This post provides an overview of how to play Mancala, a family of strategy board games played around the world for centuries.
Have you ever heard of the game Mancala?
Whether you have never played or you’re an expert, the number of variations and different rules are fascinating.
The most popular version of the game is known as two-rank Mancala, or Kalah.
Other well-known versions include Oware, Congkak, and Togus Kumalak.
This guide will provide an overview of the rules for each of these Mancala versions, starting with the most popular commercial version: Kalah.
Mancala Rules: The Game of Kalah
Kalah is the version of Mancala you will likely play if you purchased a Mancala board in a store or online.
So, if you want to learn how to play Mancala, this is a good place to start.
Kalah is a two-player strategy game that is fun for kids and adults.
It looks simple, and doesn’t take long to learn, but people have been playing and mastering this game for thousands of years, so you know there’s a lot of skill and strategy involved.
Setting Up the Game
You need a Mancala board and game pieces. The game pieces may be marbles, plastic or glass “seeds”, beans or stones.
The board that has two rows, each with six hollowed-out pits. These are also called pods, pockets, or houses. For our purposes, let’s stick with pits.
See the following image for a typical Mancala board layout.
Notice there is a longer pit at each end of the board. These are called Stores, also known as Mancalas.
When playing the game, facing the board, your Store will be on the right side of the board.
To set up a game of Mancala, each player places 4 pieces into each of the 6 pits on their side of the board.
You can also play with more pieces in each pit to start. For example, more advanced players like to use 6 pieces in each pit.
Object of the Game
The object of Mancala is to have the most pieces in your Store at the end of the game. The game ends, and pieces in each Store are counted, when all the pits on one player’s side are empty.
Let’s talk more about how the game works.
You take turns by picking up all the pieces in one of your pits and moving counter-clockwise around the board, depositing a single piece in each subsequent pit as you move. This process is also known as “sowing”.
If you pass your Store, you deposit a single piece in it. If you cross over to your opponent’s side, you deposit a single piece in each of their pits.
However, you do not deposit a piece in their Store. Just skip over and proceed to the next pit on your side.
Check out this computer version of Kalah to see how this works in game play:
The game moves in this fluid, counter-clockwise fashion until one player has emptied all the pits on their side.
Mancala Rules to Keep in Mind
1. If during a turn you drop your last piece into your own Store, you get another turn. There is no limit to how many consecutive turns you can take during a game.
2. If you drop your last piece during a turn into an empty pit on your side of the board, and the opposite pit has one or more pieces left in it, you get to collect your last piece and the pieces from the opposing pit.
This is known as a capture.
Place all these captured pieces in your store and gather up those points. Nice!
Ending the Game
As mentioned, the game ends when all the pits are empty on one side of the board.
The opposite side player then collects all the remaining pieces in their pits and places them in their store.
Now count up the pieces in each store. The player with the most pieces in their Store wins the game.
Now keep playing, because this game is addictive.
House Rule Variations
Now, there are some house Mancala rules that you can add to the game of Kalah for more variety as well:
- You can choose not to count the remaining seeds as part of the final score.
- Since the first player has an advantage, the pie rule can be implemented to make it fairer.
- A variant rule called the “Empty Capture” allows you to capture the last seed when it lands in an empty hole on your side, even if the other side’s pit is empty.
Here are some other good resources about Kalah and the game of Mancala generally:
Other Ways to Play Mancala
Mancala, which literally means “to move” in Arabic, is a generic category of strategy games.
So, in addition to Kalah, there are several variations within the general Mancala classification that each involve similar board types and objectives, but with slightly different rules.
Below is an overview of how to play three other well-known versions of the Mancala game: Oware, Congkak and Togus Kumalak.
Oware is a Mancala game that is popular throughout the Caribbean and in the Ashanti Region of Ghana.
This game is very similar to Kalah. You have a board with 6 pits, or houses, on each side. There are 48 pieces, and the game begins with 4 pieces stored in each of the 12 houses.
Just like in Kalah, you play by picking up the pieces from one house and moving counter-clockwise around the board, depositing a single piece in each house along the way.
However, in Oware, you do not deposit seeds in the end houses. And capturing only occurs when you bring the count of your opponent’s house to exactly 2 or 3 with the final seed that they sowed in that turn.
Check out this web based version of Oware to see the game in action.
Congkak is another variation of how to play Mancala. It is played predominantly in Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Just like other variations of the game, the Mancala rules vary quite a bit depending on where it’s being played and who is playing.
It does vary slightly from how to play Mancala in the United States or other countries. Instead of 3-6 seeds in each hole, 7 is normal. Otherwise, it’s pretty close to Kalah.
Togus Kumalak, which translates to “nine pebbles,” is the Kazakh name of a variety of Mancala called Toguz Korgool in Kyrgyz.
The number 9 is really significant in the mythology and beliefs of Central Asians.
The game is played in parts of Russia, north-western China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, north-eastern Afghanistan, and the Republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan.
The board is somewhat similar to a typical Mancala board, however, there are 9 pits on each side instead of 6. Each pit requires 9 pieces, for a total of 162.
While the basic Mancala rules are somewhat similar, there are differences as well.
When you take all of the pieces out of one of the pits, the first piece needs to be dropped into the hole that you started with, instead of the following pit.
However, if you are moving a pit with only one piece, then that is placed into the next hole.
If the final ball falls into your opponent’s pits, and this hole then contains an even number of pieces, they are captured and put in their kazan (kalah).
However, if the last ball falls into the hole of an opponent, and it then has 3 balls, the hole is marked as a tuzdik, which means “sacred place” in Kazakh.
A tuzdik in and of itself has its own Mancala rules:
- A player can only create one of them in each game
- A tuzdik cannot be made if it’s across from your opponent’s tuzdik
- The rightmost or ninth hole cannot be turned into a tuzdik
- Any pieces that land into the tuzdik are captured by its owner
The game ends in the same ways as the other variations, once all of the pieces are in the reserves at the end of the board, the player with the most balls wins.
More Variants to Check Out
Many countries and cultures have developed unique versions of Mancala. In addition the games mentioned in this article, here are a few more variants to check out if you’d like to explore this game further:
- Omweso: This is 2-player version of Mancala from Uganda, with similar count and capture rules, played on a larger board with 32 holes arranged in 4 rows of 8 holes each. Learn more about the Ugandan game of Omweso.
- Bao: This game is also played on a bord with 32 holes (4 x 8) and involves a series of sowing (spreading the seeds), capturing, and complex strategy moves. Players are referred to as North and South, depending on their side of the board. Learn more about Bao here.
- Pallanguzhi: This Southern Indian version of Mancala is played on a board with 2 rows of 7 holes each. The traditional game is played with tamarind seeds. A typical game involves using 146 seeds in strategic moves and captures. Learn more about Pallanguzhi here.
The History of Mancala
Mancala has a long and complicated history that spans over many centuries and different countries.
The oldest evidence of the game has been found in Aksumite Ethiopia, specifically in Matara (now known as Eritrea) and Yeha (which is in Ethiopia) by archaeologists. It has been dated to be between 500 and 700 AD.
Many different versions of the game exist, and they vary within different countries.
In Africa, there are different types of Mancala played within different tribes – some examples of these would be Awari, Oware, Wari, Warri, and Wouri.
Mancala is also played in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and in the Baltic parts of Europe.
The game arrived in the United States with the slave trade, as enslaved people brought aspects of their culture over from their own countries.
In Louisiana, a version called Warra became popular and turned into a commercial version known as Kalah. Another version, called Ouril, was brought to New England by immigrants.
As mentioned, the version you are typically going to see if you buy a commercial Mancala board is called Kalah.
A graduate of Yale University named William Julius Champion Jr. created this variation of the game in the year 1940 after reading about Mancala’s influence in African and Asian countries.
He began to sell it in 1944, patented it in 1952, and then founded the Kalah Game Company in 1958.
As you can see, there’s a huge variety of different games under the name Mancala.
Let’s get into the specifics of the different types of the game, the rules, and how to play Mancala.
Final Thoughts on How to Play Mancala
When it comes to learning how to play Mancala, the options are endless.
You may even want to experiment with different variations of the game to see which one suits you the best.
For many of the games within the Mancala family mentioned in this, including Kalah, you can purchase a board online or in any board game shop.