Oware: Earth’s Oldest Living Board Game

Oware
Players:
1-2
Multiplayer:No
AI:Yes
Universal App:Yes (there is a single app which works on both iPhone and iPad in HD)
Purchase for iPhone:Use link below to purchase universal app
Purchase for iPad:

Price: Free
User rating:
GD Star Rating
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Oware: Earth's Oldest Living Board Game, 6.8 out of 10 based on 5 ratings

“Oware: Earth’s Oldest Living Board Game” is a re-imagining of what is indeed the oldest board game in the world. Oware (pronounced “awari”) has existed for at least seven thousand years, and yet I’d never heard of it until playing this version. So I did a bit of research and discovered that it is a pit-and-pebble game, and also the national game of Ghana. Apparently, “oware” is an Ashanti word which roughly translates to “He/She Marries”.

This interpretation of Oware has no launch screen, you go straight into the game.

This interpretation of Oware has no launch screen, you go straight into the game.

Legend has it that an Ashanti man and woman were so addicted to playing Oware that they got married, just so that they could stay together and keep playing. It just goes to show you that gaming brings people together! If you’re interested to find out more of the history of Oware, there’s a wealth of information on The Oware Society website.

GAMEPLAY

Oware begins with 48 little white balls equally distributed throughout 12 circles. Each player has 6 circles on their side. The goal is to capture more of the little white balls than your opponent. Whoever obtains more than half of the balls (25) wins the game.

Each turn consists of tapping a circle on your half of the screen, which has one or more balls in it. This will result in all the balls in said circle being distributed amongst the next circles, one per circle, counter-clockwise. If the last ball from your turn lands in one of your opponent’s circles which has 1 or 2 balls already in it (with your ball making the total 2 or 3), you win all the balls in that circle. If the preceding circle also ends up with 2 or 3 balls in it, you win those balls too.

Consider the two screenshots below (arrows added by me, obviously).

Distributing your white balls.

Distributing your white balls.

I’m the player on the bottom half of the screen, so I can tap any of the bottom 6 circles. If I tap the last circle on the right (containing 2 balls), one ball will go into my opponent’s circle directly above, and the other will go to circle next to that (which currently has 2 balls). As this will be my last ball, and as my opponent’s circle has 2 balls in it, and as my ball will make it 3, I win all 3 balls. Won balls go into my keep net at the bottom of the screen.

Capturing your opponent's white balls.

Capturing your opponent’s white balls.

I’ve explained the rules as best I can, which is more than can be said for the developer.

IMPLEMENTATION

Visually, this is a beautiful game. The minimalist look and modern sounds make it appealing. Device-sharing is a nice touch, allowing tabletop gameplay. There’s no online multiplayer which is a shame, but perhaps this will come with a later release.

As I’d never played Oware before, I had no idea of the rules. Upon firing up the game, I did expect a menu with a rules button, or perhaps a tutorial on how to play. Alas, neither exists. After the initial Unity splash screen, you are presented with the game, ready to play. Main game aside, the only other screen available (at a swipe) gives three unlabelled icons: switch between 1 player and 2 players, visit the developer’s website, and restart the current game. So I thought I’d give the developer’s website a go, thinking I might gain some idea on how to play this game. Nothing was to be found there other than screenshots and a video of the game itself.

The menu screen.

The menu screen.

At this point it became apparent to me that the developer has decided to make a “puzzle” out of the game, requiring new players to figure out the rules and how to play. Perhaps we’re expected to search Google to learn the rules of Oware. Or maybe they assume everyone knows how to play. As there is literally no text in the game, I’ve no idea how we’re expected to figure out the rules. I resorted to looking the rules up on Wikipedia, then played until I figured it out properly.

Thinking I was being stupid by having to resort to Wikipedia, I asked both my wife and 11 year old son (both casual gamers) to spend 30 minutes each trying out the game without looking up the rules – perhaps they could figure it out. Alas, whilst they managed to grasp some idea of what was going on, neither could figure out what the win condition is or what impact all their moves had. Once I explained the rules to them (which took 60 seconds), they understood. But by then they were both so frustrated that neither cared to play Oware anymore.

Two-player, device-sharing mode.

Two-player, device-sharing mode.

What possessed the developer to release a game on the App Store, with no rules or indication on how to play, is beyond me. By omitting the rules, the game is crippled for newcomers. I should have been enjoying Oware within a few minutes, without the frustration and Wikipedia. In this age of free games, £1.99 / $2.99 up-front puts a game in the premium league. Consumers expect a finished, polished game with at least a basic guide on how to play.

One final gripe is the fact that the orientation is locked one way. You can’t flip your device upside down. This is annoying if you have headphones in; they’ll get in the way of your left hand.

VERDICT

5/10 Once you know the rules, Oware is an addictive and fun game. However, the lack of any guidance will leave newcomers in the dark, feeling frustrated. Considering this, and the amount of alternatives available, I feel Oware is overpriced for what it is.



There are 4 comments

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  1. Dutch

    I can see where the author is coming from with no prior experience with the game, but I believe that the review is slightly unfair.  One would think you would review the rules of the game prior to purchasing.  For instance, I have never played Go, but I would certainly read the rules before making a purchase to see if I would even be interested.  
    In my opinion, this is the most aesthetically pleasing version of oware that I’ve found so far (flash versions are absolutely terrible).  To me, a $3 price tag isn’t so bad (especially when you have games like Angry Birds going for $39/49 on consoles which is ridiculous).
    The only things I’d like to see would be netplay and potentially some endless cycle logic to call a draw when necessary.  Not a big issue because you can reset the board, but it’d still be nice.

    I think a more fair score for someone who had no experience with the game would be a 7/10 and for someone who knew exactly what they were purchasing, a 9/10.

  2. luciangames

    @Dutch I appreciate your kind words about the game.
    My hope was that new players would approach the learning phase as a puzzle, and enjoy discovering the mechanics on their own. I suspect this might be more difficult than I anticipated; I’ve been playing Oware for a long time so it’s hard to tell, to be honest.
    You bring up some good points about features. I originally planned to implement online multiplayer, but decided to drop it when I became obsessed with keeping the game free of text. I could make it work without text, but I think it would be frustrating to interact only through moves; players would surely want to chat as well.
    It actually does have cycle detection, and ends the game properly when one is detected, but it’s probably too strict. It’s currently not triggering in scenarios that are still strictly valid but might feel tedious to most players. That certainly needs work. Resetting the board in that case, at least in single player mode, is unfortunate because progress might be lost (one might be a single capture away from winning the round).
    Anyway, I guess it’s kind of a weird game. I’m glad there’s somebody out there who appreciates it.

  3. Lola

    Personally, I love the fact that you’ve gone for a no text mantra. I think it’s very in keeping with the origins of such an ancient game. It also makes the game accessible to people of any language, which as someone who currently lives across five countries, and multiple dialects/languages, i think thats a feature to be very proud of!
    I wonder if you couldn’t just include a video that suggests how to play with some clever graphics, still without text? I’m sure it wouldn’t be easy, but it could be doable.
    Kudos on it so far 🙂

  4. Lola

    Personally, I love the fact that you’ve gone for a no text mantra. I think it’s very in keeping with the origins of such an ancient game. It also makes the game accessible to people of any language, which as someone who currently lives across five countries, and multiple dialects/languages, i think thats a feature to be very proud of!
    I wonder if you couldn’t just include a video that suggests how to play with some clever graphics, still without text? I’m sure it wouldn’t be easy, but it could be doable.
    Kudos on it so far 🙂
    Lola


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