Photo credit: rodmagaru.com

As one of the most popular board games in the Philippine archipelago, Sungka is played by Filipinos both young and old. This traditional game which became a witness of the Philippine civilization across the centuries has become their pastime, may it be with friends or with their families although it originally started as an amusement for ladies only (as reflected in Vicente Manansala’s painting featured in this article).

 Philippine Counterpart of the World’s Oldest Game. Historical authorities across the globe argue that malancala, an early version of sungká played in Africa, may be the oldest game in the world, with almost every culture having some variations of it. Scholars say that the board game may have evolved in Egypt from counters used for accounting and stock-taking. Evidences of these boards have also been found in Ancient Sumeria.

As for the origin of the term “sungka“, historians found relics of an identical game at a stream in Indonesia. The stream, widely known to voyagers as the Red River, is called sonka by early Asians. The theory upholds that the sungka game Filipinos play today may have been brought by Indonesians when they migrated to the Philippine Islands.

Getting Adept in the Game. Sungka is played by two persons using a wooden block called sungka-an usually carved with intricate designs depicting the culture of a particular part of the archipelago where the sungka-an is made. It has two rows of seven holes and two large holes at both extremes called “head”.

The game starts with 49 game pieces which vary from shells, marbles, pebbles or seeds depicting on their availability. Those pieces are qually disseminated to alternate holes – seven bits in every other hole – except “heads” which remain empty.  Each player controls the seven holes on his side of the board and owns the “head” to his right. The goal is to accumulate as many pieces in your own “head”.

The first player takes away all pieces from the hole on the extreme left of on his side. He then distributes them counter-clockwise — one in each hole to the right of that hole — leaving out an opponent’s “head” but not a player’s own “head”.

If the last piece falls into a filled hole then all the pieces are removed from that hole, and are dispersed in the same way (to the right of that hole) in another round. This player’s (current) turn ends when the last piece falls into an empty hole on the opponent’s side.

If the last piece distributed falls into a player’s own “head” then the player earns another turn, which can start at any of the seven holes on his side. On the other hand, if the last piece distributed falls into an empty hole on his side then the player captures all the pieces in the hole directly across from this one, on the opponent’s side and put them (plus the last piece distributed) in his own “head”. If the opposing hole is empty, no pieces are captured.

The other player chooses which hole he wishes to start from, removes the pieces and distributes them — one in each hole to the right of that chosen hole. If a player has no more pieces on his side of the board during his turn, then he must pass.

The game ends when no pieces are left in any hole on both sides of the board. The players now count the number of pieces in their own “head” and the one who has the most number wins.

A Sungka-an filled with shells ready to be played.

It’s your Advantage (Believe me). Like any other game, Sungka is also bedazzled with lots of advantages. Playing this ancient multicultural game facilitates learning math and social skills. This refreshes our ideas in arithmetic like the fundamental operations for the challenging part is that it needs complicated calculations to win vanquish the opponent. In addition, it helps the players establish fraternal relationships with their playmates or at times called opponents. In the field of education, sungka is a great way to encourage students to get hooked to Mathematics. Each time they play, they know different strategies on how to solve problems. In turn, it improves reasoning and memory by testing it all throughout the duration of the game. Because of that, they offer the brain a complete workout. Furthermore, it also enhances thinking skills. Sungka is also believed to help speed up how a child or a person thinks as they tend to be more alert with every game.

On the cultural aspect, playing the aforementioned board game signifies our interest in a true-blue Filipino game that reflects the triumphs and loses, the strengths and weaknesses of the Filipino race.

From My Own Standpoint. As a Filipino who had chances to travel in the First World (knowing that the Philippines belongs to the Developing World), I was able to realize that as much as Japan and America have their own local games that depict their respective heritage, my beloved country is also blessed with equally exciting, interactive and educational games worthy of sharing around the world and one of them is our very own sungka. In turn, we are not subdue in terms of cultural significance in comparison to the leading world powers.

So, it’s just right and proper for us to perpetuate the presence and cultural influence of this particular game before it would be totally forgotten. I could still remember when I was an elementary school pupil when I saw a sungka-an­ in our library, but prohibited to play it so as not to lose the beautiful shells in it. My goodness! ‘Twas an experience that killed my enthusiasm in playing the game. Believe it or not, I haven’t played that game yet ever since.

Shells used in the game adding beauty to the Sungka-an.

Our inclination toward playing sungka would be essential to sustain its life. So, I consider playing the game during my free time, and I encourage you, too.

We all should.

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