

So yes, I switched to MegaTraveller. MegaTraveller, the way it was written and presented was not like Classic Traveller. Classic Traveller had rules, and then in supplements, it introduced a setting, the Third Emperium. The first reason I didn’t use the setting of the Third Emperium was that I didn’t own those supplements. I didn’t feel like I needed those books. I’d read the Dune novels, the Foundation series, the Dorsai series, the Ecumen novels, etc. I’d watched Star Wars and Star Trek. I knew what the deal was. I could make up a world of interstellar adventures. I didn’t need Mark Miller to make it up for me. But in MegaTraveller, all the setting information, all the details about the Emperium, the K’Kree, the Aslan, the Vargr, the Zhodani, etc. All of that was built into the game. It was all presented right alongside the rules. The book with all the high tech equipment lists in it started with 50 pages of information about the setting of the Third Emperium, including the recent assassination of Emperor Strephon by Archduke Dulinor I, the Usurper.

So why didn’t I use the setting of the Third Emperium, why not even then?

Well, I’m sure that part of the reason is that there is a lot of fun to be had using Traveller to engage in world-building. Because of all the charts and die rolls, setting up a game can be almost as rewarding as playing the game. One subsector in Traveller generally contained 40 worlds. We all tended to think of this as the minimum amount of space that was necessary to play around in. Those 40 worlds each had a 7 digit hexcode that was randomly determined by the roll of dice and told you things like, how big was the world and how much gravity it exerted, what sort of atmosphere it had, how much water was present, how many people lived there, how did they govern themselves, etc. Based on all those random things, you decided on one interesting thing to say about this world. Or if the players seemed interested in a particular place, if it seemed like their characters would linger for a while, then you could use the hexcode as inspiration to come up with a page or two of interesting details about a world.

In the Worlds and Adventures book of Classic Traveller, there are charts and rules to help you come up with random charts of animal encounters, in case the world has a low population and an atmosphere that doesn’t preclude exploring the surface, and you want to make up the exotic alien ecosystems that the players can encounter exploring the planet. In the Scout Book of Classic Traveller there were charts and rules to allow one to randomly generate every planet in a stellar system.  Few systems would be as complex as our solar system (4 planets, 4 gas giants and 2 belts, the asteroid belt containing Ceres, and the Kuiper belt containing Pluto and the even larger body, Eris). But if you really wanted to get into all these details, you could, and there were charts and graphs and rules and dice to help inspire you every step of the way. If you knew the players wanted to explore a system to find a lost space pirate ship there, you could sit down with no preconceived notions and a few hours later you could have a star system full of fun details that would make Pandora seem like a boring and heavy-handed metaphor.

If you used the setting provided, the Spinward Marches of the Third Emerium, some of that work was already done for you. And if you find world-building fun, that’s not cool. You paid GDW to sell you a game, not to play it for you.

But also, I think I didn’t like the Third Emperium. I mean, the Emperium was this weird anachronistic thing. For some reason, the speed of travel is equal to the speed of communication, like in the 1600s, but the government is medieval, like the 1200s, but they have loans for millions of credits, like in modern times. How do they keep tabs on their debtors with such slow communications? And why would they extend a loan to buy a merchant ship in a world with space pirates? Wouldn’t it be too risky? How does the Emperor maintain his aristocracy if his peasants can get their hands on starships? Wouldn’t they just leave?

I liked it far better that there was no overarching governing structure, just a kind of loose agreement on exchange rates and technological standards. It was simpler and allowed me and my games more diversity.

And the aliens weren’t very interesting. The Zhodani were just psychic. They could read minds. They weren’t alien. They just had a super power. Players wanted to be Zhodani. The Aslan might have been interesting if I’d read any of those Kzinti novels, but… And well, since they had the cat aliens, they needed to have dog aliens, the Vargr. At least they had aliens who were starfish, called Hivers, and some who were a cross between bees and pterodactyls, the Droyne.

And you didn’t really need aliens. Humans don’t have any warrior cultures that might be cool in space? We don’t have any cultures that value logic and reason? We don’t have any cultures that esteem sensitivity and expanding the mind? The trend in sci-fi to make human culture a culture of Western discipline and science, and alien cultures, everything else, always struck me as a little racist, not like evil racist, but annoying, like turning on a sci-fi TV show and seeing a black guy and thinking, “Cool, one of the heroes of this sci-fi show is a black guy, just like Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel, Left Hand of Darkness.” But as you watch you realize he’s not a negro; he’s an alien. Human heroes don’t have brown skin.

Now that I’m writing this, I’m remembering you don’t really need psychic powers either. Psionics as they were presented in the rules were too weak to make a Lensmen game, or Dune style game, and there were too many of them to do a Star Wars or Star Trek style game. I almost always omitted them or changed them. Once, inspired by Dune and the very first space sci-fi role-playing game, Starfaring (it’s a link because I know you’ve never heard of it), I made a chart that could be rolled on instead of any skill throw. It represented spending your time experimenting with Mazige, a rare drug that altered perception and allowed the user to bend the rules of time and space. There was no Psi-Strength. You just had this stuff as skills, and could do things with them. I’ve lost the chart but it was something like this.

2 ) Fold Space
3 ) -1 End
4 ) -1 Int
5 ) -1 Soc
6 ) Streetwise
7 ) +1 Edu
8 ) Hypnosis
9 ) Telepathy
10) Healing
11) Astral Projection
12) Precognition

Yes, I remember clearly that there was a 1 in 3 chance that doing Mazige would actually mess you up, give you uncontrollable telepathy that makes you distracted (-1 Int) or unpleasant (-1 Soc), or disfigure you like a Guild Navigator (-1 Soc), or you get caught by a narcotics officer because it’s illegal on the world you were on (-1 Soc) or you overdose or become addicted and afterwards you are weaker (-1 End). But there was also an almost 1 in 3 chance that it would make you better, make you empathic (extra level of Streetwise) or expand your mind (+1 Edu), and there was a slightly over 1 in 3 chance that it would give you a cool power.

Fold Space gave you an extra DM in combat equal to your level in the skill, plus you could move a starship a number of parsecs equal to your skill, but only once a month. Precognition gave you a positive DM equal to your skill level on almost everything. Hypnosis and Telepathy gave you phantom DMs on the NPC Reactions table, so if you rolled 4 (Hostile), but you had two levels of Hypnosis, you could get them to do stuff that would represent a 6 (Unreceptive), which is enough to make diligent guards ignore you. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” Telepathy let you communicate silently with your friends and family in the same system, regardless of distance, and gave a phantom DM to NPC Reactions but only for gaining information. “His thoughts give him away.” Healing was just like Medical skill but you didn’t need a medical kit and you couldn’t get a job as a ship’s medic. And sometimes psychic healing would let you heal stuff that Medical was no good for, lepers and cripples kind of stuff. Astral Projection did just what it said, with a range in parsecs equal to the level of the skill. And finally, I think I let characters who had Astral Projection and Telepathy access to a sort of intersystem communication, like they could visit their friends in dreams, as long as their friends were within Astral Projection range.

And that’s just one of the ways we changed psychic powers.

So there was a setting with a Third Emperium attached to Traveller, but the game was a lot more fun without it. I don’t think I’ll ever play in the Third Emperium. If, after the move, I get together a group to play Mongoose Traveller, I’d hope we’ll play Strontium Dog. If I actually meet people who want to try Traveller 5, I’d suggest we create an Uplift style setting, like David Brin’s, so we’d get to play with all the slick Sophonts and Geneering rules in T5.