Mancala: the African game that took the world by storm

(ORDO NEWS) — All logic games are somehow connected with arithmetic. Card spreading, tempo in checkers, forks in renju, territory in go – everything requires constant counting.

But there is a game where the score is not a tactic and not part of the strategy – it is all, from beginning to end, is applied mathematics. Her name is Mancala.

Mancala (distorted Swahili Arabic naqala – “moving”) is not a game, but a whole family of games in which pebbles are laid out in the holes. It appeared about 5000 years ago, most likely in eastern Africa – holes carved in stones were found in Syria, Egypt, Sudan, along caravan routes.

Nomads love it – no board and chips are needed here, it is enough to dig holes in the ground, and any small things are suitable for the game: stones, seeds, shells.

Games of this type are not uniformly distributed, they are almost unknown in Europe and America, very popular in the East, but their main domain was and remains the Black Continent.


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Ali-guli-mane (South India, Karnataka)

Proper seeding

So, mancala. Instead of cells on the board, there are rows of holes with pebbles. Each move is called “sowing”: for one sowing, the player does not move the chips, as in the usual games, but takes all the stones from one hole at once and arranges them one by one in others – in a certain order, which depends on the rules of a particular game.

From the outside, sowing seems like shamanism: seasoned players scatter stones at such a machine-gun pace that an uninformed observer is barely able to track where one move ends and another begins.

However, mancala is a game with complete information, there are no accidents in it. It can be calculated, which is why mancala players are excellent mathematicians. Even if they are sitting in loincloths in a poor area of ​​some N’Djamena.

Since the stones are the same, they are not tokens here, but markers. It depends on their number in the hole whether it is possible to make a move from there, make a capture or other actions.

The conditions for winning are different: to collect more stones, to deprive the opponent of a move, to achieve the desired position… At the same time, stones can only be taken from certain, “own” holes – that is, the game board is somehow divided in half.

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Bao (Africa, Kenya, Lamu Island)

The number of rows, holes and stones may vary, the sowing methods too, but the goal is always the same: to calculate everything so that the last stone hits the right hole – and, if successful, “tidy up” its contents.

That opponent, in whose holes there will not be enough stones for the next move, loses. There is even a special term “hunger”: this is a situation when there are no stones at all in the holes of one of the players.

In the simplest version of the mancala, say the children’s ayo-ayo from Nigeria, each hole initially contains four stones.

You take all the stones from any of your holes and place them one by one in subsequent holes, your own and others, counterclockwise, excluding the “barns”, large holes common to both players, where you can accumulate stones without the danger of losing them.

If the last stone fell into a non-empty hole, you “rake” its contents and continue to walk – until the last stone of the next sowing falls into an empty hole, then – the transition of the move.

As soon as there are four stones in any hole after your “throw-in”, you take them for yourself. The one who has nothing to walk with, that is, there are no stones left in any of the holes in his half, loses. It doesn’t get easier. But harder – please.

Thousand mancal

Mankalas are different: the mentioned ayo-ayo from Nigeria, the abawo from Ghana, the Ethiopian anivoli, the Indian pallankuzhi, the Vietnamese o-an-kwan , etc.

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In Africa, the mancala is an important part of the culture. In Uganda, omweso is a royal ceremony, the Maasai believe that the first man invented the enkeshui, in Ghana, owara is an element of combat training, and the Somalis are sure that the gods created the bonduk tree only so that it would give seeds for playing gabata. Even the funeral was not complete without a mancala: people entertained the spirit of the deceased, and if there were two boards in the village, they chose the one that the deceased did not like so that his spirit would not get bored, but would not want to join the game. At night, the boards were put outside the threshold so that the spirits could also play. It was forbidden to continue the game after sunset – it was believed that if you heard the cry of a jackal at dusk during the game, it would be trouble: you can remove the curse only by going down to the stream and washing each pebble in turn, and there are about fifty of them. In the photo: Gabata or Selous (Ethiopia)

Often in the same tribe there are two types of games: one is played by men, the other by women and children. The transition from the children’s version to the adult one serves as an initiation: the adult game is more difficult, requires ingenuity, precise calculation and does not forgive mistakes.

At the same time, in addition to mathematical, mancala carries historical symbolism. For example, children’s mancalas inherit the rules from the gathering process, which has long been a women’s and children’s activity.

And, say, the African Anuak tribe calls the holes on the board “houses”, and the stones – “toy children”. Each crop represents a visit to a neighboring village, which results in an increase in the number of “children” in each “house”.

Upon reaching a certain number, they all go to the “community house”. If the player found the required number of “children” in the last “house” of sowing, he immediately “takes away” them with him.

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In different countries of the world, mancala is included in the system of traditional or religious rites and rules. For example, in Sulawesi (Indonesia) it is allowed to play mancala only during the period of mourning after the death of a loved one, at any other time the game is taboo.

And in Brunei, mancala is considered a court game: it is customary to play it in the Sultan’s palace on the night before important ceremonies.

Crops and seedlings

In dozens of varieties of the game, there are certain common factors that allow even seemingly dissimilar games to be called mancala. In particular, each seeding move always has three characteristics: multiplicity, direction, and starting point.

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The multiplicity determines the end of the move. For example, seeding is called one-time if, with the fall of the last stone from the hand – regardless of where it fell – the move stops, and the turn passes to the opponent.

If the sowing lasts until the moment when the last stone falls exactly into a given hole – empty or somehow stipulated by the rules – it is called cyclical.

The direction determines where the stones are sown. One-sided seeding goes in one direction, the reverse one can change it to the opposite several times (taking, special holes and other factors can play a role here). There is also a cross-sowing, when the first player is free to choose any direction, and the enemy must sow towards him.

Sowing can begin either in the hole adjacent to the starting one, or from a certain place – a special hole, or from the one where the opponent finished sowing.

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Historical traditions
The areas of residence of peoples in Africa do not coincide with the borders of states, and it is not uncommon for different tribes to play the same game, but know it under different names, and vice versa – there are two or three types of mancala with the same name in the country. The boards are fantastically diverse, the differences in the rules are significant, and by the manner of playing, an African easily distinguishes a fellow tribesman from a stranger. These traditions are very enduring. At the beginning of the 21st century, ethnologists compared the rules by which mancala is played on the West African coast and in the Caribbean, and established the historical homeland of the descendants of slaves. In the past, slave traders bought their goods from different tribes. So that the slaves did not understand each other and could not come to an agreement, the planters etched out memories of their native culture, faith and customs. True, they did not focus too much on dancing, music and games. And, for example, the majority of black residents of Barbados turned out to be from Ghana: the rules of the game on both sides of the Atlantic turned out to be identical. In the photo: Oware (Ghana)

In fact, there are many more options. Even the conditions of taking may differ. For example, in “counting” games, the number of stones in the last hole of sowing or their evenness matters, in “positional” stones are taken from the hole opposite or next to the one where the sowing ended.

Kings and plowmen

Above, we considered the simplest version of the mancala. Now a more complex, “adult” example on the same board – an ovare from Ghana. Here, with the fall of the last stone from the hand, the sowing ends.

Judge for yourself how much more ornate the rules are in the adult mancala: if the move ends on the opponent’s side, and there are two or three stones in the hole where the last sowing stone fell, the player captures them, while stones on his side are not captured.

If there was a capture, and in the previous hole along the way there were also two or three stones, they are also captured.

Moreover, a series of such captures is interrupted only by a hole with a different number of stones and the edge of the board. The player should not “starve”, and if stones run out on his half, the opponent is obliged to “feed” him – toss at least a stone on his side in the next move. In both games, capturing 25 stones wins,

There are mancalas, where a set of rules, set out in writing, will take two dozen pages. Another thing is that the tribes, from time immemorial playing this or that variety, absorb the rules with their mother’s milk. They don’t need to read or count to play better than any computer.

In Africa, it is generally accepted to play mancala at a frantic pace, so that the players are in constant tension. No more than three seconds are given to think before each move (in Ghana there is even a saying: “Walk faster, otherwise the termites will eat the board”).

At official omweso tournaments in Uganda, if a player hesitates, the referee starts counting aloud: “one, two …” – and if the move has not yet been made on the count of “three”, the player is defeated.

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By the way, the oware game got its name from King Katakya Opoku Ware I, who had a habit of playing quarrelsome spouses so that they could learn to understand each other (and a married person in Ghana is still called “warri”).

She has flexible tactics, each move completely changes the situation on the board. A lot is decided by positional struggle, pins and winning an extra tempo – a move that does not expose your stones to a capture and does not send them to the enemy’s side.

There are many games related to the game – with a different number of holes and stones, sowing and taking conditions. In Voali (Côte d’Ivoire) a capture is allowed on any side of the board, in Alemungul (Sudan) the direction of seeding depends on the hole from which the move is made, in Songo (Gabon, Cameroon) there is a hole where capture is prohibited.

Such entertainments of adult men were part of the social institutions of the tribe, they discussed the events of the day, resolved disputes, established laws, negotiated the conditions of marriage, and before the campaign, the warriors sat down to play, testing their reaction.

Teenagers not only learned to think, but also tempered their character: when playing, it was customary to goad an opponent by singing, joking, rattling stones and pretending to suffer at their loss.

Fishermen and shepherds

In Asia, the mancala is also very widespread, although there are fewer Asian varieties than African ones. It is curious that in most African countries, mancala is considered a male occupation (women are sometimes forbidden to play at all), in Asia girls play it – it is believed that the game teaches you how to manage a household and plan a family budget.

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The largest (though not the most complex) mancala is mefuwa, a game from the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe. A four-row board with 21 holes in a row can reach several meters in length; to make a move, the players are forced to squat along it. And the smallest game is considered to be the game of the Berbers from Morocco called “urar k’kuz imruyen” (in Berber – “four-hole game”). There are only two holes on each side of the board. And this is the only known mancala where the stones capture only on their side of the board. In the photo: Redu (Nigeria, Ife)

In each region, the mancala has some features characteristic of the life of the people living there. For example, the Indonesians are a people of fishermen, and the net does not always bring a rich catch, usually a fish or two.

Such is the local mancala dakon: boards for it are made in the form of a boat, a fish, a dragon and are played with cowrie shells.

But in all of vast Central Asia there is only one local variety of mancala – togyz kumalak (“Nine balls”). In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Altai Mountains and Mongolia, it is considered a national sports discipline.

The accumulative holes in it are called not “barns”, but “cauldrons”, although this is more a reference to the Kazakh name for October than to the famous kitchen boiler.

A little further, in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, there are no traces of the mancala, either in the annals or in archaeological finds. Obviously, somewhere here – in the region of historical Bulgaria and the Khazar Khaganate – the procession of the mancala from East to West was interrupted.

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In the games of movement – the memory of the transition of a person from gathering to hunting, cattle breeding and agriculture, ancient fortune-telling rituals and counting boards.

Each nation sees something of its own in them: hunters drive game, nomads graze cattle, farmers sow and reap, fishermen catch fish, and warriors capture captives.

In many countries, these games have state support, tournaments are held there, players seriously study tactics and strategy, psychologists recommend them for developing mindfulness, counting skills and fine motor skills in children. In the same Kazakhstan, togyz kumalak is included in the Spartakiad of schoolchildren.

Tormented by wars and predatory colonization, the Black Continent is gradually awakening. The history, art and culture of Africa every year arouse more and more interest in the world. And if it is now clear that the 21st century will be the century of Asia, one can think that the 22nd will become the century of Africa.

And it is still unknown what our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will play when they go to other planets. I think the mancale has a place in the wardroom of a starship.


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