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How to Play Mancala, the Ancient "Count and Capture" Game

Updated on January 6, 2017
Gina Welds-Hulse profile image

Student of life, lifelong learner, mother, writer, artist, poet, dancer, musician, and martial artist ... passionate about all of these.

A few years ago, I decided to teach my then Sculpture 1 and 2 students all about an ancient game called Mancala. This project was inspired by the game’s resurgence in popularity.

While the game was fairly new to most of them, Mancala is actually considered to be the world’s oldest game. The word Mancala comes from the Arabic word naqala, which means “to move.”

Prior to learning the game, my Sculpture students had to create their very own Mancala game board sculptures, using recycled materials, and based on African animals of their choice.


Two of my former students, Abi and Sam, playing with their completed Mancala set.  It was completed as part of a Sculpture assignment.
Two of my former students, Abi and Sam, playing with their completed Mancala set. It was completed as part of a Sculpture assignment. | Source

The word "Mancala" means "to transfer" in Arabic.

This game, which by some estimates is 7000 years old, challenges players to move pieces from bin to bin. Many rule variations exist, and Mancala is played in some form in almost every African country.

This beautiful, ancient game trains analytical thinking and problem solving skills.

What Is Mancala, And How Do You Play The Game?

What is Mancala?:

  • an ancient board game which dates back to the 6th century AD
  • target is to gather as many pieces of gems in your store as you can
  • game board, where 12 small pits are divided into 2 rows, and each of the pits contains 4 pieces of gems
  • upper row of pits belongs to your opponent, and the lower row is yours
  • 2 large pits on the left and right of the board are the stores, with the one on the right belongs to you, and the one on the left belongs to your opponent.
  • You and your opponent will take turns to move the gems
  • Each time you may click any of the pits on your row.
  • When a pit is selected, the gems inside will be distributed one by one to the next pits in counterclockwise direction.
  • Do not drop a gem in your opponent's store as you pass it by.
  • If the last gem of a move lands on your store, then you can take one more turn by selecting another pit.
  • If the last gem of a move lands on an empty pit on your side while the opposite pit contains gems, then you can capture all of the gems in both pits and put them to your store.
  • The same rules apply to the moves made by your opponent.
  • When the pits on one of the rows are emptied, the game ends.
  • The remaining gems on the pits belonging to you will be counted as yours, and those on the pits of your opponent will be counted as their's.
  • Capture the gemstones with tactics and win prosperously!
  • The game ends when all the cups on your side or your opponent's side are empty. The remaining gems on the other player's side are counted as that player's gems. The player with the most gems in his store at the end of the game wins.

Each Mancala sculpture started off with the basic design using empty egg cartons.
Each Mancala sculpture started off with the basic design using empty egg cartons. | Source
This photograph gives the idea of how each Mancala sculpture was created.
This photograph gives the idea of how each Mancala sculpture was created.

How My Students Created Their Mancala Sculptures

Students used empty egg cartons as the base for each sculpture.

Students were divided up into groups of 2 or 3 to create each Mancala sculpture.

Each group of students decided on the African animal they would design their Mancala game board around.

After deciding on the animal, the students then determined what materials were needed for the rest of the sculpture.

Materials included, but not limited to:

  • cardboard tubes
  • plaster gauze
  • glass beads
  • newspaper
  • plastic cups
  • paints

It took each group about 2-3 weeks to complete the sculptures, but each one was so beautiful.


Simple DIY Mancala Game Board

The Flamingo Mancala designed by two of my former students.
The Flamingo Mancala designed by two of my former students. | Source
Game of Mancala being played on a carved out game board.
Game of Mancala being played on a carved out game board.

Interesting Facts about Mancala

Here is some background information about Mancala from Wikipedia:

  • Mancala represents a family of board games found around the world called "sowing" games or "count-and-capture" games.
  • The holes in the board are called depressions, pits, or houses. The large holes on the ends are sometimes called stores.
  • Playing pieces are typically seeds, beans, stones, cowry shells, or other small counters.
  • Mancala games fill a similar role in many African and some Asian countries similiar to that of chess in Western countries.
  • The word mancala comes from the Arabic word naqala which means "to move".
  • The first evidence of the game are pottery board fragments in Ethiopia from the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
  • There is actually no one game with the name mancala. Instead it is a type or designation of a game.

The Giraffe Mancala created two of my former students
The Giraffe Mancala created two of my former students | Source

Traditionally, the Mancala boards were not carved out very intricately. Some games were played with holes dug in the earth, or holes carved out of stone. Now, the mancala board game mostly comes as a hinged case that can be conveniently opened and closed. It needs to unfold to enable you place the beads or seeds in the holes and start the game.

Today can still find mancala boards many decades old in African and Asian homes. They have become smooth and worn by so many years of use, passed from generation to generation.

Some Mancala game boards are as simple as one carved into the ground, and played with tiny stones.
Some Mancala game boards are as simple as one carved into the ground, and played with tiny stones.
Other Mancala game boards are intricately carved out of wood.
Other Mancala game boards are intricately carved out of wood.
Some Mancala games were played by digging holes in the ground.
Some Mancala games were played by digging holes in the ground.

Mancala: A Family Of Board Games

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 name is a classification or type of game, rather than any specific game. Some of the most popular mancala games (with regard to distribution area, the numbers of players and tournaments, and publications) are:

  • Bao la Kiswahili – played in most of East Africa including Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros, Malawi, as well as some areas of DR Congo and Burundi.
  • Congkak – South Asia from the Maldives to the Philippines, also known as Dakon, Ohvalhu, Sungka etc.
  • Kalah – the most popular variant in the Western world.
  • Oware (awalé, awélé) – Ashanti, but played world-wide with close variants played throughout western Africa and in the Caribbean.
  • Toguz korgool or Toguz kumalak – played in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Although more than 800 names of traditional mancala games are known, some names denote the same game, while some names are used for more than one game. Almost 200 modern invented versions have also been described.

Playing equipment ranges from simple found stones or seeds with holes dug in the earth to elaborate and expensive boards and playing pieces.

Two of my former students playing an intense game of Mancala, upon completion of their sculpture.
Two of my former students playing an intense game of Mancala, upon completion of their sculpture. | Source

The Strategy Behind Mancala

The Mancala game appears simple, but there really is some strategy to it.

Whether you play mancala online against the computer or on a real board with a friend, I think you will find it fun, interesting, and a great brain workout.

It's fun to play mancala online, but it can be even more enjoyable to play the game in person. Mancala existed for hundreds of years as a board game before it became an online game, of course.

Although we typically see two-player Mancala board, there are also four-player boards in the shape of a square.

The completed games were donated to the library, where all students are able to enjoy the game.
The completed games were donated to the library, where all students are able to enjoy the game. | Source
Intense game of Mancala between my youngest son and a friend.
Intense game of Mancala between my youngest son and a friend. | Source
The Crocodile Mancala game board created by my Sculpture students.
The Crocodile Mancala game board created by my Sculpture students. | Source
A giant Mancala game board
A giant Mancala game board | Source

Have you played Mancala before?

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© 2017 Gina Welds Hulse

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