Traditional Games and Modern Variants

Mancala (from the Arab word naqala, "to move") is sometimes called the national game of Africa (but it is played worldwide from Indonesia to the Caribbean). Mancala is a common name to identify a set of games with the same mechanics and goals, much like the Moku, Checkers, Go or Chess family. Mancala is possibly the oldest abstract game concept, perhaps more than 3500 years old (there are boards carved in Egyptian temples from around 1400BC). Mancala boards resemble the Abacus and eventually their origins may be intertwined, the latter for accounting, the former for playing (the first example of recreational mathematics?). For more information check 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 and also Wiki-Manqala.

The general rules for Mancala games are:

  • MOVE - Each player, at each turn, picks the stack from one of his cells and sows it thru the board.
  • SOWING - Place each stone of the selected stack into the next adjacent cells (one for each cell) in a counter-clockwise direction.
    • Some boards have, between sides, a special cell called the store (where players keep their captures so far). The player's store is after the player's right cell. 
    • The sowing may optionally include one stone into the player's store.
  • CAPTURE - When the last stone is dropped, if a certain condition is verified, the sowing player is able to capture some stones.
    • Captures are optional.
  • GOAL - The game ends when a player cannot move or no more captures are possible (usually due to cycling positions). 
    • The winner is whoever collects more stones.

Most Mancala games are just variations around: (a) the board (including games with two or four rows like Bao or Omweso) and (b) the sow/capture rules.

In the following diagrams, a dotted stone represents five stones and stores are dotted squares (only visible when sowing contemplates them).

OWARE (many tribes from West Africa, a.k.a. WARI, AWELE, AYO, OURRI)

  • SOW - Stores are not sowed.
    • With a stack with 12+ stones, the original cell must be jumped over when the sowing goes back around his side.
    • If the opponent has no stones, the player must put some onto his side on the next move if that's possible. If not, the game ends and the mover collects all remaining stones.
  • CAPTURE - If the last piece lands in an opponent cell which contains a stack of size 2 or 3, the player captures them. All the immediately preceding enemy cells with stacks of size 2 or 3 pieces are also captured.
    • There is an exception: if a sow would capture all enemy stones (leaving the opponent with no valid moves) then the player may make the sow but cannot capture any stone!

There are another ways to handle the exception above: (a) That move may not be made that leaves the opponent no stones, or (b) That move may be made, but the player must sow again in order to put some stones on the opponent's side.

A capture example

The bottom player selects his stack with 6 stones (at f1) and sows the enemy field from f2 to a2.

Since the last sowed cell (a2) now has a stack of size 3, the player captures it and all preceding cells with stacks of size 2 or 3 until he reaches a cell with a different stack size.

In this example, he will just capture 5 stones, from a2 and b2. Cell c2 has a stack of size 1.

You can play Wari at Richard's PbM server.

AỶAỶ (Yoruba tribe from Nigeria)

  • SOW - When a player reaches the last sowed cell, if that cell was not empty it continues sowing.
    • Stores are not sowed.
    • With a stack with 12+ stones, the original cell must be jumped over when the sowing goes back around his side.
  • CAPTURE - If the sow ends on a friendly cell, the player captures all stones from the opposite cell.

A capture example

The bottom player selects his stack with 6 stones (at f1) and sows the enemy field from f2 to a2.

The last sowed cell was a2. Now the player continues sowing with the cell, until he reaches cell c2.

Since cell c1 was empty, the player captures the stack of size 5 from the opposite cell (cell c2) and ends his turn.

These type of variants have players with whole sequences of opening moves learnt by heart. For these, an excellent alternative would be to start the game by each opponent filling up his size with his own stone supply, any way he likes.

KALAH (modern variant: William J. Champion, 1958)

  • SOW - Player's store is sowed.
    • If the sow sequence ends in the player's store, the player may move again. 
  • CAPTURE - If the last piece lands in a friendly empty cell, the player captures that stone and all stones from the opposite cell (e.g., a1 is opposite to a2 and vice versa).

A move sequence example

Bottom player's turn. He sows the stack from d1 (from e1 to his own store). 

Since the sow ended in his turn, the player move again with g1.



Again, he selects f1 which produces a sowing ending at b1. He then captures the stack at b2 and ends his turn. 

Here is a Java applet to play this variant.

I presented here just some variants (there are literally hundreds of them). Try to find The Complete Mancala Games Book from Larry Russ (1999). Other old and modern variants: Congklak, Oh-wah-ree, Glass Bead Game. Check also the Yahoo Mancala Group. There are some Zillions game files from W.D.Troyka: several Mancala games (including Oware and Kalah), Congklak, Cross-Wari, Cross-Kalah and Cross-Endodoi. Ralf Gering and others developed several modern Mancala variants described here.

As it seems a slight disadvantage to start but a slight advantage to have more stones on a  player's own board, it is possible to tackle both these features at the game start by adding one extra stone to one of the first player's stacks. This will be especially welcome for people who does not like draws.