The Mancala Family of Games
Mancala is the name of a family of games generally involving rows of holes ("cups") in which rest pieces which are moved about by players with the object of capturing the most stones by the end of the game. Boards can range from the well-known American configuration of two rows of six holes (the game of Wari), to three rows of six (Gabata), four rows of eight (Hus), and other variations. The basic version of most games involve just two players, but many games can accommodate more. Playing pieces can consist of beans, seeds, stones, beads or whatever is handy.
The thing that is most remarkable about Mancala games is that they are in no way games of chance -- they are purely games of skill -- and a mathematical skill at that. As played in their native countries, they use a sort of right-brained mathematical skill because there players are encouraged to scoop and play the pieces quickly, without spending much time figuring out which is the best move. In most games, counting of the pieces in the cups on your own side is allowed (but you may not count the opponent's).
The Origins of Mancala
The name "Mancala" comes from the Arabic word "naqala" which means "to move" -- this tempts us to believe its origins are in Arabia, and in fact, ancient boards have been found in that area, and in Egypt, with the remains of something like a mancala board having been found in Cheops pyramid. The problem with trying to determine just when and where mancala originated is that the earliest actual boards will likely have been made from extremely perishable materials -- wood being the most common even now -- and even what I call "stones" were most likely to have originally been seeds or beans which will have decayed to dust millennia ago, or a collection of common pebbles. And, of course, mancala would first have been played without a board at all -- as it is these days in many places around the world -- with holes made in the sand or soil, or circles scratched onto any surface, and played with pebbles or seeds or whatever is handy nearby. These earliest forms of the game have been long lost.
Though it's not possible to trace the game's beginnings, it is well known that it has long been played in Africa, where it no doubt originated. It is still played throughout that continent, in such a wide variety of games and styles that what anthropologists have named "mancala games" must be thought of as something like the westerner's "card games" -- a fairly standardized set of equipment on which you can play many games, from very simple children's games to mind-benders for adults. From Africa the game was spread -- largely due to the slave trade -- throughout the Caribbean and along the east coast of South America. The game was prevented from taking hold in the United States by the strict prohibitions of slave owners attempting to further subjugate new slaves by erasing their African heritage.
The games are strongly bound to culture even now. In some countries (Syria and Egypt, for example) the game is played by men, women and children, but each group only plays amongst themselves (men with men, women with women). In other places (like the Phillipines) it's primarily a women's game. Each culture tends to have its own favorite version of the game (often named for the pieces used as stones), but other varieties of the game are also played even where there is a predominating game.
American Mancala, or Wari
The version popularly marketed in the United States was originally called Wari, and has a board that has two rows of six holes along its length, with an additional hole on each end that spans the other two rows (and is the home of captured stones; otherwise it is generally not used in the game). Each of the twelve holes begins with four stones in it (a simpler game can be played with three; more complex games with five or more).
American Mancala Rules: A deceptively simple set of rules for the game starts with one player picking up all the stones from one cup, and sowing them, one by one, in subsequent cups in a counter-clockwise direction. Do not put a stone in the cup from which the stones came: if they go far enough, do put a stone in the large ending cup on your right (this is the spot where you keep your captured stones, and represents your current score). If in the course of the game you get enough stones to go around to your opponent's side and beyond, do not put a stone into their capture cup. If your last stone lands in your own ending (capture) cup, you get another turn. If your last stone ends in one of your own empty cups, you get to capture all the stones in the opponent's cup directly opposite (put them in the ending/capture cup). If your opponent has no stones left on their side and you can make a play that provides them with a stone, you must do so. Otherwise, when one side has no stones left and cannot get one or more stones on their side from their opponent on the next move, the game is over. All stones left on the board go into the ending/capture cup belonging to the player on that side of the board. The player with the most stones wins.
Wari Rules: A more complex game follows the original Wari rules. The game setup is the same (four stones in each cup). Players sow stones as above, counter-clockwise, one by one starting in the cup after the one the stones come from -- but in this case no stones are sown into either your own or your opponent's capture cup. If your last stone lands on you opponent's side in a cup that has only one or two stones in it, you get to capture those stones plus the one you dropped in the cup. In addition, if the cup you put your second-to-the-last stone in had only one or two stones, you get those (plus the stone you added to the cup) -- and so on back.
You might imagine that if your opponent had only one or two stones in all six cups, and you could end in the cup nearest their capture cup, you'd get all the stones on their side of the board -- but there is a rule against that; in any situation in which you could capture all the stones on your opponent's side, you may make the move but may not capture *any* of the stones!
If you have twelve or more stones in a cup to sow, you must leave the originating cup empty when you go back around to your side.
As with the American rules, if your opponent has no stones and you can make a play to provide one or more stones to their side, you must do so. If you cannot provide any stones to the opponent in need, all the stones on your side go into the opponent's capture cup (unless there are three or less, in which case the stones are divided equally, with the odd stone going to the player whose side it was on to begin with).
The game is over when one player gets 25 or more stones, or when one side is empty and one move will not provide stones to that side, or when no more captures are possible (if this situation arises, the stones remaining in play each go to their players' capture cups). The player with the most stones wins.
Other Games Played on a Mancala Board
Other names for Wari include: Woro, Awele, Oware (Owari), Kboo, Kbo, Ayo, Ayoayo, Kale, Aghi and in America I have seen it marketed as Mandinka.
Endoidoi uses the same board as Wari (or longer) and is played by the Masai in Kenya and Tanzania. Ayoayo is a Nigerian variation on Wari preferred by the Yoruba.
Nam-nam (also called Oware, or Adi) was the national game of the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana -- and is also played in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. This is a longer game in that it is one of the more popular versions of the game played using "laps" -- that is, the turn does not necessarily end with the playing of the last stone: if the last stone ends in a cup that's already occupied, the player then picks up all the stones in that cup (including the one just dropped in there) and begins again sowing stones. The turn only ends when the player's last stone lands in an otherwise empty cup. This game can run so long that players can come to know each other very well while playing, which is perhaps why the game is called "Oware" which is Akan for "he marries".
In Nam-nam, beans are captured only when there are four in a hole -- and the capture is made right in the middle of the sowing of stones (the moment the fourth stone is dropped in the hole even as the player continues sowing more stones) -- and the stones belong to the player on whose side they land -- unless the four is created with the last stone played in a round of sowing -- in which case the sower gets to keep the four stones. One round of this game ends when only four stones are left in one cup -- and the player whose turn it was when that happens gets to keep these last four stones.
These are but three sets of rules out of hundreds of varieties of the game played around the world.
Make Your Own Mancala
Here's a simple game you can make yourself: Take an empty egg carton -- cut off the lid if you don't need the game to be stored away (leave the lid if you think you might light to re-use your board and stones). Grab a handful of dried beans -- or pebbles, or buttons, or unpopped popcorn kernals, or whatever you find that's of a size easily picked up and counted out -- and there you have your own homemade game of mancala.
You can also buy Mancala from Astral Castle in a couple of different varieties -- as well as extra glass stones if you'd like to try the higher-number variations, or replace your glass stones with a set of polished stones that add a lot to the beauty of the set and the pleasure of playing.
Copyright © 2003 Astral Castle, All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
Sources and Links: