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Tony Chen
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Oware is a two player, perfect information game. Games usually last around 10 minutes.

It is part of the Mancala family, an African classic.

The board consists of two rows of 6 pits. Each row belongs to one player. At the start of the game, each pit has 4 seeds.

On each turn, a player takes all the seeds from a pit in his row, and sows them one by one counter-clockwise, skipping the pit they were taken from (now empty) should the sowing come around a full circle or two.

If the last seed sowed lands in an opponent pit, resulting in 2 or 3 seeds in that pit, those seeds are captured by the sowing player. If the previous (opponent) pit also has 2 or 3 seeds, those are also captured, and so on.

If possible, one must leave his opponent with a move. In other words, if the opponent row has zero seeds left, and I can sow into his pits, then I must do it even if I don't want to. However, if I have no possible move to sow seeds into his row, then the remaining seeds in my row are captured by me.

If the sowing becomes a series of repetitive moves, then the remaining seeds are evenly distributed to the two players.

Now comes the widely diverse rule: the one dealing with a move that would otherwise capture all the seeds on the opponent's row. There are many variants to this rule, but the one I play with dictates that no captures is made by the sowing player.

The objective of the game is to capture a majority of the seeds, or 25 out of the 48 seeds. If the players capture 24 seeds each, then the game is a draw.

When talking about simple-yet-deep games with a rich and ancient history, we all know that China has Go and Europe has Chess; but one game that is often overlooked is Africa's Oware. Indeed, Oware has been called "the Chess of Africa", and very deservingly so--not for its similarity of mechanics, but for its richness of strategy and ageless charm. Furthermore, the depth of Oware is even more impressive (which is not to say greater) than those of Chess and Go given how deceptively simple it is. An Oware board has a total of 12 locations, with a maximum of 6 moves available to each player on a given turn! Compare this to the 361 locations on a 19x19 Go board and the 64 locations on a Chess board, and the vastly larger number of moves available on a given turn in each game, and it seems simply amazing that Oware can possess any level of depth at all.

But somehow, offering a paltry six moves to choose from, and devoid of any spatial relationship (at least in the two dimensional sense), it manages to be a game that takes a lifetime to master!

So is Oware a game for you? Personally, I don’t love, though I do like, playing it, as I don’t want to spend my life mastering it, but I do appreciate its beauty. Read on to see where the beauty lies, and whether it is a game you want to devote to mastering.

There are three types of captures in Oware: primary, secondary, and tertiary. A primary capture is one where the captured pit is sowed once, a secondary twice and tertiary thrice. A pit with 2 seeds is vulnerable to a primary capture, 1 seed to a primary or secondary capture, and 0 seed to a secondary or tertiary capture.

So the most obvious strategy is to fill up, or empty one of your pits to block such captures. If the opponent is set for a primary capture on a particular pit, fill that pit with 3 or more seeds, or simply empty it. If a pit is threatened by a secondary capture, then fill it up with 2 or more seeds.

But fortunately, the strategy doesn't end there. In fact, we have barely skimmed the surface. Right away we see that primary captures are, in general, easier to guard against. A pit is threatened? Just empty it, which is always an option. However, a secondary threat requires putting 2 or more seeds in the pit, which is not always possible, especially when you find yourself running short of seeds on your side of the board. Consider the following scenario:

A: 01-00-00-00-00-01
B: 01-03-00-00-15-00

Player B can sow pit 5 (the one with 15 seeds), resulting in:

A: 02-01-01-(02-02-03)
B: 02-04-01-01-00-02

The parenthesis marks the captured seeds, totaling 7.

So, it is good to keep the seeds on one's side of the board, because it allows one to set up for an attack like the one above. How do we keep seeds on our side of the board? Try to take a maximum number of moves without "spilling" seeds into the opposing row. Uncontested, it is simple. Consider the following scenario:

B: 00-01-01-00-02-00

If we sow the seed from pit 3 to pit 5, it gives us 2 moves. We then sow the seed from pit 2 to pit 5, giving us another 3 moves, making it a total of 5 moves. However, if we "overload" the seed from pit 2 to pit 3 first, we must then sow those two seeds from pit 3 to pits 4 and 5, and lastly sow the seed from pit 4 to pit 5, giving us a total of 3 moves before we must spill the seeds from pit 5 into the opposing row.

But of course, it is never that simple, because an opponent may always challenge your pits. For example, the same situation for row B, but now taking row A into account:

A: 00-03-04-00-00-01
B: 00-01-01-00-02-00

Player A is threatening to capture player B's pit 2, forcing player B to overload his own pit 3.

Sometimes, we can overload an opponent's pit:

A: 00-11-00-00-04-00
B: 00-02-03-00-00-02

In this situation, player A has 4 non-spilling moves, but if player sows from his pit 6, we'd have:

A: 00-11-00-00-05-01
B: 00-02-03-00-00-00

where player A now has 1 non-spilling move available.

Now all of this relates to tempo, the number of "safe" moves you can make. So far we have looked at how to maintain our tempo, and reducing that of the opponent's. A spilling move increases your opponent's tempo, and an overloading move reduces his tempo. Sometimes a move can be both spilling and overloading.

The more tempo one has, the more leverage he has to manipulate the board. Consider:

A: 00-16-00-00-01-00
B: 00-00-02-01-00-00

Player A’s turn to move, set up for a secondary capture on player B's pit 4. Player A has a tempo of 3. Player B doesn't want to empty his pit 3, because it is blocking pits 1, 2 and 3 from a secondary capture. Player B has a tempo of 2. But because player A has a higher tempo than player B, he can hold out until player B empties his pit 3, and pull off a secondary capture from pits 1-5.

However, if the situation is this:

A: 00-16-00-01-00-00
B: 00-00-02-01-00-00

Player A and B both have a tempo of 2, but player A moves first. Player B can then successfully block pits 1-3 against a secondary capture. In fact, if player A decides to load his pit 5 (the one with 16 seeds) to 17 seeds, player B can prevent player A from capturing any seed at all.

Now, let us talk about counter captures. Consider the following game state, and another after player A does a secondary capture:

A: 00-01-17-00-00-00
B: 00-00-00-00-01-02

A: 02-03-00-01-01-01
B: (02-02-02-02)-02-03

But, now player B is set up for a primary capture on player A's pit 1, 2 and 3! This is a counter capture: setting up for a primary capture if your opponent does a secondary capture. Again, tempo is vital in setting up/thwarting a counter capture.

If player A had used his tempo first instead, sowing the seed from his pit 5 to pit 6, then player B would have to spoil his set up by loading his seed in pit 5 to pit 6, and we'd have:

A: 01-00-17-00-00-00
B: 00-00-00-00-00-03

A: 03-02-00-01-01-01
B: (02-02-02-02)-01-04

where player B cannot capture any seeds. So in the above case, player B should delay his secondary capture by one turn. However, there are times when he shouldn't do this:

A: 00-01-17-00-00-00
B: 00-00-01-00-01-01

Player A would be better off doing a secondary capture right away before player B sets up a counter capture on pits 1, 2 and 3 instead of just pits 1 and 2.

Captures, or the threats of capturing, and tempo interact beautifully. A primary capture may force overloading, and reduce an opponent's tempo. The tempo advantage gained in turn may be used to set up for a secondary capture, etc etc. Sometimes, one needs to rush his seeds along (overloading, capturing before opponent can set up a block, setting up a counter capture before opponent performs a secondary capture); other times, one is trying to hold the seeds and make them advance down their row as slow as possible (buying tempo, setting up for a bigger capture, holding up a block against captures).

To return to the discussion with Go and Chess, the former has been compared to two master architects competing to build the longest bridges and cutting each other off in the process, and the latter to a knife-fight in a phone booth. I'd compare Oware to dancing, where each player is trying to dance to the rhythm of the opposing player's. One must be keenly aware of his own, and his opponent's, pacing, and react accordingly. Sometimes one must speed up, sometimes one must slow down.

I generally prefer playing board games face to face, because the feel of the board is better than staring at a computer screen. However, Oware is one of the few games I'd rather play online (Lost Cities being another), because the computer can immediately tell you how many seeds are in each pit. I can't imagine having to count the seeds in each pit on every turn.

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