Sungkawayan: An Ancient Game to Save the Future

Dumaguete City, Philippines. There is a secret place on the foothills of Mount Talinis beyond reach of any sound from the sea. Yet when you close your eyes there, you can hear the music of waves gently breaking on a beach. These strange waves are borne by the ocean air rushing up the mountain during the day and the mountain air rushing down the sea at night. But they are waves not of wind on water but of wind on bamboo leaves.

The Bamboo Arcade

Video Games to Bamboo Games

I flee there after long stretches of shoveling pixels and code to reconnect with the natural world and commune with farmers and craftspeople whose hard work helped bring about a bamboo renaissance in the Philippines. For eight years I had been a video game designer. The irresistible pull of that place made me a designer of bamboo games as well.

A pathway rings the premises along which 48 species of bamboos are thriving. 48 kinds of bamboo leaves carpet the ground all year. A living arcade of giant bamboos adorn the west side. I liked to linger on that spot during my morning walks. It was there where I found the elliptical clump of bamboos which sparked the Sungkawayan Project.

Where it all started

Roots

“Sungkawayan” came from the words “kawayan” which is Filipino for “bamboo” and “sungka” or Filipino mancala. Mancala is a class of board games more ancient than chess. The earliest evidence of mancala dates back to the fourth century AD, predating chess by 300 years. By the time the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, sungka was already widespread in the islands. The game is played on rows of holes filled with counters made of stones, seeds or shells depending on the locale. The essence of its gameplay is to distribute the counters such that you end up with more of them than your opponent.

A traditional sungka

In many languages, the term for distributing the counters can be translated as “sowing.” This anchors the genealogy of mancala, and sungka, to agriculture. (Farmville therefore is not a modern invention.) In Japan, the mechanic of distribution is thought of as a metaphor for the passing of the seasons. Another conjecture is that the game originated from an early form of computing where the counters represent units such as of grain and livestock.

Challenge After Challenge

At the core of the Sungkawayan Project is the desire to create a sungka table inspired by the form of a cluster of bamboos. Easy enough on paper, not, it turned out, on bamboo. The first challenge was stability. The bamboo culms available at the workshop were at most five and a half inches in diameter. Two rows of these with a height of a coffee table — 19 inches — looked like it could topple at the slightest push. The second was weight. Bamboo is heavy. This seemed to compound the stability problem. A heavy object that can easily topple is a clear hazard especially to children. And third was alignment. For smooth game feel, the holes have to be aligned along the three axes — tricky because the culms we had did not have a uniform diameter.

The sketch

Prototyping

From my sketches we evolved the first prototype. For stability, we chose the four largest bamboo segments and used them as legs for the sungka table, adding two culms to the original plan. To reduce weight, we shortened the middle culms by half. However, this gave rise to a new problem — what if somebody stands on the Sungkawayan, say, to change a light bulb; will it hold? This is important because once the product is out, we have no control over how it is used.

We cut the middle culms into an arch to transfer some of the vertical forces to the legs. We secured each pair of legs with bamboo nails a half inch thick. The two rows of culms including the legs were skewered by a beam each. The two beams were in turn nailed to each other through every pair of culms attached to them. The resulting structure behaves like a monolith, which happened to take care of the stability problem.

Problems Multiplied

Self-congratulatory thoughts proved premature as the previous changes multiplied the alignment problems. We now needed to align the culms not only for the holes on top but also for the arch at the bottom. We were working with cylinders of bamboo, not blocks of wood. How do you keep the holes on top levelled while sculpting the underside into a perfect arch?

The master carpenters exerted themselves. With rope, clamps, nails and lots of hewing and grinding we pulled through.

​The prototype

Restart from Scratch

Instead of feeling triumphant, something bothered me. I brooded over the prototype for days, sometimes well into the night. The piece had become too complicated. I yearned for the elegant simplicity of a mathematical equation. Above all, I wanted to look at the final object and be reminded of that clump of bamboos glowing in the morning light.

Finally, I found the crux of the matter — the 19 inches prescribed by some furniture chart as the height of a coffee table. It was also the lowest height listed hence I chose it. I never questioned this number. However this was the detail that forced us to deviate from the original drawings.

Why 19 inches? For a coffee table this makes sense. 19 inches is about the same distance from my foot to my knee. With a chair three inches lower, this prevents the knees from being in the way when I drink my coffee.

The biomechanics of playing sungka doesn’t involve the danger of spilling hot liquid. This was the “aha!” moment and everything began to fall into place.

We restarted from scratch. I reduced the height of the sungka table to 10 inches and the two stools to seven inches. Most of the issues we faced in the protoype disappeared. With the new height, the sungka table is now just slightly taller than it is wide. All the culms are touching the ground. Stability solved. This also removed the need to add two culms to serve as legs. Ditto with the pair of beams to skewer the culms. The Sungkawayan became about 30 percent lighter. Lastly, with the arch done away with, alignment was much easier.

An Alternate World

After everything, I still had this nagging doubt about the non-standard dimensions of the Sungkawayan.

Then I remembered — a few weeks back at the bamboo farm, a four-year-old named “Karma” called out to me to run in the rain with him. I hesitated at first before following. But in a short while, I was transformed — running with arms outstretched, tasting the raindrops through the bamboo twigs and shouting “wohoo!” whenever we stopped under the waterfall of some eaves.

The moment you decide to run around in the rain, you leave behind the serious conventions of the “real” world. The same with the Sungkawayan. When you sit down on its seven-inch stool, you enter an alternate world.

The Sungkawayan

Why Bamboo?

Bamboo is the material we need to use if we are to have a future. 13 million hectares of forest are lost each year, equivalent to 48 football fields every minute. Bamboo can be a substitute for wood for nearly every application — firewood, paper, ornaments, furniture, building materials to name just a few. Bamboo moreover is better than wood in many respects. Hard bamboo can be harvested in five years while hardwoods like teak can take 20 to 25 years. Bamboo is grass — it can flourish in a wide variety of conditions without the need for special care or agricultural chemicals. And bamboo is the fastest natural method to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, releasing 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees.

Living with the community at the bamboo farm showed me firsthand how bamboo impacts the lives of ordinary people. One pole of freshly cut bamboo can be sold for 40 pesos, about a dollar. It is enough to send Cherry, a farmer-carpenter’s child, to school for two days. Or buy a day’s worth of rice for her family. A single Sungkawayan can support the families of three farmer-carpenters for a week.

Cherry

The Chagall Test

I began writing this story in a room on the second floor of a house called “Balay sa Tuko” or “Gecko House” in honor of the dozen or so geckos residing there. Beside me was the Sungkawayan. In front was Mount Talinis bluish despite the afternoon sun. Marc Chagall said, “When I am finishing a picture, I hold some God-made object up to it… If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there’s a clash between the two, it’s bad art.” Objectivity is impossible for me at this point. But I feel fulfilled.


Credits

Design: Khail Santia | Carpentry: Pabio Cadabid, Wilberto Cadabid, Julito Cadabid | Design & Carpentry Adviser: Herbie Teodoro