Traditional Games in Somalia

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we will explore three popular games played in Somalia: Shax, Layli Goobalay, and Ladu. We will also look at how people use random objects and improvised boards to play these games.

The Country and People of Somalia

Somalia, a country the size of Texas on the outer rim of the Horn of Africa, suffers from some of the most difficult living conditions, both environmentally and politically. While several areas are fertile enough for farming, severe drought in the 1990s led to widespread famine and political collapse. Although some order has returned, over a million people fled the country because of the problems, and the conflict continues to affect millions of people that still live there.

Map of Somalia
Map of Somalia

Even in such harsh conditions, Somali people still take time for recreational games. Most popular among the nomadic herdsmen, yet played throughout the country and among refugees, are three board games in particular: Shax, Layli Goobalay, and Ladu. Traditionally, these games were played by older Somali men or those who were tending the herds, which required extensive waiting and watching over animals.


The game of Shax also goes by the name jare in the central and southern regions of the country. While a game board can be used, improvised game space happens more often. It only requires making marks on the ground to form lines, digging small holes, and scrounging game pieces from small, random objects including pebbles, seeds, shells, glass shards, or bottle caps. While two players ultimately compete for the win, the game includes a wider social aspect by the opponents using game metaphors to discuss personal matters, along with numerous observers that contribute to the fun. The metaphorical aspect appears in Somali literature and folklore numerous times.

Shax Board
Shax Board

To begin, each player takes turns placing their game pieces on the board. While they want to score a jare (which is three pieces in a row), they also don't want to leave themselves vulnerable once play begins. The first player to make a jare can remove an opponent's piece from the board; then the other player does the same. This frees space for the pieces to move. Each time a player aligns three of their pieces, they can remove another one of their opponent's items. The game ends when one player is left with only two pieces remaining on the board, removing their ability to make a jare.

Layli Goobalay

Layli Goobalay is a Somali variant of the game Mancala, which is played in various forms throughout the world. In this version, the board uses two rows of twelve holes (making twenty-four total holes). While some players use a carved game board, most still dig the holes in the ground to play. The game pieces are sometimes seeds, but can also be a variety of objects, including camel dung.

At the beginning of the game, each hole holds four seeds. The first player takes the seeds from one of their holes and begins distributing them, one at a time, into the other holes, going clockwise. This is the opposite of other Mancala variations, which usually goes counterclockwise. If the last seed lands in a hole with other seeds, the player obtains everything from the last hole and continues distributing seeds around the board.

Layli Goobalay board with uur featured
Layli Goobalay board

If, when the last move is deposited into an empty hole on the active player's side of the board, they can take the seeds from their opponent's hole on the opposite side. However, if the hole contains three seeds, they must take a seed from that hole and add it to the one they just placed. This gives both holes two seeds each, and the holes are now called uur, meaning ''pregnant''. No player may take from a ''pregnant'' hole and must wait until other seeds are added before it becomes available. The player who created the uur owns both holes and may take from them on any turn, after they hold more than two seeds. If the last move adds seeds to an uur hole, the turn ends as it would if the seed landed in an empty hole. The winner is the player who captures the most seeds during the game.

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