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Cards, board games and puzzles

by Mark Derby

Board and card games were popular in colonial New Zealand, partly because there wasn’t much else to do for entertainment. Māori had developed several board games, some of which are still played in the 21st century. New Zealand players have excelled internationally at many of the best-known games, and New Zealanders have developed unique card and board games.

Māori use of games

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.

    • Quoted in William Richard Wade, A journey in the Northern Island of New Zealand. Hobart: George Rolwegan, 1842, p. 117. Back
    • Ferdinand von Hochstetter, New Zealand: its physical geography, geology, and natural history. Stuttgart, J. G. Cotta, 1867, p. 298. Back
    • 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
    • J. S. Polack, Manners and customs of the New Zealanders. Vol. 2. London: James Madden, 1840, p. 171. Back
    • William Brown, New Zealand and its aborigines. London: Smith, Elder, 1845, p. 102. Back
    • Alfred Cox, Recollections: Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1884, p. 184. Back
    • Andreas Reischek, Yesterdays in Maoriland: New Zealand in the ’eighties. London: Cape, 1930, p. 151. Back

Games in colonial society

British origins of games

In the early 19th century working-class adult Britons played a variety of traditional board games, especially in public houses (pubs). These games included shove ha’penny, nine men’s morris, dominoes, backgammon, draughts and cribbage. Wealthier Britons were more likely to play ‘parlour games’ in their own homes, especially chess and card games such as whist (a forerunner of bridge) and vingt-et-un (also called twenty-one, and later pontoon), and solo games such as solitaire and patience.

The earliest European migrants to New Zealand, such as seamen, traders and missionaries, brought their favourite games from their homelands. Some of those games are no longer found in New Zealand but others, especially draughts, chess and card games such as patience, remain popular in the 2000s.

Shipboard games

The many thousands of immigrants to New Zealand in the mid-19th century faced a long and boring voyage. Games made shipboard conditions more enjoyable, and card and board games could be played even under the worst sailing conditions. Gambling on board the immigrant ships was forbidden but, nonetheless, widely practised. Passengers on the Boyne, which sailed to Lyttelton in 1878–79, gambled on card games from breakfast to night.

Precious chess

In 1884 Archdeacon Henry Harper learned that a prospector, John Davies, had been found drowned, holding ‘a chess board, like a small backgammon board, closed, with the men inside held in their places with pegs’. Archdeacon Harper remembered that he had met Davies years earlier in Hokitika, where ‘he asked me to teach him chess. I happened to have a small closed board, fitted with men, which I gave him’. Davies told Harper, ‘be sure if anything happens, wherever I am picked up, this chess board will be found on John Davies.’1

Games in colonial homes

Settlers in the young colony found that opportunities for recreation were limited and card and board games remained popular with all ages. In many colonial households a box containing a variety of board games, known as a compendium, was a well-used possession. Those games included some still played in the 21st century, such as snakes and ladders, ludo, chess and draughts, and others that became rare, such as parcheesi, halma and quartettes.

Card games were just as popular among children. Colonial favourites included old maid, beggar my neighbour, grab (or snap) and animal grab. Older children and their parents might play vingt-et-un, cribbage, euchre, whist and, from the 20th century, bridge. Several of these games are still widely played in New Zealand, often in electronic versions.

    • Henry W. Harper, Letters from New Zealand 1857–1911: being some account of life and work in the province of Canterbury, South Island. London: Hugh Rees, 1914, p. 217. Back

Non-gambling games


New Zealand’s first chess club was formed in Dunedin in 1863 and the first national championship was held in Christchurch in 1879. The first internationally prominent New Zealand player was Robert Wade, who was national champion three times in the 1940s and twice British champion (1952 and 1970). He gave crucial support to US grandmaster Bobby Fischer during his world champion matches in 1972 and 1992. Estonian-born Ortvin Sarapu met Robert Wade at a tournament in Germany in 1949 and was convinced to migrate to New Zealand. Sarapu eventually won the New Zealand championship a record 20 times.

Chasing the king

The Māori name for chess is whaikīngi (literally, ‘chase the king’). The other chess pieces are called the kuīni (queen), pīhopa (bishops), toa (knights), pā tūwatawata (castles or rooks) and kaihāpai-ō (pawns).

Lightning chess, where players have only seconds to decide their move, has been popular. Also common was playing chess by correspondence. New Zealand was one of the earliest countries to use the telegraph system to play correspondence chess between clubs. Christchurch beat Nelson in two games in 1866. Mark Noble of Feilding became New Zealand’s first correspondence chess grandmaster in 2010. From the late 20th century many people have played chess on computers.


In 1902 the Otago Witness published a column, alongside its chess and draughts columns, on the ancient Chinese and Japanese board game of ‘go’. This was apparently the earliest such column to appear outside Asia. The New Zealand Go Society was formed in 1976 and New Zealand took part in the first World Amateur Go Championships in 1979. Professional go players are ranked from 1st to 9th dan. In 1980 Graeme Parmenter became the first New Zealander to reach fourth dan.


Bridge has been played at a social level in New Zealand since the early 20th century. The rise of competitive bridge in the US led to the formation of New Zealand’s first bridge club in Auckland in 1931. In 2012 there were 109 clubs, with over 13,000 members, affiliated to the national federation.

Chess capital

The Wellington suburb of Wainuiomata became the capital of New Zealand chess in the 1970s. Several young members of its Pencarrow Chess Club became outstanding players, including Murray Chandler, who became the first New Zealand over-the-board, or face-to-face, grandmaster in 1982, playing for England.

New Zealand bridge players have taken part in international competitions since 1964, when a team contested a regional event in Tokyo. In 2012 Jan Cormack of Auckland was New Zealand’s most capped international player, and was ranked a world master. For many years she wrote a bridge column in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Ishmael Del’Monte has represented New Zealand and Australia at regional and world events, and in 2012 held the rank of world international master.

Scrabble and Monopoly

The word-game of Scrabble, originally from the US, is widely played in New Zealand. In October 2011 New Zealander Nigel Richards fought off 116 competitors from 44 countries to take his second world champion title by one point.

The board game Monopoly, based on buying and selling property, is similarly popular. A special New Zealand edition with local place names was produced around 1960. The three most valuable properties in this edition are Frankton Junction (Hamilton), Lambton Quay (Wellington) and Queen Street (Auckland). New Zealander Greg Jacobs won the world Monopoly championship in 1983.

Crosswords and other word puzzles

Crosswords and other word puzzles have been popular diversions in New Zealand, especially among office workers and commuters, since at least 1881 when they appeared regularly in the Otago Witness newspaper.

In the 1980s the Shuker family of Wellington began compiling crossword puzzles using New Zealand words such as Māori-language terms and local place names. Their business, The Puzzle Company, eventually supplied crosswords and other puzzles to every daily paper in New Zealand and to more than 20 other countries. Simon Shuker developed the new word puzzles Code-cracker and Take 5, and in 2012 sold them worldwide.


A number game similar to a crossword puzzle, Sudoku was barely known outside Japan until 1997. In that year Wayne Gould, a judge from Matamata, saw a book of Sudoku games in a Tokyo bookstore and found it compelling. Over the next few years he developed a computer program to create Sudoku puzzles and popularised Sudoku outside Asia. He also developed an online version of the game.

Recent New Zealand games

A number of games developed by New Zealanders have become successful elsewhere. The Educational Tour of New Zealand was a popular family board game in the 1950s. It was one of a series created by Auckland manufacturer Thomas Holdsworth & Sons. This game sold by the thousands until production ceased in the early 1980s.

The board game Cathedral was invented by RNZAF pilot Bob Moore in the 1970s and bought by an international games publisher in 1979. By the 21st century it was sold in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. The New Zealand Games Association was formed in 2009 to encourage the development of the game industry in New Zealand, focusing on physical games using boards, cards, dice, tiles and blocks.

Gambling games

Card games in gentlemen’s clubs

Several games, especially card games, have been popular among gamblers in New Zealand. In the 19th century playing cards for money was a favourite pastime of all social classes. Among the wealthy, poker, twenty-one, whist and loo were played by sheep-station owners and the urban elite in the gentlemen’s clubs established in the main centres. Julius Vogel, who became premier of New Zealand, was described as a ‘by no means contemptible player of unlimited loo’1. Houses and farms changed hands on the outcome of a game. Charles Suisted, the proprietor of Wellington’s first hotel, boasted that he had won the lease of the building in a game of cards.

Māori gamblers

Māori soon became enthusiastic gamblers on cards and other games of chance. In 1851 the missionary and printer William Colenso published instructions in the Māori language warning against gambling on cards. The Māori-language newspaper Te Wananga published several notices warning readers against playing cards. In 1878 they were reminded that card-playing on the railway between Napier and Waipukurau was forbidden, and offenders could be fined £5.

One-eared Bully

One of 19th-century New Zealand’s most notorious gamblers was US-born William ‘Bully’ Hayes. He arrived in Dunedin in 1862 and opened a hotel and theatre in Arrowtown. A rumour circulated that years earlier, in California, Hayes had been caught cheating at poker and his ear had been cut off. Five pounds was offered to any Arrowtown barber prepared to cut his long hair. One accepted the challenge and Hayes was shown to be indeed minus his right ear. He left for Hokitika, where he again gambled heavily. He finally died in a brawl in the Marshall Islands.

Goldfields gambling

Large numbers of migrants, mostly male and single, poured into the country whenever new goldfields were discovered, bringing new card games with them. Some had earlier worked on the California goldfields and introduced the game of faro. Irish miners preferred forty-fives, and this card game remained popular on the West Coast, where many Irish settled, into the 20th century.

Wartime card games

During both world wars New Zealand troops gambled furiously to while away boredom and, if they were lucky, supplement their pay. Poker and pontoon were the most popular card games although during the Second World War the more complex game of 500 emerged. Card sharps (cheats) used a system of cigarettes to signal to their partners – a new one for hearts, a relit butt for spades, a struck match for diamonds and frantic puffs for the joker.

Depression-era gaming

The depression of the 1930s meant enforced idleness and economic hardship for relief workers and encouraged many of them to gamble on cards. Cribbage, slippery sam and euchre were played in pubs, boarding houses and relief camps around the country. In the early 1950s groups of urban Māori women were reported to gamble for money at ‘card schools’ in each other’s houses. Privacy protected them from the social stigma associated with gambling. Men were usually less concerned about their reputations and frequently staked their pay packets on a game of euchre-loo at single men’s camps, freezing works and other large workplaces.

Legalised poker

Gambling on card games was not widely accepted until the 1990s, when New Zealand’s first licensed casino opened in Christchurch. However, many New Zealanders had become skilled gamblers long before this and in 1989 Paul Pedersen, a Whanganui sheep farmer, competed in the world poker championships in Las Vegas. In 2008 Auckland’s casino, Sky City, ran the first Festival of Poker, the biggest poker tournament in New Zealand history. There were 306 participants, most of them international players. The following year Sky City launched New Zealand’s first training school for poker dealers.

    • Quoted in David Grant, On a roll: a history of gambling and lotteries in New Zealand. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1994, p. 24. Back

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Cards, board games and puzzles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 May 2021)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013