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The game of Mancala.

The name "mancala" applies to a family of games in which the playing board consists of two, three, or four straight rows of deep, round holes. The holes, which are used to hold the playing pieces, are what distinguishes this game from other board games. The word mancala (or Manqala) is derived from the Arabic word naqala, to move.
MANCALAMost board games are based on human activities such as war, racing, and hunting. In light of this, H.J.R. Murray suggested that the original mancala cups must have had some functional purpose. He notes that the earliest patterns of lined cups are found around ancient construction areas, and that the they could have been used to calculate worker's wages.
Mancala games spanning several continents have existed in great diversity from ancient times, making it difficult to trace their place of origin. However, the game apparently moved from west to east in southern Asia, and, from the northeast in Africa, westward and southward on that continent. This suggests a starting point near Egypt or Arabia.
The theory of Egyptian origination is given some credence by archeological findings. Patterns consisting of two rows of six cup-like holes are carved atop walls and/or roof slabs at the temples of Karnak, Luxor, and Kurna. These temples date from Egypt's Empire Age (1580-1150 B.C.). Another (possibly older) set of carved holes is found on a rock near the pyramid of Menkaura at Giza. These are historically isolated examples, however, and do not prove that King Tut was a mancala aficionado.
A stronger case for an early appearance of mancala comes from Ceylon, an island off southern India. One set of cups found outside an island cave dates from the 2nd century B.C., and another is carved on the side of Gaimaediyagala, a huge sloping rock called the "stone frog rock." This rock stands beside an ancient holding tank built between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D.
Mancala was a cultural perk left behind in the wake of Islamic expansion, which began in the 8th century A.D. The first passing mention of mancala in Arabic literature is in a book written about 950 A.D.
By the time mancala was noticed in the Mideast by European visitors, it had long infiltrated most of Africa and southern Asia. Jean de Thevenot ran across it during a visit to the Mideast in 1657-1679. He says, "They played mancala very frequently, which is made in the shape of a box, about two feet long and half a foot wide, with six small holes in the box itself, and six in the lid which is hinged to the box (for it opens like a chessboard)."

Beating a path to Africa

The timeframe for mancala's penetration into Africa is not known, and may or may not have preceded the arrival of Islam. It goes by many names in different African countries, but wari is the most prevalent. In 1896, a western chronicler of games named Stewart Culin called mancala the "national game of Africa."
"Africanized" mancala is a spectator sport. Onlookers discuss strategy, dole out advice to (and sometimes interfere with) the primary players. To many western observers this lent a tribal atmosphere to game proceedings. (To modern Americans, it just sounds like ice hockey!)

Westward ho!

Mancala never gained much of a foothold in the non-Islamic parts of Europe. The game did, however, cross the Atlantic with the African slaves, landing first in the West Indies.
Before its arrival in the west, mancala was mostly a secular activity. In Dutch Guiana (northern Brazil) and the West Indies it took on some spiritual overtones. M.J. Herskovitz, an anthropologist, wrote, "It is the game which is played in the House of Mourning to amuse the spirit whose body is awaiting burial." Apparently, the Dutch Guianese didn't want too much communion with the dead person; they kept a few different-sized boards on hand, and played on the type most disliked by the deceased!

Regional incarnations

Though six and seven cups per row is most common, the number of cups differs from place to place. Children imitate the adults by playing mancala games with only two or three holes in each row. Some regions (especially in Africa) use mancala boards with up to 28 cup-holes per side. One type of mancala game, with up to three and four rows of six (or more) cups each and only two beans per cup, is common in eastern and southern Africa. A greater quantity of holes requires more playing pieces and more time to finish a game.
In West Africa, as in Syria and Egypt, mancala did not cross gender lines: men played with other men, and women played with women. In most Asian countries and the Philippines, men usually don't play the game at all.
Mancala might be played on a hinged board, as Thevenot reported, or dug right out of the ground. Non-hinged boards usually had two extra receptacles for storing captured pieces. The extra receptacles are especially common in the far east (southern China, Indonesia, and the Philippines).
Playing pieces are beans, seeds, berries, stones, or anything convenient. Play is normally counterclockwise. However, in some areas the first player determines the direction of sowing (i.e., piece distribution).
Some regional variations include the following rule: if the last piece is sown on a player's own side, that cup is immediately lifted and sown into the other cups. Rules for capture also differ greatly from place to place. In some circles, cheating is commonplace, and in fact the player is highly regarded who can cheat without being detected. In one place, recorded by Murray, this inspired a corresponding rule that players sowing must keep their hands high above the board, so their moves could be monitored closely by the opponent.

Game rules

If you are seated in the top position, the tall cup on the top is your mancala and the cups on the left are yours. Use what you prefer to determine which player goes first. Choose one of your cups to start play with.
The stones from the cup you choose are distributed counter-clockwise around the board. Stones you play are dropped in your mancala but not in your opponent's manacala.
If the last stone from the choosen cup drops into your mancala, you get to play again. This can repeat as many times as you continue to play cups that end at your mancala.
If the last stone from the choosen cup drops into one of your empty cups, that stone plus all stones in the opponent's cup directly across the board go into your mancala.
When one player's cups are empty, any stones left in the opponent's cups are put into the opponent's mancala and the game ends. The player with the larger mancala wins.


© Paolo Botton Previous Page