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 player’s 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 one’s storehouse as possible. A popular traditional game in the past, the attractiveness of congkak began declining by the 1980s as Singapore became more urbanised.
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 traditional congkak 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”.
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 as buah 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 player’s storehouse but not his opponent’s, 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 player’s village, he can pick all the seeds from his opponent’s 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 opponent’s 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 player’s 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.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.