How to Play Mancala

By James Holloway
Mancala dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt.

Mancala games, also known as "sowing" or "count-and-capture" games, are among the oldest games in the world. These games use a board with a series of shallows cups or hollows and a collection of colored stones or seeds. There are countless versions of this basic game, but the most common variation is a simple two-player game using a board with six cups.

Setting Up

Before play begins, the players set up the board. Each player takes 24 stones or seeds and distributes them among the six shallow cups on their side of the board. The two larger cups at the end of each row -- called mancalas -- should remain empty.

Sowing Seeds

The first player now chooses one of the cups on his side of the board and takes all of the stones out of it. Starting with the next cup to the right, the first player drops one stone into each cup, including his own mancala; however, do not place a stone in the opponent's mancala. This action leads to players dropping stones into cups on their opponent's side of the board as well as their own. The second player then takes a turn, picking up the stones from one of the cups on her side of the board and dropping them into cups in a counter-clockwise direction.

Scoring Points

There are two ways to score points in a game of Mancala. Each stone in a player's mancala at the end of the game represents a point. Thus, stones dropped into the mancala during the player's turn are worth points. Additionally, if a player drops his last stone into an empty cup on his side of the board, he gets to collect all the stones from the cup opposite the one they just dropped their last stone into. These stones also go in their mancala. Play ends when one row of cups is completely empty. The player with the most stones in his or her mancala wins.

Variations of the Game

There are many variations on the Mancala concept; in fact, the term refers to an entire genre of games. Common variations include increasing the length or number of rows, or the number of stones. In some games, the turn only ends when a player places her last seed into an empty hole. Otherwise, the players pick up the seeds in the final cup, or the next cup in the sequence, and keep playing.

About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.