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.

A well-used morabaraba board with two different types of bottle caps for pieces.
A Sotho-style morabaraba board in Kliptown, Soweto
2012 Nagarjun Kandukuru 🅭 🅯 🄏 ⊜)

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, we know precisely who imported the game from Europe:b[134]c[79] it was introduced to Lesotho—then called Basutoland—some time between 1832 and 1855 by Eugène Casalis,Eugène Casalis is sometimes also referred to as Cazalis. 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. a French protestant missionary. The introduction of the game had unintended consequences for the mission: young men preferred to play the game rather than attend mass.c[79] Obsession with the game also led herders to neglect their flocks,c[79] so it became known by the epithet sethetsabadisana ‘deceiver of the herd-boys’:‌d[41] “for when you play it, old or young, you forget your herds, and they wander into the corn…”‌e[56]

The name morabaraba comes from the Sotho language, and is related to the verb ho raba raba ‘to roam/fly about in small circles’, as of a bird around its nest.‌f[304] In Nguni languages (isiZulu, isiXhosa), it is known as (Um)labalaba, with similar meaning,‌g[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[134] an alternate Sotho name is mmila/’mila, ‘road’.‌h[283] In Botswana, the game is called mhele (‘reedbuck’, a type of antelope‌i[350]), and the name morabaraba refers solely to a mancala game.

A distinctive feature of this game is its bovine theme: in each language, the pieces are called ‘cows’. In Sotho this is dikgomo/likhomo (singular kgomo/khomo);‌j[588] in isiZulu it is izinkomo (singular inkomo). Forming a mill (‘gun’) allows you to “shoot” an opponent’s cow.

Play

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 it shows up in computerized versions as a skeuomorphic feature. are used in two contrasting colours.

Standard Morabaraba is played on the large mill board with diagonals.

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.

Variants

Sotho version

The Sotho version of the game is played on a board with a central cross.

The Sotho version of the game is played on a special board or flat stone (letlapa)d[35] where the centre square is also crossed, and the inner diagonals are missing, giving 25 points that can be played on.‌kb[133] This means that there is no possibility of a deadlock after the placement phase.

Some rulesetsl state that a piece on the central point can only be the middle piece of a mill. Other lines of three formed with the central point do not count as mills.

Note that it is not possible to form a diagonal mill on this board.

A Sotho-style Morabaraba board (more examples of this board can be seen on Instagram: 1, 2, 3, 4)
2015 lebophoo, from Instagram)

Alternate board

An alternate Morabaraba 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.

An unknown Morabaraba board (at left), in Mahwelereng, Limpopo, South Africa (more examples can be seen on Instagram: 1, 2, 3)
2017 mosqkenpachi_photography, from Instagram)

References

  1. . ‘’. Brand South Africa.
  2. . ‘A Note on “Bantu Games”’. Journal of the National Institute for Personnel Research 6 (3): 132–134.
  3. . From Béarn to Southern Africa, or the Amazing Destiny of Eugène Casalis. Newcastle upon Tyne, England, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN: 9781443856652.
  4. . ‘’. Cape Town, South Africa: University of Cape Town.
  5. . The World and the Cattle. South Africa: Penguin. ISBN: 9780143185574.
  6. and . . Moria, Limpopo, South Africa: Khatiso.
  7. . ‘’. Pretoria, South Africa: University of South Africa.
  8. . ‘’. In Proceedings of the International Conference on New Ideas in Mathematics Education, edited by Alan Rogerson: 283–287. Palm Cove, Cairns, Australia: Mathematics Education into the 21st Century Project.
  9. . ‘’. South African Journal of African Languages 10 (4): 345–353.
  10. . ‘’. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 5 (27): 585–591.
  11. . . . Pretoria, South Africa: Sport and Recreation South Africa.
  12. . ‘’. BLAC Foundation.