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Bao players in stone town zanzibar.jpg
Bao players in Zanzibar

Mancala is a family of board games played around the world, sometimes called "sowing" games, or "count-and-capture" games, which describes the gameplay. The word mancala comes from the Arabic word naqala meaning literally "moved". No one game exists with the name mancala; the name is a classification or type of game. This word is used in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, but is not consistently applied to any one game.

Nobody knows the exact number of mancala variants. More than 800 names of traditional mancala games are known, which are played in 99 countries, and almost 200 invented games have been described. However, some names denote the same game, while some names are used for more than one game.

Some of the most popular mancala games (with regard to distribution area, and numbers of players, tournaments, and publications) are:-

  • Bao la Kiswahili - widespread along the east coast of Africa, and an integral part of Swahili culture; one of the most difficult games to learn because of its rather complex rules
  • Congkak - close variants in South Asia from the Maldives to the Philippines, known by many different names (e.g. Dakon, Ohvalhu, Sungka)
  • Kalah - the only modern game, which has become a popular pastime (mostly played in the USA, where it is simply known as "Mancala", and Europe)
  • Oware - close variants are played in the Caribbean and throughout western Africa, also in immigrant communities in North America and Europe
  • Toguz Kumalak - extremely important in Central Asia, where it is considered a sport superior to Chess

Mancala games vary considerably in size. The largest are Tchouba (Mozambique) and En Gehé (Tanzania). Tchouba employs a board of 160 (4x40) holes and needs 320 seeds. En Gehé (Tanzania) is played on longer rows with up to 50 pits (a total of 2x50=100) and uses 400 seeds. The most minimalistic variants are Nano-Wari and Micro-Wari, created by the Bulgarian ethnologue Assia Popova. The Nano-Wari board has eight seeds in just two pits; Micro-Wari has a total of four seeds in four pits.

General Gameplay

Most Mancala games share a common general game play. Players begin by placing a certain number of seeds, prescribed for the particular game, in each of the holes on the game board. A player may count their stones to plot the game. A turn consists of removing all seeds from a pit, sowing the seeds (placing one in each of the following pits in sequence) and capturing based on the state of board. This leads to the English phrase "Count and Capture" sometimes used to describe the gameplay. Although the details differ greatly, this general sequence applies to all games.


A swan-shaped Malaysian Congkak board in the National Museum of Malaysia.
Equipment is typically a board with a series of holes arranged in rows, usually two or four. In the Horn of Africa boards with three rows are widespread (one example: Selus). In Yunnan (China), a game is known (Laomuzhuqi), which has five rows and in Madagascar a game with six rows was described (Katro). Several modern games (e.g. 55Stones, Sowing, Atomic Wari) are played on one-row boards. The number of holes per row may range from 1 (Nano-Wari) to 50 (En Gehé).

Often the holes are just dug in the earth, especially among nomadic people. Sedentary groups usually prefer wooden boards. Other materials are also used such as clay, metal, cardboard or even feces.

The holes may be referred to as "depressions", "pits", or "houses". Sometimes, large holes on the ends of the board, called stores, are used for holding captured pieces. Playing pieces are seeds, stones, dung balls or other small undifferentiated counters that are placed in and transferred about the holes during play.

Nickernuts are one common example of pieces used. Board configurations vary among different games but also within variations of a given game; for example Endodoi is played on boards from 2 - 6 to 2 - 10.

With a two-rank board, players usually are considered to control their respective sides of the board, although moves often are made into the opponent's side. With a four-rank board, players control an inner row and an outer row, and a player's seeds will remain in these closest two rows unless the opponent captures them.

These games are good for getting children interacting and used to counting. Children can even be encouraged to make the game themselves as follows: Take two half dozen egg cartons, tear the tops off them both, and arrange them in a long line (lid, base, base, lid). You can staple or tape them together if you wish, and you can use pebbles or beads as seeds.


The object of mancala games is usually to capture more seeds than the opponent; sometimes, one seeks to leave the opponent with no legal move in order to win.


Playing oware in kumasi.jpg
Oware players in Kumasi, Ghana
At the beginning of a player's turn, they select a hole with seeds that will be sown around the board. This selection is often limited to holes on the current player's side of the board, as well as holes with a certain minimum number of seeds.

In a process known as sowing, all the seeds from a hole are dropped one-by-one into subsequent holes in a motion wrapping around the board. Sowing is an apt name for this activity, since not only are many games traditionally played with seeds, but placing seeds one at a time in different holes reflects the physical act of sowing. If the sowing action stops after dropping the last seed, the game is considered a single lap game.

Multiple laps or relay sowing is a frequent feature of mancala games, although not universal. When relay sowing, if the last seed during sowing lands in an occupied hole, all the contents of that hole, including the last sown seed, are immediately resown from the hole. The process usually continues until sowing ends in an empty hole.

Many games from the Indian subcontinent, southern China and Vietnam use pussa kanawa laps. These are like standard multilaps, but instead of continuing the movement with the contents of the last hole filled, a player continues with the next hole. A pussa kanawa lap move will then end when a lap ends just prior to an empty hole.


Depending on the last hole sown in a lap, a player may capture seeds from the board. The exact requirements for capture, as well as what is done with captured seeds, vary considerably among games. Typically, a capture requires sowing to end in a hole with a certain number of seeds, or ending across the board from seeds in specific configurations.

Another common way of capturing is to capture the contents of the holes that reach a certain number of seeds at any moment.

Also, several games include the notion of capturing holes, and thus all seeds sown on a captured hole belong at the end of the game to the player who captured it.


The history of mancala is unclear. The first evidence of the game is a mancala board from the 4th century AD found in Abu Sha'ar, a late Roman legionary fortress on the Red Sea coast, Egypt. A fragment of a pottery board in Aksumite Ethiopia in Matara (now in Eritrea) is dated by archaeologists as of between the 6th and 7th century AD. The similarity of some aspects of the game to agricultural activity and the absence of a need for specialized equipment present the intriguing possibility that it could date to the beginnings of civilization itself; however, there is little verifiable evidence that the game is older than about 1300 years. Some purported evidence comes from the Kurna temple graffiti in Egypt, as reported by Parker in 1909 and Murray in his "Board Games Other Than Chess". However, accurate dating of this graffiti seems to be unavailable, and what designs have been found by modern scholars generally resemble games common to the Roman world, rather than anything like mancala.

Count-and-Capture Games never gained much popularity in Europe, except in the Baltic area, where once it was a very popular game (Bohnenspiel). Mancala boards were also found in a remote castle in southern Germany (Schloss Weikersheim), on the island of Hydra, Greece, and in Bosnia, where it is still played, and Serbia (now extinct). The USA has a larger mancala playing population, although many of these players are descendants of enslaved Africans. A traditional mancala game called Warra was still played in Louisiana at the beginning of the 20th century, where numerous mancala artifacts were found at former plantation sites. Perhaps the unfamiliarity with mancala games in the West is in part due to historic prejudice against primitives; the assumption being that these games could not require any serious mental skill. The 1961 edition of Goren's Hoyle, which itself ascribes an Arab origin to the games, perhaps expresses a common sentiment upon discovery of the games' depth:

The anthropologists have not undertaken to explain how it happens that the universal game of primitive peoples is one of pure intellectual skill. Mancala is wholly mathematical, akin to the game of drawing pebbles from a pile in an endeavor to win the last, but so complex as to remain a real contest.


Sowing games can be analyzed using combinatorial game theory: see Jeff Erickson's article "Sowing Games". Even on slow hardware, computer programs can easily defeat strong human players in many mancala games. However, this is not true for Toguz Kumalak, the national game of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and for most four-rank mancala games such as Bao and Omweso.


Just like other board games, mancala games have led to psychological studies. Retschitzki has studied the cognitive processes used by Awale players. Some of Retschitzki's results on memory and problem solving have recently been simulated by Gobet with the CHREST computer model. De Voogt has studied the psychology of Bao playing.

See also


Erickson, J.
Sowing Games. In: Nowakowski, R. J. (Ed.). Games of No Chance. Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Publications 29. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (England) 1996: 287-297.
Goren, C. H.
Goren's Hoyle Encyclopedia of Games. Chancellor Hall, Ltd., New York (USA) 1961.
Mulvin, L. & Sidebotham, S. E.
Roman Game Boards from Abu Sha'ar (Red Sea Coast, Egypt). In: Antiquity 2004; 78 (301): 602–6.
Russ, L.
The Complete Mancala Games Book. Marlowe and Company, New York (USA), 1999.
Townshend, P.
African Mankala in Anthropological Perspective. In: Current Anthropology 1979; 20 (4): 794-796.
Townshend, P.
The Typological Spread of the Game of Mancala. In: Finkel, E. Ancient Board Games in Perspective. British Museum Press, London (UK) 2006.
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