Learn How to Play Mancala to Strengthen Strategic Thinking Skills

people playing mancala

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

If you're looking for a homemade board game that you can play with your family while strengthening counting and strategic thinking skills, try the ancient game of mancala. The game may have originated during ancient times, but its many variations remain popular today throughout Africa and the Mideast. You can replicate the game at home with a few simple materials that you might already have on hand.

animated illustration of mancala
The Spruce / Catherine Song

Mancala's Primitive History

Mancala is a game where players "sow" and "capture" seeds. Historians believe that mancala may have originated with the dawn of civilization as a record-keeping technique, a harvesting ritual, or a divination tool. There's evidence that the game was played thousands of years ago in ancient Sumeria (modern-day Iraq), in ancient Sudan on the upper Nile River, and Egypt. Ancient mancala game boards have been unearthed in Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Ghana. Mancala made its way to the United States when enslaved Africans brought over the game.

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Watch Now: How to Play Mancala

The Basic Rules of Mancala

There are dozens of versions of mancala played around the world. It's a type of game, but it's not a brand or trademarked game. Below, you'll find a basic version of the game, known as two-rank mancala. The objective is to capture more stones than your opponent.

Items You'll Need

There's a short list of items you'll need to play the game. You'll need a mancala board, which is made up of two rows of six holes, or pits. If you don't have a mancala board which is sold in stores, you can use an empty egg carton instead. You will need one small cereal bowl, known as a mancala store, for each player. You'll also need 48 marbles, chips, or stones of any color. You can even use pennies or other coins as a substitute.

materials needed for mancala
The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Setting up the Game

Each player sits opposite each other facing the long side of the board or egg carton. Set up by giving each player 24 stones. A player places four stones into each of the holes (also known as pits or pockets) closest to them. The bowls, or mancala stores, are placed at to the right of the board, or egg carton, and remain empty of stones.

Playing the Game

Decide who goes first with a coin flip or other method. There are three steps to playing the game. Each game lasts around five to 10 minutes.

1. Place four stones into each of the pits.

mancala board set up
The Spruce / Margot Cavin 

2. The starting player grabs all the stones from one hole on their side and drops them, one by one, into each pit around the board going in a counter-clockwise direction. If the player passes over one of the mancala stores or bowls, he or she would place a stone in there, too. Once the player doesn't have any more stones in hand, it's the other person's turn to do the same thing.

person placing 4 stones in each pit
The Spruce / Margot Cavin

3. If a player has enough stones to hit their own store, they place a stone in it. If it's the player's last stone, they get a free turn to go again. If you pass over another player's store during your turn, you do not place a stone in their pit.

person placing a stone in their pit
The Spruce / Margot Cavin

4. The game ends when one player has emptied the six holes of stones on their side. The other player then takes all the stones on their own side and places them into their store (or bowl).

players with mancala stones in each of their respective bowls
The Spruce / Margot Cavin 

5. The winner of the game is the player with the most stones in their mancala store.

winning mancala player
The Spruce / Margot Cavin 

Tips and Tricks to Playing Mancala

Here's where math and strategic thinking comes into play. There are ways to win at mancala, but it takes some planning before you make a move with your stones. Playing mancala is a little bit like playing the game of Connect 4, which also calls for strategic thinking. Keep these three tricks up your sleeve while playing mancala.

  • Get a free turn: When dropping stones into holes, you can drop one into your own mancala store (bowl). If it's your last stone in your hand, you get another turn.
  • Gather more stones: One way to amass more stones is by strategically dropping your last stone into an empty hole on your side of the board. If you manage that, you're allowed to reach across the board and take your opponent's stones that are in the opposite hole.
  • Think strategically: If you go first, pick up the stones in the fourth hole away from your mancala store (bowl). That way, you'll place the last stone in your store, and you'll get a free turn.

Using Your Noggin

Planning is essential to victory in strategic board games like mancala. Try to plan two or three moves ahead.