How to Play Mancala: The History, Rules, and Variations

Here’s 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 and may give you a brand-new way to play.

First, let’s take a look into the lengthy history of Mancala.

The History of Mancala

How to Play Mancala Rules, History and Variations
via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

Want More Games?

Get game ideas, tips and instructions delivered to your inbox.

Mancala Rules and Variations

Mancala Rules

Here are some of the most widely-played versions of the game, as well as the Mancala rules for each one.

Kalah

Kalah is the version of Mancala you will receive if you purchase the game in a store.

It’s fairly simple, and there are varying house rules as well since there’s no governing body defining the official Mancala rules.

The game is played with a board that has two rows, each with six round, hollowed-out pits and a larger, longer pit on each end of it.

Two people play at once, each being responsible for the pits on their side of the wooden board.

Kalaha

Typically, the game is played with six “seeds” in each hole (little glass pieces that look like flattened marbles), although you can vary that number to make it less complicated.

Beginners may want to start with 3, 4, or 5 glass pieces in each spot if they want to.

You play in a counterclockwise motion – for each turn, you take the pieces out of one of your six pits and distribute one into the following pits until you run out.

The seeds can be placed into the opponent’s smaller pits, but not their store at the end of the board. The ultimate goal is to get all of your seeds into your larger pit at the end.

The game ends when one player has emptied their six smaller pits completely. If their last seed is placed into the opponent’s pit, the move ends without anything being taken.

Playing Mancala

If the last seed is put into an empty hole owned by that player, they then take the opposite pit’s contents and put them in their end pit, also called the Kalah. If the opposite pit is empty, the turn is over.

Whoever has the largest number of seeds at the end of the game is the winner.

Now, there are some house mancala rules that you can add to the game 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.

Oware

The Mancala game of Oware
The Mancala game of Oware, image credit Jimmy Henks via Wikimedia Commons

Another popular version of this game is called Oware. It is played throughout the Caribbean and in the Ashanti Region of Ghana.

The rules and setup are very similar to Kalah, except the capturing aspect is slightly different. Capturing only occurs when you bring the count of your opponent’s house to exactly 2-3 with the final seed that they sowed in that turn.

Congkak

Board used for the Mancala game of Congkak, image credit Víktor Bautista i Roca via Wikimedia Commons

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

Togus Kumalak
Togus Kumalak, image credit Matej Batha, via via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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. 

Which one are you the most excited to try out?