How to Play Mancala

There are many variations on this ancient game

Standard Mancala game board and colorful marble tokens
Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

Mancala is an ancient family of board games, and there are numerous variants. Many different forms of Mancala are played across Africa, though the game may originally have come from ancient Sumeria.

History of Mancala

Mancala is essentially a game in which players "sow" and "capture" seeds. This process wasn't always played for fun; in fact, according to some historians, Mancala may have been an ancient record-keeping technique.

According to another theory, Mancala originated as a ritual related to the harvest, or as a tool for divination. According to the Awale.info website:

Game boards found at African temples and shrines suggest a different ritual associated with mancala. The game board represents the world and is laid east to west, in alignment with the rising and setting sun. The seeds or stones are the stars and the holes are the months of the year. Moving the seeds represents the gods moving through time and space and mancala predicts our fate.

Oldest Evidence of Mancala

According to some historians, Mancala may have originated with the dawn of civilization. There is limited evidence that the game was played 5,000 years ago in ancient Sumeria (modern day Iraq). While the people Sumeria had the mathematical knowledge to create such a game, however, it's more likely that the game is slightly more recent.

Clear evidence exists that Mancala (or something very similar) was played 3,600 years ago in ancient Sudan (on the upper Nile River).

Even more compelling is evidence that Mancala games were played in ancient Egypt before 1400 BCE. Evidence for this theory is available in the form of holes in the ground discovered in Egyptian temples at Tebas, Karnak, and Luxor. According to this theory, the game made its way from Egypt to other parts of Africa and the Middle East and, finally, to Asia and the United States.

Yet another possibility is that Mancala originated in other parts of Africa and made their way to Egypt over two thousand years ago. As forms of Mancala are played all over Africa, and very ancient Mancala boards have been found in Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Ghana, this theory may also be correct.

It is certain that Mancala came to the United States with enslaved Africans who had played the game as children.

The Basic Rules of Mancala

This is a version of the basic game, known as two-rank Mancala and also known as Kalah. There are literally dozens of other variations of the game which are played all around the world.

The Object of the Game

The object of the game is to capture more stones than your opponent.

How to Play

  1. The Mancala board is made up of two rows of six holes, or pits, each. If you don't have a Mancala board handy, substitute an empty egg carton.
  2. Four pieces—marbles, chips, or stones—are placed in each of the 12 holes. The color of the pieces is irrelevant.
  3. Each player has a store (called a Mancala) to the right side of the Mancala board. (Cereal bowls work well for this purpose if you're using an egg carton.)
  4. The game begins with one player picking up all of the pieces in any one of the holes on his side.
  1. Moving counter-clockwise, the player deposits one of the stones in each hole until the stones run out.
  2. If you run into your own store, deposit one piece in it. If you run into your opponent's store, skip it.
  3. If the last piece you drop is in your own store, you get a free turn.
  4. If the last piece you drop is in an empty hole on your side, you capture that piece and any pieces in the hole directly opposite.
  5. Always place all captured pieces in your store.
  6. The game ends when all six spaces on one side of the Mancala board are empty.
  7. The player who still has pieces on his side of the board when the game ends capture all of those pieces.
  8. Count all the pieces in each store. The winner is the player with the most pieces.

Tips

  • Planning ahead is essential to victory in board games like Mancala. Try to plan two or three moves into the future.

    What You Need

    • Mancala board
    • Bowl or "Mancala" for each player
    • 48 markers (stones, marbles, or chips)