Sungka: Discovering An Old Filipino Game

We were walking through the market in Cebu one day when I spied this game I remembered from my childhood. It was a game that gave my playmates and I hours and hours of fun. It occurred to me that my kids have never seen, let alone, played this game so I decided to buy one so they would also know about this game that I don’t see a lot of anymore. I was so excited to show them how to play this game – the Sungka.

According to Wikipilipinas, an early version of sungká called malancala may be the oldest game in the world, with almost every culture having some variation of it. Stones used in mancala boards have been found carved into the roofs of temples in Memphis, Thebes, and Luxor — evidence that the game was played in Egypt before 1400 BC. Studies say that the boardgame may have evolved in Egypt from counters used for accounting and stock-taking. Evidence of these boards have also been found in Ancient Sumeria. In Africa, the game is considered a national pastime and is played by tribes numbering in the hundreds. Malancala, being Arabic in origin, makes some scholars suspect that the game progressed from west to east, meaning from Asia to the coast of Atlantic.

As for the origin of the term “sungka“, researchers found traces of a similar game at a stream in Indonesia. The stream, widely known to travellers as the Red River, is called sonka by early Asians. The theory maintains that the sungka game Filipinos know today may have been brought by Indonesians when they migrated to the Philippines.


Cultural Importance

Sungká in the Philippines is embedded in different cultures. In the early times, sungká was used by fortunetellers called bailan or manghuhula, for their rituals and auguries. Other people find it helpful in finding their destination on a certain day or in deciding marriages. Filipino superstition tells people that the game should not be played indoors or else their house will be burn. Tournaments are also held in the country, the biggest tournament is at the Kadayawan Sports Festival in Davao City in the Philippines.

How the Game is Played

The two players sit opposite each other with the game board between them. Each player claims the row of small holes nearest to him and the big hole at his left. Each player has six or more seeds, shells or pebbles to use as tokens. To determine who goes first, each player places his tokens in his palm and tosses them in the air while flipping his hand over and attempts to catch as many tokens as possible at the back of his hand. The player who drops the lesser number of tokens gets to start the game.

A player drops the tokens into the holes one by one. He continues clockwise till he reaches his mother hole, where he drops one token too.

If he still has shells in his hand after reaching his big hole, he continues dropping them one by one into the holes of his opponent, still going clockwise, towards his opponent’s mother hole.

If the last token of one player reaches an empty hole, he is declared “dead” (patay) and he stops playing. His opponent wins the preliminaries and continues playing.


The winner of the pre-game once again picks up all the counters in any of his seven holes and sows them, one in each little hole, around the board towards the left, including, if there are enough, his own big hole and on into his opponent’s holes (but not his opponent’s big hole). If the player’s last counter lands in an empty hole on his own side, he captures all the opponent’s counters in the opposite pit and puts them in his own Mother hole, together with the capturing counter. The opponent gets a turn to play. If the player’s last counter falls in his own big hole, he gets another turn. If the last counter falls in an empty hole on his opponent’s side, the player “dies” and leaves his counter where it landed. The game is over when all seven pits or hole on one side are empty. The player with the most counters in the big hole wins.

Rules of the Game

  • A player must drop only one shell at a time into every small hole and into his own big hole.
  • He must not drop any shell into his opponent’s big hole or in any “burnt house” (sunog or holes left empty due to lack of enough tokens accumulated by a player in his big hole).
    • The opponent is entitled to any shell which his rival drops carelessly in any “burnt house.”
    • A “burnt house” can only be refilled in the next game after a complete set of seven (or whatever number fills a hole) tokens are accumulated in the owner’s big hole.

I was so glad I saw the game, and bought it because it has provided hours of enjoyment for RD and I. At the same time, he has learned something that’s part of his heritage as a Filipino.

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