Morabaraba is a mill game from south-eastern Africa. The gameplay of the standardized version is very similar to Twelve Men’s Morris (with a few minor differences), but the version played in Lesotho has a unique board.
Morabaraba is played as a competitive sport in South Africa, administered by Mind Sports South Africa. It is widely played throughout the country; a poll conducted by The Sowetan in 1996 indicated that 40% of South Africans played the game.a
Surprisingly, unlike most board games we know who was responsible for transmitting the game from Europe:b[p. 134]c[p. 79] it was introduced to Lesotho—then called Basutoland—some time between 1832 and 1855 by Eugène Casalis, a French protestant missionary who acted as Foreign Advisor to King Moshoeshoe I for nearly two decades.Casalis is also sometimes also referred to as Cazalis in English sources. Upon his return to France he wrote about his experiences in Les Bassoutos: Vingt-Trois Années de Séjour et D’Observations au Sud de L’Afrique (Paris, 1859) (later published in English as The Basutos: or Twenty-Three Years in South Africa (London: Nisbet, 1861)), but the book contains no mention of any board games. There is now a roundabout in his home town, Orthez, named after him. The introduction of the game had unintended consequences for the mission: young men preferred to play the game rather than attend mass.c[p. 79] Obsession with the game also led herders to neglect their flocks,c[p. 79] so it became known by the epithet sethetsabadisana ‘deceiver of the herd-boys’:d[p. 41] “for when you play it, old or young, you forget your herds, and they wander into the corn…”e[p. 56]
The game was also popular amongst Basotho men who travelled to South Africa to work in its mines. References to Morabaraba can be found in difela/lifela (singular sefela), song–poems that were sung by these migrant workers.f[pp. 17, 175, 229]g[pp. 98–101]
In Lesotho’s past the game was restricted to being played by men, to the point that women were not permitted in the vicinity of the gaming area.h[p. 95] Thankfully, times have changed, and as of 2021, the top-ranked player in Mind Sports South Africa’s league is a woman, named Saudah Bhaimia, who has won the last three national championships.i
The name moraba-raba comes from the Sesotho language, and is related to the verb ho raba raba ‘to roam in small circles’,j[p. 304] so could refer to the action of a mill. In Nguni languages (isiZulu, isiXhosa), it is known as (Um)labalaba, with similar meaning,k[pp. 247–50] and in Ronga, spoken in Mozambique, it is called Muravarava.
There are other names which are probably derived from the European name of ‘mill’:b[p. 134] an alternate Sesotho name is mmila/’mila, ‘road’.l[p. 283] In Botswana,m the game is called mhele (‘reedbuck’, a type of antelopen[p. 350]), and the name morabaraba refers solely to a mancala game.Because of the large overlap of names, in written descriptions Morabaraba is often confused with or included in lists of other mancala games, such as mefuvha (from Limpopo) or tsoro (from Mozambique/Zimbabwe) (see, for example, [a]).
A distinctive feature of this game is its bovine theme: in each language, the pieces are called ‘cows’. In Sesotho this is dikgomo/likhomo (singular kgomo/khomo);o[p. 588] in isiZulu it is izinkomo (singular inkomo). In isiZulu a mill is a isibhamu (‘gun’), which allows you to “shoot” an opponent’s cow, while in Sesotho the mill is called a molamu (a staff carried by shepherds), and you can eat (ja) a cow.d[p. 36]
The following description is based on Mind Sports South Africa’s “Generally Accepted Rules”. As with all traditional board games, local rules can vary.
Each player has 12 pieces. Commonly, plastic or metal bottle capsThe use of bottle caps is so common that even commercial sets use bottle caps, and they show up in computerized versions as a skeuomorphic feature. are used in two contrasting colours.
During the placement phase, players must place a single piece on any vacant point of the board. Once all their pieces are placed, players can move a single piece to another vacant point, along one of the lines.
If a player places or moves a piece to form a new mill, they remove one of the opponent’s pieces. The removed piece may not be from a mill unless there are no other pieces that can be removed.
During the placement phase it is possible to form two mills at once. In Morabaraba this only allows a player to remove one piece.
When a player is reduced to three pieces, their pieces can ‘fly’ and move to any vacant point on the board, ignoring the lines.
A player loses the game when they are reduced to fewer than three pieces, or if they are unable to make a valid move on their turn.
In tournament play, Mind Sports adopted an additional rule: During the movement phase, a piece that is moved from one mill to form another mill may not move back to form a mill again at the original point on the next turn. Instead, a different move must be taken before doing so. This rule prevents a player from moving backwards and forwards between two mills quickly. This rule seems to me to be unlikely to be used in casual play.
With perfect play, the first player can force a win in 49 moves.q
The Sotho version of the game is played on a special board or flat stone (letlapa)d[p. 35] where the centre square is also crossed, and the inner diagonals are missing, giving 25 points that can be played on.rb[p. 133] This means that there is no possibility of a deadlock after the placement phase.
Note that it is not possible to form a diagonal mill on this board.
Another board pattern is also used to play Morabaraba, with a diagonally crossed central square. I do not know if the rules vary in any way.
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