A Liberian Game

G.N. Collins

The National Geographic Magazine, Washington, D.C., 1910, pages 944-948.

Map of Africa

[Page 944] Of the multitude of intellectual games in vogue among civilized people, chess and draughts can alone be classed as games of pure skill, entirely free from chance. These are both supposed to have come to us from southern Asia.

A third game, equally free from chance, and, like chess, affording unlimited opportunity for the exercise of mental skill is played over the whole of Africa and southern Asia, and by the negroes of the West Indies, but seems never to have been taken up by European races.

The game is most widely known by its Syrian name, mancala. A form of this, called kboo, or boo, is the only game of skill played by the Golah people of Liberia. Kboo is purely arithmetical, and it seems remarkab1e that natives who are unable to even give names to the numerals above 30 can excel in the intricate mental calculations of this game. The same man who was able to plan and execute a long series of complicated moves in this game would calculate the price for whip-sawing lumber by measuring only the width of the boards, disregarding their length.

The game as played by the natives of Liberia consists of a boat-shaped board (see figure on page 945 [not reproduced]), with 12 cup-shaped depressions arranged in two parallel rows of 6 each. The board in the writer's possession is made of some heavy dark wood, colored black and highly polished. The counters, or "men," are seeds of a leguminous plant, and are about the size of small kidney-beans.

The two, players sit with the board placed crosswise between them, one row of holes being guarded by each player. At the beginning of the game each hole contains four seeds. To begin the play, one of the players takes all the seeds from any one of the holes on his side and drops one in each of the succeeding holes around the board, playing from [Page 945] left to right, or counter-clockwise. His opponent does likewise, playing from any hole on his side. As soon as play commences, some holes are of course left empty and others receive more than the four seeds. In subsequent plays these empty holes will again receive one or more seeds.

One of the objects of the game is to play from such a hole that the last seed will fall in one of the holes on the opponent's side which contains either one or two seeds. When this occurs the seeds in this hole, together with the seed dropped, are removed and count in favor of the player making the play. If any holes immediately preceding that from which such a "catch" is made contain one or two seeds the whole series are also removed until a hole is reached that was either empty or contained more than two seeds. This play can be best explained by the following diagram:

Kboo Diagram

If the player guarding the lower row of holes elects to play from hole number 8, the first of the five seeds would fall in hole number 6, the next in 7, and the last in 10. Since hole 10 contained two seeds, the three which it would contain after the play would be "caught," as well as the two in 9 and the three in number 8. The seeds in 7 would be safe, since they are more than two. Seeds can only be caught from an opponent's side.

The play continues until there are no seeds left on one or the other side when it is that player's turn to play. The game is then finished and all seeds remaining on the hoard count for the player on whose side they remain and are added to those already caught. The player haying the most seeds wins the game.

With skilled players the seeds caught during the game seldom play an important part, the principal effort being [Page 948] directed toward manipulating the play so that the seeds are accumulated on one side, leaving the other player with none. An important factor is the ability to properly estimate an opponent's skill; an elaborately planned campaign may be entirely frustrated by unexpected stupidity on the part of an opponent, as well as by superior skill.

The illustration on page 946 shows two natives playing this favorite game. The posture, which would be so uncomfortable to any European, is characteristic and perfectly comfortable for these natives.

Playing Kboo

[The photograph on the left is an edited copy of the one on page 946 accompanying this article. Because of the age of the article and the copy of the source document, it was not possible to produce a clearer graphic. The caption explains that the game was being played by men of the Golah tribe. The photograph was taken by the author of the article. Two additional photographs with the article were not reproduced for this Webpage.]

On first acquaintance this game may seem childish, but as soon as a few games have been played the possibilities of strategy, feint, and decoy become apparent and the game will be found intensely interesting. The principle is entirely different from that of either draughts or chess, both of which depend on space relations, while kboo is entirely arithmetical. Although different forms of this game have been frequently described in technical publications,* no serious effort seems ever to have been made to introduce this African game among European people.

The Golah "headman," whose picture is shown on page 947 [not reproduced], was the most skillful player I ever met. The long rainy season of Liberia afforded ample opportunity for practice, but as fast as the moves of my Golah adversary were mastered he inaugurated new methods, before which I was equally helpless.

Last update January 11, 2010