Iwa – A Māori word game

Iwa at www.pangakupu.maori.nz is a Māori word game that can be used to

  • Assess and Expand vocabulary (based on word frequency)
  • Learn the (often multiple) meanings of common words
  • Improve spelling

It is a Māori version of the game ‘Target‘.

The words come from the dictionary “He Pātaka Kupu” (mainly headwords) and the game is designed to be played ‘old school’ with pen and paper, or just your roro. The most common words have links to Te Aka.

That’s the game in a nutshell. If you want to know more about why it was made the tools I used and the linguistic challenges, cultural issues and game design challenges then read on!


About 5 years ago, in my late 40s, I got scared by my apparent lack of economically useful skills! Consequently I decided to try and change this, hopefully killing two birds with one stone. Namely, to bring my programming and web development skills up to date whilst continuing to learn and improve my Te Reo Māori.

A web-based Māori word game would do the job, I thought.


I wanted everything that I was doing to be open-source and I wanted to use tools that were similarly open-source. I decided to use GitHub for version control, Python as the programming language, Django as the (Python based) web framework and PostgreSQL as the database.

Apart from Django, these turned out to be good choices. Django was just too complex for me to get my head around, consequently I decided to switch to Mezzanine but again I found it too complex for what I was trying to do. Eventually I decided to use CherryPy as the web framework.

Linguistic Challenges

There were two clear linguistic challenges. The primary challenge, to get a list of Māori words using a consistent (macron based) orthography. The secondary challenge,  to decide how to sort the words alphabetically.

Primary Challenge – The list of Māori words

Initially I didn’t think that this was going to be too much of a problem because I was aware that there was at least one existing open-source list available. However, on closer inspection I realised that there were some problems inherent in using this list and in fact any other list that was freely available.

To summarise, my problem was to answer the question “How do I ensure that all the words in the list I use are spelled correctly, use the same orthography (macron based) and are accepted Māori words?”

In the end I realised that the only way I was going to be able to produce a list of this level of quality was to gather words from an existing dictionary.

So, I chose “He Pātaka Kupu“. At the time it was available on-line (it no longer is) in a way that meant I could write some code to check the veracity of the approximately 13,000 headwords that I copied manually.

Secondary Challenge – Alphabetically sorting the list of Māori words

I did some research into the sort order to use for the word list(s) that are used for the game. In the end the code that was written almost exactly reproduced the sort order used in “He Pātaka Kupu”.

Cultural Issues

Culturally the keys for me were

  • Ask permission where necessary
  • Ask for feedback and listen to the answers
  • Ask myself “He aha te whakaaro Māori?”

Ask permission where necessary

It was clear to me that it was necessary to ask permission to use the words from “He Pātaka Kupu”, so I did so. I didn’t get a response from Te Taura Whiri but decided to go ahead anyway.

Ask for feedback and listen to the answers

I am part of 3 Māori language groups on Facebook. I sometimes asked for feedback during the game development process and it was always valuable. It clearly influenced the final design of the game for the better and hopefully put users on-side from the start.

Ask myself “He aha te whakaaro Māori?”

As a Pākehā I have been known to think like one (lol) and I have cultural blind spots. It is important for me to regularly ask the question “He aha te whakaaro Māori?” which I would translate as “What is the Māori perspective?”.  For example, the research I did into sort order was based on the principle of “putting people first”, after all, “He aha te mea nui?”

Game Design Challenges

There were 2 key challenges to solve in terms of the game design. The primary challenge was to allow the user to usefully assess vocabulary quality and the secondary challenge was how to treat the digraphs ‘ng’ and ‘wh’.

Primary Challenge – Allow user to usefully assess vocabulary quality

The penultimate version of the game had a list of the words that could be made, nothing else.  This was a serious limitation as there was no way for the user to usefully assess the quality of their vocabulary (are the words known, common or rare?) and no way to suggest common words that need to be learnt.

The solution to this was to measure word frequency.

I wrote some Python code to establish word frequency using all of the “Examples of Use” sentences  from within “He Pātaka Kupu”. This allowed the development of a frequency based scoring system (“pai”, “tino pai”, “tino pai rawa atu”).

It also had the added benefit of allowing the most common words to be linked through to “Te Aka” in the expectation that the definitions would be found in that on-line dictionary.

Secondary Challenge – How to treat the digraphs ‘ng’ and ‘wh’

There were 2 choices, either put the digraph in one square or spread it out over 2. Aesthetics won out for me and I went with the latter as this allowed the letter size to be constant.

Some work was required to ensure that the digraphs were obviously digraphs  and a few 9 letter words (those with 3 digraphs) were not included as I couldn’t find an effective way to fit them in to the square in a way which wouldn’t be confusing.

Here they are in all their glory

  1. ngawhewhe
  2. whāngongo
  3. whewhengi
  4. whiwhinga
  5. whīwhiwhi

That’s all folks

Kia pai te rā ki a koe and feel free to comment either here or at http://www.pangakupu.maori.nz/iwa/contact

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