Basics, History, and Origin of the Mancala Board Game

mancala board set up

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Mancala is a count-and-capture board game with an ancient heritage. There are hundreds of variants found around the world. The playing equipment can be as simple as stones or seeds as the playing pieces and holes dug in soil or boards with holes as holding cups.

Basics of Mancala

  • Players: The game is played by two players.
  • Age Range: It is appropriate for ages eight and above.
  • Playing Time: It takes about 15 minutes to play a game, perfect for a coffee break.
  • Genre: Mancala is an abstract board game.
  • Designer: It is a public domain game with roots that can be traced back to between CE 500 and 700.
  • Publisher: Since Mancala is a public domain game, it can be published by any company. Good wooden sets are often available for less than $15. Top-notch Mancala sets can sell for more than $50.

Watch Now: Everything You Need to Know to Play Mancala

Mancala Gameplay in Brief

Players first place an equal number of seeds (the number varies by the specific game being played) in each of the pits on the game board. On a turn, a player removes all of the seeds in one pit and then deposits them one at a time in the following pits, including one pit at each end of the board where the seeds are "captured" by the player who controls that particular pit.

At the end of the game, the player who has captured the most seeds is the winner.

It's important to know the rules of basic two-rank Mancala, also known as Kalah. You may also want to brush up with these strategy tips for Mancala.

Origin and History of Mancala

Evidence of Mancala games have been found by archaeologists in Aksumite Ethiopia in Matara (now in Eritrea) and Yeha (in Ethiopia), dating back to between CE 500 and 700. The word mancala is derived from the Arabic word naqala, which means "to move." In North Africa and the Mideast, the word mancala refers to a class of game rather than any particular game.

You will see references to the game going back thousands of years. It is a simple enough setup to be played on an earthen surface, with seeds and holes, but the solid archaeological evidence doesn't exist documenting earlier origin.

There are many versions played by nations and peoples throughout Africa, with different names, such as Wari, Warri, Awari, Oware, and Wouri. The game is played in the Baltic areas of Europe but didn't spread through Europe. It traveled with Arab culture and trading to India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.

Mancala arrived in North America with the slave trade, as the forcibly enslaved people brought their culture to the Caribbean and America. It became popular in Louisiana as Warra and turned into the commercial version, Kalah. The Cape Verde version, Ouril, was brought to New England by immigrants.

Mancala Games

Wikipedia lists more than 80 Mancala games. The games listed as "most popular" include Bao in East Africa, Kalah in North America, and Oware in western Africa, the Caribbean, Omweso, and Pallanguzhi.