Mancala is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, strategy board games in the world. There's a reason this game has passed the test of time as it's not only fun but also really helps develop your problem-solving skills.
The Basics of Mancala
One thing to know about Mancala is that there are many versions of the game that vary by location and culture. The word "mancala" actually refers to a type of game and it's meaning, "to move", is derived from the Arabic language. All mancala-type games share these characteristics:
- The objective is to "sow the seeds' given to a player so that the winning player sows the most at the conclusion of the game.
- It's a two-player game where you will also attempt to "capture" seeds from the other player. There are versions you can buy with up to four players.
- The "seeds" are the player pieces that you move along the game board.
- The game board usually has from two to four rows of "holes" for sowing the seeds, although some cultures play versions with much longer rows or even with circular-shaped boards.
Setting Up the Mancala Board
You can purchase a Mancala game board which are often made of wood. It will have two large depressions called mancalas on each end and then two rows between them of six smaller depressions, or "pits." The game pieces, or "seeds," are small and are usually colorful glass, beads or seeds. Setting up the board to play is easy.
- Each player gets the same number of "seeds" at the start, which can be from about 12 to 48 each, as long as the number is divisible by six. The more pieces the longer your gameplay will be.
- The number of seeds is divided by six and then that amount is placed in each smaller pit. For example, if you are playing with 12 seeds each, you will put two seeds in each pit.
- When you're done placing all the seeds, the mancalas should be empty.
- Now you're ready to play!
About Mancala Terminology
You may read different names for pieces and areas of the game board in mancala. Some common terms will be:
- The mancala is also called the bank, cup or store.
- The pieces are called seeds or stones.
- The six round depressions on each player row are called pits, cups, hollows, bowls or holes.
Do It Yourself Mancala Board
If you want to play the game but don't have a board, you can make your own quite easily. An empty egg carton with a small pit on each end of it works perfectly. In ancient times the game was played on dirt with the pits and banks simply scratched out in the dirt. You can use any items you like for the seeds, as long as they are easily distinguishable between players. Marbles, beads, buttons, shells, coins or small rocks are all possibilities.
A Simple Overview of Mancala Rules
While there are some variations of the rules depending on the mancala game, these are the steps you should follow to play a "basic" game. For the purposes of this article, the player pieces are referred to as seeds and the six spots on each player row as pits.
- Player one takes all the seeds in a pit in his row and places them, one by one in consecutive order, in the next sequential pits.
- In other words, if you are playing a game with three seeds in each pit, you can choose any pit in your row to take the seeds from.
- You must then place the seeds in each successive pit until the seeds are used up - no skipping! You are moving in a counter-clockwise direction.
- If the last seed you play ends up in your mancala, then you go again. That seed also stays in your mancala.
- Player two then goes and repeats the same step.
- Note than when moving pieces along the board, each player only uses their own mancala. The other player will skip over the other player's mancala when moving their seeds around the board.
- During a player's turn they may end up placing their last seed in an empty pit on their side of the board, they then "capture" the other player's seeds on the opposite side of the row. In other words, these would be the seeds in the pit directly opposite the pit on their side.
- All of the other player's seeds that have been captured are then put in the player's mancala.
- If a player's last seed lands in an empty pit on the other player's side of the board, they do not capture the other player's seeds.
Ending the Game
- The game is over when a player has cleared all of their seeds from their side of the board and moved them into their mancala.
- The other player will remove any seeds left on his side of the board and puts into his mancala.
- The game is then scored to determine the winner.
Scoring the Game
- Each player counts up the seeds in their mancala.
- The player with the most seeds wins.
Mancala Game Variations
There are no rules for mancala that are set in stone so you can your other players can make variations as you please to increase the game's challenge or add more players. Some ideas that other players use for modifications include:
- Change the number of seeds placed in each pit. The more seeds you use the longer the game will be.
- Change the number of pits on the game board for each player.
- Play the game with four people. You can either play as two teams of two, or change your board so that it has more rows and mancalas.
- Another variation is to allow the player who moves all of his seeds off the board first to capture any remaining seeds from the other player left on the board.
Oware is a commonly played version that is popular in West Africa and the Caribbean. The rules are similar to the basic mancala rules with these variations:
- Start the game with four seeds in each pit.
- Do not drop seeds in the mancalas.
- When the last seed is dropped in an opponent's pit, the player may take the seeds if there are two or three total. If there is any other number, the seeds remain in the pit.
- If the second-to-last pit has two or three seeds, those seeds are taken too. The same rule applies to all previous pits on the opponent's side until the original player either comes to a pit with more or less seeds or arrives at his board.
- If the seeds from a pit allow for more than one lap around the board, skip the pit from which they were taken.
- The game ends when one player's pits are empty and the other player can't make a move that would drop seeds in the empty pits. The other player keeps his remaining seeds.
- If both players are unable to make a move, they may split the remaining seeds or ignore them in the final count.
Giuthi is a version of mancala that is played in Kenya and the word means "to place" in Kenyan.
- This game requires more seeds than other variations, and you may wish to use smaller objects to make sure they will fit in the pits.
- A typical Giuthi board may also have more pits on it, with between five and ten on each side.
- The more pits, the more challenging the game will be so beginners may do best with a smaller board with six pits in each row.
- Start the game with six seeds in each small pit.
- Players may choose to drop seeds in either direction.
- If the last stone is placed in a pit with other seeds, the player picks up all the seeds and drops them in the opposite direction.
- This continues back and forth until the last stone is dropped into an empty pit.
- If the empty pit is on the opponent's side, nothing happens.
- If the last stone is placed in an empty pit on the player's side, he places that stone and the seeds in the opposite pit in his mancala.
- However, the player may not take the seeds from the opposite pit if no seeds were added to it during that turn.
- When there is another empty pit next to the pit where the last stone was dropped, the player may also take the seeds in the pit opposite it, going down the line until he reaches a pit with seeds on his side or an empty pit on his opponent's side.
- In order to take a turn, a player must start from a pit with more than one seed. If this isn't possible, she must skip a turn.
- At the end of the game, players keep the seeds remaining in their own pits.
- The game ends when:
- One player has four seeds or fewer left.
- There are no "legal" moves left for either player.
- If the board position repeats.
Learning How to Play Mancala
While it may seem at first glance that the rules for mancala are quite challenging, once you begin playing you'll adapt quickly to the gameplay and objectives of the game. Mancala is a great game for children because it can help teach math skills as well as how to problem solve and think ahead about strategy. Of course, adults love it too which explains why it can be found in so many countries, cultures over the course of human history to present day.