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Congkak is a popular game of logic with variations played throughout Asia, Africa and

even the Americas. Known elsewhere as mancala, the version commonly played in the
Malay archipelago requires two players to share a wooden board with at least seven holes
marking each players village and storehouse. Seeds are placed in each hole and
redistributed according to the rules of the game, with the objective of gaining as many seeds
in ones storehouse as possible. A popular traditional game in the past, the attractiveness
of congkak began declining by the 1980s as Singapore became more urbanised.

Congklak has its origins in either Africa or the Arab world, depending on which scholar's
theory

you

choose

to

believe.

Some

of

the

oldest

evidence

was

found

in

National Geographic-sponsored archaeological diggings dating back to 7,000 to 5,000 BC in


present-day Jordan. Excavations of a house uncovered a limestone slab with two parallel
rows of circular depressions. The layout was easily recognizable to an archaeologist on the
dig as the Congklak playing board. Murray, a noted scholar, traced the origins to ancient
Egypt's Empire Age (about the 15th to 11th centuries BC). Many experts surmise that
Congklak may in fact be the oldest board game ever.
The earliest recorded writings describing the game were found in references to mancala in
Arab religious texts dating to the Middle Ages. Some scholars believe that the game
originated in the Middle East and spread from there to Africa. Then, the game spread to Asia
with Arab traders and came to the Caribbean around 1640 via the African slave trade. Other
experts place the origins in Central Africa.

Today, the game is known by numerous names


around the world. The names are taken from the local culture using words that reflect where
the game is played, the manner of winning, the mode of play and the board or counters
used. It is referred to in English as Count and Capture.
In Arab countries, the most common name is mancala (an Arabic word meaning in English
to move). In some West African countries the depressions in the board are referred to as

Warri or Awari, which means houses, thus giving it the name Wari. In Nigeria the game is
known as Adi, which is also the name of the seeds used to play the game.
Due to its widespread popularity, enthusiasts have developed numerous web sites
documenting various versions of the game. The game is so popular that the British
Museum's Museum of Mankind featured an exhibition of mancala, Wari and other Congklak
playing boards in 1997.

The game is believed to have originated from the Middle East, where it was known
as mancala (Arabic for move) in Arabia. The earliest discovery of the board game was
made in Jordan, dating between 7,000 BC and 5,000 BC. The game was probably brought
by Arab or African traders travelling to China. Introduced first to Indonesia and then to the
Malay Peninsula, it took root in Malacca, where it was played exclusively in the royal court of
the Malaccan ruler. Later, the game became popular among the wider population, in
particular among Malays and Peranakans or Straits-born Chinese. The rules of the game
thus have unique Malay terms.
The game is known throughout the world and has up to 250 names, with some taking
on the name of the board or the playing pieces. There are various explanations for the
name congkak. Early sources suggest the name refers to the Chinese junk as evidenced
also in the design of many traditionalcongkak boards that are boat-shaped. However, it is
commonly believed that congkak (also chongkak, jongkah, jongkak or chunca) could be
Indonesian for cowrie shell, which was traditionally used as the game counters. The Tamil
name for the game, pallang koolhi, also makes reference to the cowrie shell. Other
explanations indicate that congkak is a traditional term for counting silently or mentally.
Even within Indonesia, Congklak is known by different names from region to region.
The most common name, Congklak, is taken from the cowrie
shell, which is commonly used to play the game. In Malaysia,
the game is known as congkak, a name that is used in many
Sumatran provinces as well. In Java, the game is known as
Congklak, dakon, dhakon or dhakonan. In Lampung, the
game is called, dentuman lamban. In Sulawesi, the game is
referred to as Mokaotan, Maggaleceng, Aggalacang and
Nogarata.

Historical references to Congklak refer to the game played by young girls of


Javanese nobility. It is most likely that foreign traders, due to their close contact with the
upper classes, introduced Congklak to them. With the passage of time, Congkla' s popularity
grew until its now widely played by the common people as well. In most regions, Congklak
play is limited to young girls, teens and women in their leisure time and its seen as a 'girl's
game'. In only a few regions is Congklak played by men and boys as well.
In Sulawesi, historically, the game was reserved for play only during grieving periods,
after the death of a loved one. It was considered taboo to play the game at any other time. In
Central Java, in pre-historic times, Congklak was used by farmers to calculate the seasons,
to know when to plant and harvest, as well as to predict the future.
The playing board is made from wood, with variations from island to island in the
number ofholes on each

side, either 5, 6, 7 or 9

holes. All the boards have

two

'store

house'

holes, one on each end.

The

design

varies

from

woods, to boat-shaped

simple,

unadorned

boards, to highly decorated

playing

Central

designs utilizing the

Java,

elaborate

boards.

In

Javanese naga (dragon) are common. Dragons face out from both ends, with their tails
decorating the side of the boards and legs suspending the board up off the floor. Congklak
boards can be elaborately carved and painted, with gold and red being popular colors. Most,
however, are made of relatively plain wood.
As in the archaeological find in Jordan, diggings in Mojokerto, Lamongan and
Bondowoso in East Java have unearthed Congklak 'boards' with holes carved into large
stones. These were found along with the broken pieces of temple stones and other
archaeological remains of earlier times.
In Lampung, village children often play without a board, but instead create their own
playing area by scooping out holes in the ground and collecting stones or seeds each time
they want to play.
Not much has changed since prehistoric times, when Congklak was played with
stones or seeds. In Indonesia, stones, seeds and shells are used to play the game, whatever
is

close at hand. Near a beach shells may be used. Near rivers, the game may be played with
smooth pebbles and in agricultural areas, seeds. Commonly used seeds are tamarind,
kemiri, sawo and even corn kernels.
The widespread popularity of Congklak around the world can undoubtedly be
attributed in part to the simplicity of the materials used to play the game. Congklak, in all its
variations, continues to attract dedicated players as well as craftsmen, mathematicians,
programmers and collectors of regional art and handicrafts.
Whatever version you play today, and by whatever name you call it, you'll find
Congklak a challenging game of patience and skill.
In general, only women, children and youth played the game, as it was considered
beneath men to do so. Women were often seen playing it at the open verandah of their
kampong (village) homes or under shady trees. Peranakans ladies would often be seen
chewing betel leaf while they played. Among Peranakan Indians, pallang koolhi is believed to
have been introduced from South India. The Peranakan Indians played the game during
festivities such as wedding celebrations.
The game requires a wooden block (papan congkak), which was originally
handcarved. Expensive boards were sometimes made of mahogany or teak, and carved with
elaborate decorations and images. In Java, the board is often boat-shaped, and some early
studies of Malayan congkak describe the Malayan board as having a similar
design. Congkak boards sometimes featured dragons on either side although this design
soon faded as Islam gained predominance. The petalawati, a mythical bird, is sometimes
carved at the head of the board. Some versions do without boards altogether and are played
using holes dug in the ground instead. Modern modifications of the game make use of the
six-hole art palette instead of purchasing the now difficult to find papan congkak.
Each board has between 16 to 18 holes carved out in two rows. Variants of the game
may have up to nine holes for the village. In the more commonly used 16-

hole congkak board, seven holes are designated as houses in the village (kampong)
while the last two larger holes serve as storehouses (rumah) located on either end of the
block.
The number of seeds per hole is tied to the total number of houses per village. Thus
a board with seven houses per village would begin with seven counters per house. In the
past, the nut-like seeds known asbuah gorek in Java and buah kelichi in Malacca were
commonly used in the game. In Southeast Asia, cowrie shells or tamarind seeds were
traditionally used although in more modern times, marbles, beads, rubber seeds, pebbles
and saga seeds are now used.
When playing congkak, two players compete to collect the largest number of seeds in
their respective storehouses. Sitting at opposites ends, each player owns the row of houses
directly in front of him and the storehouse on their left. Up to 98 seeds are placed equally in
every house.
There are three stages of play. In the first stage, players play concurrently, beginning
with any one of their houses and dropping seeds rapidly and noisily clockwise into each
house until each player is finished with all the seeds in his hand. On his round, a seed is
placed in a players storehouse but not his opponents, a move known as naik rumah. On
ending his round, the player scoops up all the seeds of the house that he has dropped his
last seed in and the process is repeated until the last seed is dropped into an empty house.
If the last seed falls in a house that is part of a players village, he can pick all the seeds from
his opponents house that lies opposite it and deposit it in his storehouse. This lucky strike is
often known as mati bela (sacrifice). If it drops in his storehouse, he can continue the
game, picking a house of his choice from his side. When the last seed drops in an empty
house, he is considered mati (dead) and ends his turn. His opponent continues until he
similarly ends his turn.
The next stage involves turn-taking using the same given rules as the first stage. This
stage ends when one player has emptied his kampong (mati sa-papan).
In the last stage, players redistribute the seeds in their storehouse into their
respective village placing seven seeds in each house, starting from the left-most house. If
there are more seeds, the rest is returned to his storehouse. If there are insufficient seeds,
an empty house is considered terbakar (burnt) or a telaga buruk (ruined well) and no
seeds should be deposited there during this stage of the game. Should a player accidentally

drop a seed in a burnt house, his seed will go to his opponents storehouse. They take turns
playing during this stage with the player with the least seeds going first. The same rules of
continuing or stopping a turn apply. The game ends when one player has all his houses
burnt or has lost all his seeds (mati kena abu).
Some common strategies to stay in the game include choosing the most seeded
house in a players village to empty out. This ensures that empty houses are filled so that the
player is not likely to stop short. Redistributing seeds also helps prevent an opponent from
claiming a large victory should the opposite home be empty. Keeping a close count of the
seeds also gives a player the edge, especially in anticipating where the move may end.
One of the most fascinating things about living in Indonesia is the discovery of bits of
Indonesian culture which are actually not Indonesian at all, but originate in other lands. For

centuries, the Indonesian archipelago has been


visited by traders from many corners of the world who came to buy spices and other
agricultural riches. Indonesian cultural diversity benefited by the many peoples who passed
through the archipelago, due to Indonesia's location along the primary trade route between
Europe and Asia.
Together with the items they brought to sell, these traders brought bits of their culture
along with them as well. These included religion, language, foods and textile traditions. Less
written about than spices, silks and ceramics, however, are the games brought to Indonesia
by travelers over the centuries.

The main method of play has rules as described below.Both players begin
simultaneously by scooping up all the seeds in any house on their side. Each drops a seed
into the next house and continues clockwise depositing one seed into every house
thereafter. A player drops a seed into his storehouse each time he passes it but does not
deposit any into his opponent's storehouse.
How the game continues, depends on where the last seed of each scoop is
deposited.If the seed drops into the players own storehouse: the player scoops up the
seeds from any of his houses and distributes them in the houses round the board but not in
his opponent's storehouse.
If the seed drops into a house (on either side of the board) containing seed: The
player scoops up all the seeds in that house and continues distributing them as described
above.If the seed drops into the players house which is without seeds: The player is entitled
to collect the seeds in his opponent's house directly opposite his own. These seeds collected
from his opponent's house together with his last seed are deposited in his own storehouse. If
the opponent's 'house' opposite his own is empty, he deposits only his last seed in his own
storehouse. He forfeits his turn and stops playing. It is the opponent's turn now to distribute
the seeds.
If the seed drops into an empty house belonging to the opponent: the player forfeits
his turn and stops playing. He also forfeits his seeds and leaves it in the opponent's house. It
is the opponent's turn now to distribute the seeds.The first round ends when a player has no
more seeds in his house. The remaining seeds are awarded to his opponent.
Play resumes in the second round with players redistributing seeds from their own
storehouse to their own houses. Beginning from left to right, seven seeds are placed in each
house. If a player does not have sufficient seeds to fill his own houses, the remaining houses
are left empty and are considered 'burnt'. The leftover seeds are deposited into his own
storehouse. The opponent deposits excess seeds he has won into his own storehouse.
The loser gets to start the second round. Play is continued as before but players will
bypass 'burnt houses' for instance no seeds are to be dropped into these houses. If a seed
is accidentally dropped into a 'burnt house', it is confiscated and stored in the opponent's
'storehouse'.Play continues until one player loses all his 'houses' or concedes defeat.

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M.

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PT

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Bronze-iron Age of Indonesia. M. Nijhoff. p. 177. ISBN 978-0-313-33339-2. line feed


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E. D. Wilkins, Sally (2002). Sports and games of medieval cultures (illustrated


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(Call no.: 394.3095957 HAV)

Singapore:

The

Peoples

Association.