PROJECT ELEVEN: THE OLDEST GAME IN THE WORLD

In probability theory, we often look at one's chances of winning a game. If each player has an equal chance of winning, the game is said to be fair. If the game is structured so that one player has a greater chance of winning, the game is said to be unfair. Games of chance, like throwing dice or tossing a penny are considered fair games, based on luck not on skill. We are going to discuss a game that has been played for many centuries in all parts of the world and is known by many different names. This is a fair game whose outcomes are based on skill and strategy rather than luck.

The African Stone Game or Mankala, known as oware or ware in Ghana, gabatta in Ethiopia, and Azigo in Nigeria, is called the world's oldest game. It has been played by kings and shepherds alike in parts of Africa, Asia, South America, the West Indies, and the Phillipines. Game boards for oware are often carved from wood or a hollowed-out goard. In ancient times, royal game boards were carved of ivory and lined with precious metals.

There are many variations to the game. The instructions for playing oware that are provided here are drawn from Africa Counts by Claudia Zaslavsky. See the reference list for complete information.

Sample Oware Boards

RULES FOR PLAYING OWARE

The Game Board

The game board for the two row version consists of a board that has two rows of six cups or hollowed out holes and two end pots. Egg cartons make excellent game boards. A large grid with 2 rows of 6 squares each can also be used. The pieces that are moved on the board were originally stones, but counters, pennies, lima beans, or macaroni work very well.

Objective

The objective of the game is to capture as many of your opponent's counters as possible (at least 25 counters). The player with the most counters wins. The end pots hold the captured counters.

Getting Started

1. This is a game for 2 players. Place the game board so that it is between the 2 players, with each player's 6 cups set horizontally in front of the player and the end pot to the player's right.

2. Fill each of the 12 cups with 4 counters each.

3. Players take turns emptying one of their own cups and then placing the counters removed from that cup in the counters to the right of the empty cup (in a counter-clockwise direction) until all the counters have been redistributed. For example, in the first move, if player one empties 4 counters from his/her cup, player one then places these 4 counters one at a time in the 4 cups to the right of the emptied cup.

Capturing the Opponent's Counters

1. When a player empties the counters in his/her cup and places them in the cups to the right, if the last counter put down lands on the opponent's side in a cup that had 1 or 2 counters, making a total of 2 or 3, the player gets to capture these counters. The player can also capture the counters in the opponent's preceding cups which have 2 or 3 counters in them.

2. If the opponent's cups are all empty, the player with counters is supposed to try and move the counters to the opponent's side, through legal moves in the game.

Ending the Game

1. The game is over when 1 player has captured more than half of the original 48 counters.

ACTIVITIES

1. Create an oware game board and play several games with a partner.
2. Is this a game of only strategy or does luck play a part.
3. Are there any strategies that seem to work all the time in playing oware?
4. What mathematics can one learn from playing oware? Do you recommend it for your classroom?

CONNECTIONS TO CHILDRENS' LITERATURE

Jacks is another popular childrens' game that is played, in different versions, all over the world. Jacks Around the World by Mary D. Lankford describes how many different cultures play this game.

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