How To Play Mancala
Mancalahas been around for a long time. A very long time. There’s evidence of the Romans playing it nearly two thousand years ago, and some historians believe it’s over six thousand years old. There must be a reason people keep playing the game, even now, so let’s have a look at how to play Mancala!
When I started this site, I wanted to share my views on all of the games I play. That doesn’t necessarily mean sticking with the Cult Of The New though, as there are plenty of traditional games that I enjoy, which I think a lot of people might overlook just because it’s ‘old’ or ‘the sort of thing my grandparents play’. So with that in mind, I’m starting that today with a look at Mancala – specifically the variant known as Kalah, which is the most popular version in the Western world.
I was given the gorgeous Mancala set in the image above as a birthday present, and I kind of knew about the game. I knew it was about picking things up and dropping them in holes, but that was about it. Some written instructions came with the board, but I’m quite a visual person, and would have preferred some pictures. There are a few sites that explain it, but this is my own take on it, and I’m hoping by the end of this page, you’ll know how to play Mancala, and could pick up a set and just play.
The board is placed between the two players. On each side of the board there are six holes / pits belonging to the player closest to them. On the right hand side for each player there’s a larger hole known as a mancala (sometimes called a store). Four counters are placed in each of the six holes in front of each player, leaving the mancalas empty. These counters can be stones, seeds, nuts, marbles – it doesn’t really matter, as long as you can fit plenty into a hole. The colour is unimportant too. Pick a player to go first, and you’re ready to go.
The aim of the game is to capture as many stones as you can in your mancala on the right-hand side of your side of the board. The person with the most at the end of the game, wins.
How To Play Mancala
Playing the game is really simple. On your turn, choose one of the holes in front of you with one of more counters in it, and pick up all of the counters in it. You then place one of the counters in your hand in turn in the next hole anti-clockwise, until there are no more left. If you reach your mancala (the one one the right as you look at the board), place it in there and then continue anti-clockwise along your opponent’s row of holes. The only space you never place a counter is, is your opponent’s mancala.
Play continues as players take turns doing this. There are only two exceptions to the normal order of play.
Firstly, if you place the last counter in your hand in your mancala, you immediately get another turn! So you can pick up a from another hole and go again. Let’s have a look at that in action.
In the picture above, we’ve taken from the fourth hole from the right, which at the start of the game contains four counters. Then one-by-one, the counters in our hand are dropped in the holes anti-clockwise. The last counter was dropped into our mancala, so we get another turn.
For our extra turn we picked up the counters from the second hole from the right. There were five counters after our previous turn, and as you can see that meant we placed on in the hole anti-clockwise, another in our mancala, and the last three went into the first three holes on the opponent’s side of the board.
The opening move shown above is almost always the first play in a game, as that player gets an extra turn, and regardless of what they do with that extra turn, the opponent will get a chance to get an extra turn on their turn.
The second exception comes when your last counter is place in an empty hole on your side of the board. If there are any counters directly opposite this hole on the opponent’s side of the board, you capture both your counter, and all of the counters from the opponent’s hole opposite. All of these counters go straight into your mancala.
In this example, the left-most hole on our side of the board had four counters in, and the hole two from the right was empty. We placed the counters one at a time, anti-clockwise, and the last counter went into the empty hole. As you can see, the opponent had a pile of counters in the hole opposite.
That move means we can capture the counter from our side, and all of the counters in the hole opposite. Our mancala is looking very healthy now!
And that’s all there is to the game really. Pick up some counters, place them one-by-one anti-clockwise. If you finish in your mancala, take another turn, if you finish in an empty hole on your side of the board, capture everything opposite and your own counter. Players take turn until one of them has no more counters on their side of the board.
Once you know how to play, strategy starts to emerge. It’s tempting to make sure you’re always depositing at least one counter in your mancala every turn, but you need to keep an eye on which holes your opponent has empty, and whether they can end their next turn there. Or maybe you can build a combination which sees you getting three, four or even more extra turns through clever placement, It gets thinky, fast.
Ending The Game
As soon as a player no longer has any counters in any of the six holes on their side of the board, the game ends immediately. The opposing player (the one with counters still on their side of the board) automatically captures all of the counters on their side and puts them in their mancala.
The players count up their counters, and the person with the most, wins!
That’s it. That’s all there is to it, you now know how to play mancala. That wasn’t so hard, was it?
I think that ease of learning and very simple rules is why it’s endured for so long. You can play this game anywhere. All you need is something to act as counters, and something to indicate the holes. Archaeological digs have uncovered bricks with holes dug in them where bored guards passed the time. It’s played all over the world in its various forms. The rules might alter slightly in other versions like Bao and Oware, but the core mechanics are the same.
It plays quickly, you can finish a game in five minutes, and it’s very addictive. I took my board around to my parents’ house and taught my dad (who is not someone who plays many games) in a couple of minutes. I think we played nine games, back-to-back. There’s a real feeling of ‘go on, one more game’, especially if you were the loser! Playing with chunky counters and a nice board is such a lovely tactile thing too. Smoothly scooping out polished glass, and then the satisfying clack of them being dropped onto bare wood, or the chink noise of them dropping into a pile of other counters, it’s just a really satisfying thing to do.
My favourite thing is the combinations you can build, often accidentally. You’ll take a turn and realise you’ve ended in your mancala and get another turn. In the first space away there’s one stone, in the next two. So you drop the single one into the mancala, boom, another go. So you pick up the two stones, drop one in the newly empty hole, the second in the mancala. Boom, another go. Now you’ve got one in the hole next to the mancala. What’s this, another extra turn?!
From what I’ve read, the game can be solved. What I mean by that is that there is a mathematically optimised way to play in which the starting player would win every time. However, you’re unlikely ever to see it or get to that level of mastery. It’s a non-issue. Even if you’ve played hundreds of times, there are so many moves possible on each turn, and play moves at such a pace that it’s unlikely to happen.
There are some really beautiful sets available, with boards made of all kinds of wood, counters made of glass, metal, polished stones and gems. They look really pretty on a table and people who’d ignore a massive Eurogame like Paladins of the West Kingdom on a table are drawn in. I’ve taught it to a five-year-old and someone in their seventies, it’s easy and intuitive. You could play with a couple of empty egg cartons and a handful of rice, so give it a go, and let me know in the comments if you’ve played, and if so, what you think of it.