Tag Archives: Omweso

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.