With three kids, we have quite a stockpile of games in our house, both electronic and traditional board games. My current favorite though is Mancala. We love playing the game and my daughter is very good at. So good that, at the age of 9, she usually beats everyone she goes against. I love the simplicity of Mancala. 48 rocks, 2 rows of 6 cups, and a cup at each end (the Mancala). The setup is so simple that it occurred to me you could easily play this just about anywhere by gathering together some rocks, sticks, pennies, or whatever else you can find 48 of and marking off the cups with something.
Setup and Play
The photo at the top of this post shows the initial set up. Each player has a side of the board with 6 cups and a larger cup at the end to the player’s right. 4 stones go in each of the 12 cups. One player goes first and takes all of the stones out of one of their cups. Then going counterclockwise, place one stone in each cup, including their own mancala, but not the opponent’s mancala. If the last stone placed on your turn lands in an empty cup on your side of the board, take that stone and any stones in the opponent’s cup across from it, and place them in your mancala. This is called a capture.
An important rule to note is that if the last stone you place lands in your mancala, you get another turn. Here is a typical first move, which allows that player to go a second time.
This is the standard second move my daughter makes to follow up. It's generally downhill for me from here. Occasionally she lets me go first but even then I have difficulty winning.
When one player’s side is empty, the game is over. The players count the stones in their mancala and also add in any that are left on their side. The player with the most stones is the winner.
While the game originated in Africa, the name mancala actually comes from an Arabic word naqala which means “to move”. After doing some research it turns out that what I think of as the game Mancala is actually a classification or type of game that is played all over the world. Wikipedia lists a wide variety of names for different variations and the countries they are played in. The American version is apparently called Wari or Kalah depending on what website you read.
Learning the history and variations of Mancala was pretty interesting but what my college degrees should have prepared me for was the mathematics behind winning the game. I won’t describe it here, but feel free to visit the Wikipedia article or continue to some of the sources cited there for the technicalities. Suffice it to say that, at least in most versions of Mancala, the player to go first has a major advantage if they know what they are doing. If you’re really into mathematics, the genre that applies to Mancala is called combinatorial game theory. Here’s a link to just one research paper on the subject just in case you’re having trouble falling asleep tonight.
Just Start Playing
I suppose you could get the game and read up on the strategy. Then start challenging and beating your friends if that’s the sort of boost your ego needs. Instead, I recommend you buy one of the versions below (or build your own) and spend some time with your family. (These are Amazon Affiliate links below. If you click on them and buy one of these products, I will earn a small commission. The cost to you is the same. This is the only way that I compensate myself for the time I spend on this website. Notice there are no banners, pop-ups, or other advertising here.)
For Christmas, my daughter received the four-player version below which has been fun. This allows more of us to play the game together and also complicates the game so that the standard strategies don’t always help.
Isn’t It Ironic
By the way, I realize the irony of a blog about getting rid of stuff where I recommend you bring something else into your home, but keep in mind the goal of getting rid of that stuff you don’t need or use. The goal is to free up time from maintaining all of that useless stuff so you can spend some time with those important to you. Simple board games like Mancala are a good way to spend that time. Thanks.
Copyright Dave Lubke and www.davelubke.com, 2018
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