Congkak

Uncredited designer

Publisher: various

An ornate congkak board with no marbles in the pit…yet

Congkak (Sungka or Dakon) is a traditional game in South-East Asia that have been around for centuries. It is not clear how long the history of this game dates back but it has its roots in Mancala, which has been played worldwide in many countries under different names and with various house rules. In Africa, a version of Mancala called Oware exists. In the Western hemisphere, a version of Mancala called Kalah is popular. Ironically, the game Mancala probably doesn’t even exist. To me, the game seems to have agricultural roots as players use “seeds” and “sow” the seeds in the holes on the board. In the most crudest form of the game, players can also dig holes on the group to substitute for a game board. At least in Malaysia, Congkak used to be ubiquitous but these days, the game is probably supplanted by Nintendo Switch or Fortnite. You don’t see kids playing it any more except in cultural exhibitions. While the game probably doesn’t match up with modern day classics in terms of complexity and strategy, the cultural aspects of the game should really be preserved. It is after all a local heritage.

At the most basic level, Congkak itself probably won’t hold a gamer’s attention. A Congkak board has 7 pits on each side of a carved wooden board. A much larger pit known as the “house” or “Store” is found at each end of the carved board. The entire carved structure often looks like a boat. If you are familiar with the American version of Mancala called Kalah, the board looks the same except that Congkak has 7 pits instead of 6 on each side. A note about the board, Congkak carved boards can look really ornate and is certainly a conversation piece. Marbles and cowrie shells can be used as playing pieces and the entire game as displayed looks splendid.

The game is set up with 7 marbles (or shells, stones) placed in each of the smaller pits. Each player owns the 7 pits on one side of the board as well as the house on the right. One person starts by picking up all the marbles in one pit and sequentially dropping one marble in each pit in an anti-clockwise manner. When the last marble is deposited in a pit containing more marbles, the player scoops up all the marbles and continues to play by dropping marbles in a similar manner. If the last marble is placed in an empty pit, the player’s turn ends. If that empty pit belongs to the active player, he or she can steal all the marbles in the opposing pit and stash it in the house for scoring. If however the empty pit is located on an opponents side of the board, nothing happens and the opposing side gets to go. The game ends when either side of the board is completely empty. Any additional marbles on the opponents pit will be added to the house for scoring. The players with the most pieces in the house is the winner.

There seems to be a starting player advantage, though I not exactly sure if skill can overcome that advantage. Since players can see the marbles, a quick mental calculation can be done to figure out the distribution of marbles prior to selecting a pit. It’s likely the further away you can project the marble distribution for each pit, the more successful you will be in the game. Basic congkak feels like it can be solved. Assuming an optimal sequence, one can probably project what a good starting hand looks like since the opening can always be the same. Once an opponent gets to go, the possibilities becomes a bit more complex to calculate. Nonetheless, I think there are some basic strategies one could follow to optimize scoring.

Playing Congkak is almost more like a soothing activity than a game. The tactile feel of the marbles, and the scooping action really feels meditative. The game was originally billed as an activity for women and children, but that is just really a throwback to the sexism of the bygone era.

The intriguing thing is that Congkak really is set up to play with more than just one set of rules. There are lots of variants out there to explore include Oware, Kalah or any of the other regional variations. Perhaps there is a competitive and much more strategic version out there worth exploring.

Initial impressions: Average (family); Average (Kid)

Kid’s Corner

5 year 3 months: The basic mechanics are simple for my kid to grasp. She knows to drop each marble in each pit and then to loop around. It’s interesting to see her project her marble placements. I can tell she see probably no more than two steps away at the moment, but only if she focuses hard on the game. No doubt the game feels a bit repetitive and I feel she struggles to pay attention. Because each action is essentially the same and there is not an aha! moment, I believe this will not be one of her favorites. Who will dethrone Sleeping Queen!!!??

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