Imagine that games are treasures of different nations, countries, and continents. India had brought Chess and many other games to the world. Go and Mahjong may be seen as the great wealth of China. Europe has developed Checkers and Chess in its modern, western form. And what Africa gave to the world? Mancala of course! A real jewel of Africa. Extremely beautiful. Raw and sophisticated at the same time.
The family of games known today as Mancala is hard to confuse with anything else. It’s a family of strategy board games, with a rather unusual board in the form of hollows or cups, to which players “sow” numerous pieces in form of seeds, marbles or shells. Those pieces can be of the same or different color. It does not matter.
Mankala is so old that nobody knows exactly since when it’s known to humanity. The oldest traces of the game found in Eritrea and Ethiopia are dated on 6th or 7th century AD.
Mancala unlike other old games (such as Mill) did not require permanent board or special pieces. In Mancala you can use almost everything as pieces – pebbles, seeds, shells. You can play in small bowls or just in little pits made in the ground. This endearing simplicity allows anyone to play, but on the other hand, it could limit the number of archaeological relics of Mancala.
The game is known under different names in different parts of the world. In Congo as Pehi. In Uganda as Lea, Bao, Bonzo and also as Pehi. In Ethiopia as Gabata, in Sudan as Kara or Aringari, in Java as Dakou and in the Philippines as Chunkajon. There are many variants of the game with its own names like Ali Guli Mane (known in South India), Congkak (Philippines) or Oware (Ghana).
It’s really easy to create a new Mancala variant. The rules of the game depend on the cups and seeds so you can easly change their number and modify the rules. One basic rule remains unchanged – the move is done by “sowing” and the effect of the move depends on numbers of seeds in pits (I explain this below in the description of rules).
Europeans know Mancala since ca 100 years. Perhaps it was already known by some English merchants in the 17th century, but they didn’t popularize it. In 1917 Mankala was described in German book by pastor Fritz Jahn. And this was a book about old German(!) games. In fact, the author met this game during his trip to Estonia, where he saw a replica of the board kept today at the Hermitage. The original board was a gift from the Shah of Persia for Empress of Russia Catherine the Great.
How did it happen that such modest game became a royal gift? Well … the game itself is very sophisticated and requires a stout mind. In addition, you don’t have to use pebbles and simple boards to play. Some Mankala sets were made truly artistically. For some African tribes, Mankala was worshiped game (like the game of Mill which also had its religious dimension in other parts of the world).
The German name of the game is “Bohnenspiel” which means “a bean game”. Interestingly, the game was adopted by the German aristocracy in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire.
It’s good to mention that Fritz Jahn was interested in using games in education. He was also interested in Domino and Cribbage. Mankala seems good to practice counting and also in Africa people believe that this game rises math skills.
And what Americans did for Mancala? They commercialized game… and it was good. Under the name of Warra game became popular in the 1920s. Around 1940 man named William Julius Champion Jr. developed a variant called Kahla. Later he started to popularize the game and produce sets. Nowadays there are many lovers of Mankala in the USA so his work was not in vain.
I hope this introduction encourages you to give Mancala a try. If so, you should learn rules of the game. As I mentioned, there are many variants and alternative rules. But we have to start from somewhere so in this post I will present you a variant called Wari. I think it’s most popular.
Rules of the game
Mancala in general (variant known as Oware, Wari, Warri, Walle, Adji or Awélé)
Mankala-Wari is a strategy board game for two players who make alternate turns by “sowing” pieces. There is no random element in the game.
Board and pieces
To play Mancala you need a board with 12 fields (called houses). Each player has 6 houses on his/her side. Many boards have two additional large fields which serve only as containers for captured pieces. Traditionally boards are wooden and houses have a form of pits on a board, but you can play also on flat board. A shape of houses can be varied – oval, round or even rectangular.
Example of the board is shown in the image below.
The game also requires 48 pieces, often called “seeds”. You can use pebbles, beans or glass marbles. You can even use cowrie shells, similar to those used to play Pachisi. Pieces may be of one or many colors – it doesn’t matter
Note: Large fields on sides are not mandatory. They are only score houses for captured pieces. It’s good to have them on the board, but it is not necessary.
Start of the game and regions of the board
The game begins with four seeds in each hose (see image below).
Each player controls 6 houses on his/her side. The image below shows houses controlled by player N and houses controlled by his opponent (player S).
Making moves (sowing seeds)
One of the players starts the game and players take turns alternately.
Making a move means that the player takes all the seeds from one house on his side and distributes taken seeds to successive houses, dropping one in each house (we say he/she “sows” seeds). This move is made counterclockwise. It will be best to show an example.
Suppose that the player S makes the first move from the house 3. I colored seeds in this house red, so you could better see effects of the move.
The moving player must take these pieces in his hand and then spread them one by one to the houses: 4, 5, 6 and 7. Board after the move is shown below.
Player N is next to move. If he would move from the house 8, he would sow them to the houses 9, 10, 11 and 12. After each move one house is empty and the number of seeds is increasing in succeeding houses.
Note: If a player has 12 or more pieces in a house, he will complete the full lap. In this case, the initial field is skipped and the twelfth seed is placed in the next house. In other words, starting house must always be empty after completing the move.
In Mancala the goal of the game is to capture opponent’s pieces. Capturing is made when two conditions are met.
- Final seed in given move lands in an opponent’s house and…
- the count in this house is exactly two or three after completing the move.
All two or three seeds in the final house are captured and removed from this house (they belong to capturing player and they are often moved to his scoring house).
Let’s see it on an example. In the position shown below, player N has 7 seeds in house 9 and he want to move from this house.
Seeds are distributed to successive houses – 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, 3, 4 (counterclockwise).
Final seed land in the house 4. There are now 2 seeds in this house so player S wins these two seeds.
Note: Capturing is made only it the move ends on the opponent’s side. Completion of the move on one’s own half will not result in any captures, even if there are 2 or 3 seeds in the final house.
After capturing the player wins not only seeds from the final house but also seeds from other houses on opponent’s side, to which seeds were sown and the count was increased to two or three in the result of the move. Let’s look at the example below.
It’s a middle of the game. Player N has already 5 seeds and player S has two. Player S is next to move. He starts from the house 4 where he has 8 seeds. He spreads them successive seeds to fields 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12. A situation after completion the move is shown below.
The final seed fell on house 12. There are three seeds there so these seeds are captured. Whats more, in the house 10 there are two seeds and on the field 8, there are three. All these seeds are won by player S. With this one move he gained 8 pieces and the total score will change to 5:10 for his advantage.
End of the game
The goal of the game is, of course, to win more seeds than the opponent has. In practice, the game is over when one player scores 25 seeds. It’s possible to end game in a draw when each player wins 24 seeds.
It may happen that a player makes all his houses empty as a result of a move. In such a situation his opponent is obliged to make a move that will spread some seeds to the “rinsed” player, to allow him to play. If no such move is possible, moving player captures all seeds in his houses and game is over.
It may also happen that on each side there are few seeds, moved over and over again without any captures. In such case, players can agree that game is “endless”. They capture all seeds in their territories, ending the game.
In Africa, it is believed that if a boy and girl fall into an endless game, they should get married :).
“Grand slam” rules
It’s possible to capture all seeds on opponent’s side in one turn. This is called “grand slam” and often special rules apply to such situation. This rules may be varied. Below I mention few of the grand slam rules.
- Grand slam is not allowed (you can not make a move that would capture all opponent’s seeds).
- Grand slam is allowed but does not cause capturing.
- Grand Slam is allowed, but it ends the game and all remaining seeds go to the opponent.
- Grand slam is allowed, but seeds from the final house are not captured.
- Grand slam is allowed, but seeds from the first house are not captured.
- There are no special rules for a grand slam (it’s a legal move that captures all seeds on one side).
Remember to agree on grand slam rules before starting a game.
Varied forms of the board
Boards for Mankala-Wari don’t always look the same and the board in the picture below is a good example. There are 6 holes on each side (left and right), and the large scoring houses are inside. Players should sit on left and right sides of this board.
Some boards have no scoring houses. I suggest you buy boards with scoring houses because it’s possible to use them in other Mankala variants.
If a game is old and has a special cultural meaning, specific rules of politeness are usually developed around it. Mankala-Wari is no exception here. Two rules of Mankala Savoir-Vivre are especially interesting.
If there are many seeds in given house, a player has to rummage house
to count them. And sometimes he takes some seeds in hand. It’s therefore assumed that every player has the right to rummage only in houses on his side. What’s more, the player can take a few seeds in hand before counting to avoid revealing their number.
In Africa, people are often invited to cheer on Mankala players. The onlookers can comment and discuss loudly (unlike in Europe, where such participation is considered as In Africa, people are often invited to cheer on Mankala players. The onlookers can comment and discuss loudly (unlike in Europe, where such participation is considered as impoliteness or even cheat). In Africa, Mankala game is a social event and everyone, not just players, should enjoy it. You must admit this is awesome 🙂
Header photo source: Pxhere.com. Photo was declared as public domain.