Story: Cards, board games and puzzles

Page 1. Māori use of games

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Traditional Māori games

Some researchers believe that Māori played board games derived from observation of the stars before the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand. These games include mengamenga (also called kurapakara), played on a large woven flax board and using multi-coloured stones representing the night sky. In some versions the winners called out ‘mengamenga’, meaning ‘the stars have filled up the heavens’. Another early Māori board game, tōrere (later known as mū tōrere), was played on a board marked with a design resembling an eight-pointed star.

Cockles, potatoes and kernels

In 1834 missionary William Fairburn observed two men at Tūrua, near present-day Thames, ‘playing at draughts on a rude board of their own construction. Their draughts-men were cockle-shells, played the round side up by one party, and the reverse by the other.’1 The geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter witnessed another game in the Waikato in 1859. ‘The ‘men’ of one party were represented by small potatoes cut in two, called Riwai; those of the other, by peach-kernels, called Pititi. Instead of the draught-board they had a piece of board, upon which not even squares were marked, and the game itself they called Teraku.’2

Ethnologist Elsdon Best and others believed that tōrere and other Māori board games were only played after the first contacts between Māori and Europeans. They suggest that these games may be an adaptation of introduced games such as draughts. There is little doubt, however, that tōrere was a popular game among some Māori, especially on the East Coast of the North Island, from the very early years of European contact.

In the 2000s mu tōrere has been used to teach mathematics at a number of US universities.

Māori learn draughts

Draughts was the first European game to gain wide popularity among Māori. During an 1814 voyage from England, Englishman John Nicholas played draughts with the young Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara and found that ‘the proficiency he had made excited no small degree of surprise.’3 Many other early accounts of New Zealand report that Māori frequently played draughts using homemade boards and pieces made from shells, slices of potato or peach kernels. In 1840 J. S. Polack stated, ‘The chequered board is not only a utensil in every house, but canoes, and even the sandy sea-shore is often found marked with the parti-coloured squares.’4

Early draughts champions

Māori soon became very expert at draughts. In 1845 a Bay of Islands woman was ‘famed for her skill at this game. She makes a practice of going on board every new vessel that comes into the harbour, carrying a quantity of goods along with her for the purpose of gambling with anyone whom she may tempt to play … She has never met anyone able to conquer her.’5

In 1868 the Kīngitanga leader Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpīpī Te Waharoa visited Wellington and played draughts with the superintendents of the provinces. Tāmihana took for granted that these influential officials would be strong players. ‘He played with them all, and beat them one after the other; and, very probably, went away wondering in what respects these Pakehas were superior to the Maoris.’6

Pai Mārire and playing cards

As well as draughts, Māori enthusiastically adopted card games. They also appropriated the symbols on playing cards for decorative and spiritual purposes. In 1862 the prophecies of Te Ua Haumēne developed into the Pai Mārire religion. A notebook recording Pai Mārire beliefs includes a drawing of a niu pole (sacred flagpole) with flags depicting playing card symbols. A fallen club referred to the promised restoration of the Old Testament kingdom of David on earth. Three diamonds represented the three islands of Aotearoa.

Austrian explorer Andreas Reischek entered the King Country in 1882 and met Tāwhiao, the second Māori king, and his senior wife Hera Ngāpora. He reported that she ‘was wrapped in a calico dress on which all kinds of card games were printed in a strange manner.’7

Playing card symbols at Maungapōhatu

Playing card symbols were prominently used by followers of the Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana. Club and diamond motifs appeared on their clothing, and on the circular temple of Hiona (Zion) at Rua’s community of Maungapōhatu in the Urewera. The motifs had symbolic meaning: clubs represented the last in the line of King David, and the diamond represented the sacred stone of Maungapōhatu.

  1. Quoted in William Richard Wade, A journey in the Northern Island of New Zealand. Hobart: George Rolwegan, 1842, p. 117. Back
  2. Ferdinand von Hochstetter, New Zealand: its physical geography, geology, and natural history. Stuttgart, J. G. Cotta, 1867, p. 298. Back
  3. John Liddiard Nicholas, Narrative of a voyage to New Zealand, performed in the years 1814 and 1815. Vol. 1. London: James Black and Son, 1817, p. 48. Back
  4. J. S. Polack, Manners and customs of the New Zealanders. Vol. 2. London: James Madden, 1840, p. 171. Back
  5. William Brown, New Zealand and its aborigines. London: Smith, Elder, 1845, p. 102. Back
  6. Alfred Cox, Recollections: Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1884, p. 184. Back
  7. Andreas Reischek, Yesterdays in Maoriland: New Zealand in the ’eighties. London: Cape, 1930, p. 151. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Cards, board games and puzzles - Māori use of games', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013