Sungka: Traditional Philippine Games

Sungká is a popular and traditional board game similar to Congkak and other variations of the game in South East Asia. The board is a carved length of wood called a sungkahan and the game involves moving shells or pebbles around the pits carved into the board.

The sungkáhan is a hollowed-surfaced board that has regular intervals with sixteen circular holes, with one large hole at the end of each side, called mother or “ulo” (head). It is shaped like a boat. Most sungkalan are plain, but some are meticulously crafted in a variety of designs. The large holes are five inches wide. The fourteen small holes are called bahay (houses) with a capacity of a handful tokens. They are hollowed out alongside at equal distances, seven holes in each row, approximately half an inch apart. These small holes are about two inches in diameter or big enough for a player to put five fingers at once. Shells, pebbles, or seeds are used as tokens. The board varies from 30 to 32 inches long, 7 to 9 inches wide, and 3 to 5 inches thick.

Sungka was and is still used by fortunetellers and shamanic priestesses/priests, which are called in the Philippines bailan, babaylan, catalonan, or maghuhula depending on the ethnic group, for divinatory purposes. Older people hope to find out with their help whether the journey of a youth is favorable at a certain day, and girls, whether they will marry one day, and, in case they will, when this will be. The game is usually played outdoors because there is a Filipino superstition about a house will burn down if it’s played indoors.

In order to play the game, 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.

About The Author

Executive Editor & Founder

Ligaya is the Executive Editor & Writer at She lives in NYC with her two dogs and spends her time reading, writing, collecting and buying books online and in safe haven, Strand Bookstore, watching her guilty tv show pleasure Vikings, and overdosing herself in coffee as a certified caffeine addict. Her book, Diwatahan: A Look Into the Precolonial Beliefs, Practices, Myths, & Folklore of the Philippines, is currently in progress and is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017.

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