Birrguu Matya, or the game Tapatan

‘A new board game based on an ancient Aboriginal game has just been released by N S W Aboriginal artist Donna Hensen. Called Hunters Tactics,’ reported the Koori Mail 166 (17 December 1997), page 25. ‘Traditionally, the game was played on the ground using sticks, stones or kangaroo dung and was one of many used to teach children the skills of hunting and gathering.’

Aboriginal artist Donna Hensen’s initiative was cited as an example in a marketing guide from the Australia Council for the Arts in 20001

She has designed a new board game, based on a traditional Aboriginal game, to be distributed through duty-free stores.
The game won the Innovative Indigenous Product Design award at the Indigenous Art Expo held in Casino, NSW in 1997. Made of ceramic, fibre resins and shells, she describes it as a mix of noughts-and-crosses and chess, requiring lateral thinking and patience.
With the help of the Expo co-ordinator, Donna used her prize money to trademark the name Hunters Tactics, then to find an agent to approach toy companies for a children’s version and to test market her art product.

In 1997 the game also had the name Birrguu Matya, according to the date on one in the University of Ballarat Library, though this name wasn’t used in the official mentions. Birrguu Matya has since been marketed through various online stores such as Gecko Educational, or Dreamtime Kullilla-Art which describes the product this way:

Birrguu Matya (Bush Game) Similar to tic-tac-toe & chess and designed to develop skill, patience and lateral thinking. This game has been played by the Aboriginal people for centuries and can be played by all ages.

The game received a favourable mention from Leesa Watego in her blog post Birrguu Matya: A Wiradjuri Game by Donna Hensen, with a couple of comments added in 2009 by Donna Hensen herself.

How to play the game is described in its Wikipedia entry, and more clearly in a recent post on the blog of a Melbourne primary school, which also shows there’s no need to purchase the kit. The game is clearly identical to one known for centuries in Asia as Tapatan (and synonyms and near synonyms), as set out in the marvellous Elliott Avedon Virtual Museum of Games.2 Under the name Tapatan the game is available free for iOS 3.0 or later3.

Now, at last, to the ELAC angle. The words birrguu and matya look like they’ve been taken from the widely available 1994 publication Macquarie Aboriginal words. In its English index there are a few entries under bush, and one points to Wiradjuri birrguu ‘scrub, the bush’. There is only one entry under game: matya, which points to the Paakantyi language chapter, and the entry under Non-physical qualities matya, matyitya ‘bold, game, daring, tame’.

So, what to think? Two words have been taken from separate NSW languages, one from a quite different sense (‘game’ as ‘bold, daring’), and used to market, especially to schools, a kit for a game with no recorded Australian antecedents (unless a reader can correct me?). The venture has not been in the context of language revitalization, and the instructions do not involve any Australian language vocabulary. Call the authenticity police, or let a thousand (plastic) flowers bloom?


  1. Online in p.134 in Section 3 of What’s my plan? A guide to developing arts marketing plans, citing an article ‘Hunters for Collectors’, p.25 in Smarts 12 (December 1997).
  2. A quite similar game with four (not three) pieces for each player is known in Ghana as Achi.
  3. Thanks to The Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa

One Comment

  1. Piers Kelly says:

    The wikipedia entry includes this: “While the game is similar in strategy to other ancient games, its uniqueness lies in the fact that it it one of so very few “table games” found in Australian indigenous culture.”
    I’m not really sure what this is supposed to mean.

    Of course, another angle on this is the nativisation of games in Aboriginal communities more generally. Consider the varieties of the card game Rummy played in the north as gambling games. Regardless of their ultimate origins these games are certainly ‘Aboriginal’ – but I suppose it’s quite another matter to claim an ancient heritage as part of a marketing strategy, along with a bogus name and origin myth.

    The age old question: in what circumstances is innovation valid/invalid?

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