Oware is the oldest board game that is still widely played in the world today. It belongs to the pit and pebbles classification of games, which has been in existence for seven thousand years. Quoting John B Haggerty 'the game has persisted for seven thousand years in widely separated areas all over the globe.' Its exact origin has been lost to history, but what we can say is that Africa has always been considered its traditional home.
Time magazine (June 14 1963) tells us of the ancient origin of these games and how widespread it was.
'Carved on a vast block of rock in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo are two facing ranks of six shallow pits with larger hollows scooped out at each end. The same design is carved on columns of the temple at Karnak in Egypt, and it appears in the early tomb paintings in the valley of the Nile. It is carved in the Theseum in Athens, and in rock ledges along caravan routes of the ancient world. Today the same pits and hollows are to be found all over Asia and Africa, scratched in the bare earth, carved in rare woods or ivory inlaid with gold.
William Champion developer of Kalah a modern version of the game in America, as well as a researcher of the game found an urn painting of Ajax and Achilles playing it during the siege of Troy. These and many more archaeological findings testify to the ancient pedigree of this game.
The diffusion of pit and pebble games throughout the world from Africa can be explained by the migration of African people to various parts of the world, both voluntary and forcefully as in the case of the Trans-Atlantic and Eastern slave trades from Africa. This is confirmed by the use of the same rules in parts of West Africa and the Caribbean. It is played all over the world from the Far East, Middle East, Asia, Africa, to the Caribbean. There is even evidence to prove that it was and may be still played in its traditional form in some southern states of America and in some of the former Soviet states.
There are many versions of pit and pebble games, over 300 in all, having differing rules. Three major types exist, distinguished by the number of rows on the board. Two row boards are the most popular of which Oware is an example. These games can have a varying number of pits along the board from 5 to 14, but the 6 pit long board is the most common, played predominantly in West Africa and the Caribbean. Bao is an example of the Four-row type; these have other names depending on the version. You will find these played mainly in East and South Africa. Three-row type such as Gebeta is the least popular and is confined to Ethiopia and Eritrea to our knowledge.
Oware or variations of this name is the most popular name the game is known by, i.e. the 2x6 type. Examples of these are Warri, Awale, Awele, Awari and many more. Oware is the name given to the game by the Akan speaking people of Ghana. Even this name is a generic name, with at least three versions being covered by this generic name. Traditionally and today the version that has been used in competitions is known as Abapa (literally translated as the 'good version'). Abapa has always been known as the adult's version, played by those who have graduated from playing Nam-nam the children's version.
In Ghana, Oware has always occupied a prominent role in society being regarded as a game of the Kings of Asante and Denkyira. It was played on beautifully carved Ivory boards in the shape of a stool embellished with gold. So engrained was it in society that it even had its own social taboos. At times it was used in the Coronation ceremony of the Kings of some African communities. There exists an Ashanti legend, which explains the origin of Oware. It says that in order for a man and a woman to have more time to play the game, they decided to get married. Warri being the Akan word for being married.
As a social tool Oware is never a game between two people, but has always been a game involving all who witness it. Spectators will usually give advice and join in the banter that is synonymous with the game. In areas of the world were it has been traditionally played it is used as a focal point for people to meet entertain themselves and pass time. Leaders used it as a means to hone their leadership skills and get to become more acquainted with their people.
For thousands of years Oware has been used as an educational tool for children in Africa and all over the world. In the past 400 years this aspect of its history has been brought to the attention of Europeans through various researchers and observers who had an interest in the game for various reasons. Many academic authorities and educationalist have trumpeted the educational value of the game and have called for it to be utilized in schools. Today it has been recognized as a very useful educational tool and is being taken up by an increasing number of schools.
International Tournaments are now held annually both in the Caribbean (Antigua) and Europe (France) and there are plans to add Africa (Ghana) to this growing list. Local competitions are held regularly in many countries in Africa, The Caribbean and Europe and the list of countries is growing every year. In the United Kingdom a National Schools Tournament is held every year.
Various groups and individuals have taken it upon themselves especially in the American and European continents to promote awareness and the playing of the game. Keen interest has also been shown by Museums exhibiting their collections of Oware boards as well as organizing competitions and workshops on their premises.
Finally with the advent of computers and the Internet there has been a profusion of computer versions of the game. One can now play Oware with other players on the other side of the world.