You are probably wondering – unless you are a rather avid board game player – what a ‘meeple’ is.
Well it’s one of those created words of our world, meaning a small figure used as a playing piece in certain board games, having a stylized human form.
It just seemed like a good word to use for our little group as reviewing games evolved over the years – we’ve been at it for more than a decade – or more than 500 games – since it is produced weekly.
The guild is a loosely connected group of game players who recognized we might have to grow older but we could still be young in our hobbies.
The result is a couple of game rooms filled with board games – we never seem to sell any – role playing games, and literally boxes of dice and hundreds of gaming miniatures.
In the weeks ahead we’ll share our thoughts on some new games, some old favourites, touch base with game designers and champion players around the world, and hopefully inspire readers to rise up from their televisions, put their cellphones on mute and play some board games with friends.
A couple of weeks ago in a column regarding games with cultural significance the mancala family of games was mentioned as the various rules sets associated with the family generally originated in particular areas of Africa.
Obviously, some mancala ‘variants’ are more widely popular than others.
Perhaps one of the better known is Bao.
According to Wikipedia; “Bao is a traditional mancala board game played in most of East Africa including Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros, Malawi, as well as some areas of DR Congo and Burundi. It is most popular among the Swahili people of Tanzania and Kenya; the name itself "Bao" is the Swahili word for "board" or "board game". In Tanzania, and especially Zanzibar, a "bao master" (called bingwa, "master"; but also fundi, "artist") is held in high respect.”
And now for those wanting to learn more about the game, and perhaps how to become a better player there is a new book to grab; Bao Game – The Ultimate Guide by Nino Vessella.
I was of course curious about Vessella’s interest in, and background regarding Bao, so thanks to some social media contacts I was able to arrange an email Q&A.
The natural first question was how Vessella was introduced to the game?
“I have a degree in Swahili language and literature, so I used to visit Tanzania every three or four years from 1975,” he explained. “During my visits I’ve seen a lot of times Tanzanians playing Bao. I was attracted by that game because of the very simple material and the way the players were playing it. They seemed to play at the same and very quickly. It seemed to me that they weren’t thinking about any strategy!
“So I strongly wanted to understand how that game works.
“Unfortunately I had to wait many years to find any information and some teacher. About 20-years ago I found a leaflet published by the National Museum of Tanzania with very concise rules. So I learned the rules. They were not enough but I was able to try the game with some Tanzanian friends.”
Of course it’s one thing to try a game, and quite another to develop such an affinity for it that you end up writing a book on it.
So what was it about Bao that has kept Vessella interested?
“The complex strategy despite the simplicity of the material captured me and, as already mentioned, the incredible speed with which the Tanzanians play,” he said. “This game requires a great skill in calculating and memorizing situations that change a lot during one's move, which consists in a distribution of seeds, especially in the case of subsequent sowing.
“My curiosity had to be satisfied!”
For reference Vessella does play other games.
“I really like games like Chess and Go, of which I know the rules but have never been able to play well,” he said.
But Bao became a favourite.
“After knowing the Bao I realized that this is the game for people like me who have difficulty memorizing entire games like Chess players do or poor visual memory necessary for Go,” said Vessella. “I'm better at counting! This is why I started to get interested in other games of the mancala family, to which also the Bao belongs. But I think the Bao is unsurpassed.”
Of course the big question was why the book?
“Nowadays, thanks to the internet, it is easier to find information on Bao. Unfortunately, however, there is no book dedicated to learning the game step-by-step,” said Vessella.
“The only book on Bao was a dissertation, by de Voogt, "Limits of the mind, towards a characterisation of Bao mastership", 1995, now out of print. The book is mainly focused on the psychological mathematical aspects of the game, but it correctly presents all the rules of Bao and some tactics, but it is not intended to teach it step-by-step.
“As the rules, unlike those of chess or go, are quite complex and difficult to understand without the help of a player I thought it was useful to write a book for people who can’t be helped by a human.
“I hope the book will help the reader understand the game and get him excited. The book has many exercises, examples and transcribed games. Also, with each edition I try to add some tactics. Unfortunately, so far I have not been able to find Tanzanian champions who were able to explain the strategies or tactics they use. So thanks to the Baoists who play on our site https://www.kibao.org we are trying to discover them.”
So, if a new player is looking for a game, why try Bao?
“Since the early 2000s I have been presenting and teaching Bao during various European game events and organizing tournaments and I noticed that those who try to play Bao are fascinated and captured,” offered Vessella. “It is a very addictive and socializing game. For Bao a quiet, silent environment is unnatural! Bao players are always surrounded by an audience who do not spare the players witty jokes or other comments related to their moves!
“I would say that this game is spreading out of East Africa mainly thanks to my commitment, even if I seem too presumptuous.”
Vessella said the book has generally accomplished what he was hoping it would.
“I think so, so far many hundreds of copies have been sold in Italian,” he said. “Now they are also starting available in English and a Spanish translation is in the works.
“But there is still a lot to do. As I have already said, there is no in-depth study of tactics and game strategies. I hope they will be discovered by myself or by some new Baoists. So far I have not been able to find a Tanzanian champion who can do it!
The book is available through Amazon, or from Vessella at email@example.com or via firstname.lastname@example.org
Vessalla concluded by suggesting “I would like to advise anyone who wants to get an idea of the game to consult our website: https:\\www.kibao.org, which also allows you to play with other players around the world.”