Umlabalaba Article

What is Umlablaba?

by Edward L. Powe

Umlabalaba (“labyrinth” in the Zulu language) is an intriguing mind-building Zulu board game that is often translated as “Zulu Chess”. There are two versions of the game in Zululand (isisuthu and isizulu) involving slight differences in the board design and the end game. Isipowe (a variation promoted by the BLAC Foundation) is played the same way as isizulu but like the “Celtic Triple Enclosure” has no diagonal lines and is thus less complex [See boards in section 5, below].

The isisuthu (Sotho) version has 25 positions (i.e. points on the board where two lines intersect) upon which counters can be placed; whereas the isizulu and isipowe versions have only 24 positions. In all three games, however, each player (unlike Nine Man Morris and related games found throughout the world) is given 12 counters. These counters are played alternately by two adversaries – one counter at a time – on any of the board positions.

After all the counters have been used in this way, they can be moved one space at a time to new positions along unoccupied lines of the board. If by chance (in isizulu andisipowe) all 24 counters have been placed on the board and no counter has been captured (for which see further), then each player is required to remove one of his counters and “gift” it to his opponent (ilobola) in which case, the first person to remove the counter is the one who played first.

The object of the game – like tic-tac-toe – is to form a consecutive line of three counters (either vertically or horizontally in isipowe and isisuthu as well as diagonally in isizulu) both during the first phase of the game (placement), and during the second phase (movement). Such a line is referred to as isibhamu (a “gun”) in the Zulu language and each time a player forms an isibhamu, he must remove one of his opponent’s tokens from the board. The winner is the player who succeeds in capturing ten of his adversary’s tokens.

A major difference in the end game between these three versions of umlabalaba is that in isizulu andisipowewhenever a player has only three counters remaining on the board, he is entitled (when it is his turn) to ignore the lines and move any one of his counters to any unoccupied intersection on the board he chooses. In isisuthu, however, this provision is non-existent.

Though no one knows exactly how and when umlabalaba emerged in Africa, it has an ancient pre-colonial history and is the most popular board game in Lesotho, Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal even today. Dr. Edward L. Powe (in describing the qualities of the young Shaka in his Saga of Shaka Zulu) wrote:

Keen of wit was Shaka Zulu,

Beat all at umlabalaba,

For he saw beyond the present,

Seeing five and six moves forward.  

Attesting to its antiquity, an article in the Sunday Tribune of South Africa written by Myrtle Ryan states that umlablaba has been “played for thousands of years across Africa under different names.” He also affirms in the same article that “anthropologists and archaeologists believe that it [umlabalaba] originated about 3,000 years ago from an ancient Egyptian game known as mancala” and that it is similar (but not identical to) “Nine Men’s Morris” a game that dates back to at least 1283 AD. Ryan went on to state that “The earliest known board for the game was found on roofing slabs at the temple of Kurna in Egypt around 1400 BC … [and]… was popular among Roman soldiers.”

How did these soldiers learn the game? According to Ryan “it is surmised the Romans were introduced to the game through trade.” As to the etymology of the word “Morris”, Ryan presents two possibilities: 1) Moorish; and 2) merellus (Latin for a counter or gaming piece).

Despite Ryan’s above-cited affirmations, it is quite obvious that the ancient African seed counting game – now common to both Africa and Asia – referred to as mancala, above, is an entirely different game than either Morris or umlabalaba. Nevertheless, since the rules and board variations of umlabalaba are quite different from their various European counterparts one can confidently state that in the event the game did not originate in the land of the Zulu, it has been adopted and significantly modified by them, thus making it a Zulu board game par excellence.