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African games are part of a large family of "sowing" or "count and capture" games played in numerous variations around the world. Play involves scooping the "seeds" from one's pits and then sowing them one per pit around the board. Captures are made a variety of ways. Since the pieces are common to both players, and constantly rotate around the board altering both player's positions, it becomes a challenging strategy game. The "sowing seeds" imagery of these games reflects the importance of agriculture in African life, even as the "cows" imagery in the game of Morabaraba (below) reflects the significance of their cattle.
The best known games of this family in the Western world are Oware (Ghana), Kalah, Omweso (Uganda), and Bao (Zimbabwe) - though the names may vary from place to place. Mancala games play a role in many African and some Asian societies comparable to that of chess in the West. They are some of the oldest games of the world and have many names in many cultures. There are more than a hundred versions of play on various size boards.
Boards have historically be improvised in many ways: rows of depressions in sand or hollows in wood or stone, or rows of shells, using seeds or pebbles as playing pieces. Boards may be elaborately carved or simple and functional; they may include a pedestal, or be hinged to fold lengthwise or crosswise and latch for portability and storage, with the seeds inside. The pits may also be arranged in a oval or circular pattern. They range from very simple to museum quality works of folk art.
Oware (The national game of Ghana, is called Awale (Ivory Coast), Wari or Awari (Mali), and numerous other names). This Mancala game is played on two rows of six pits each using 48 stones and a storing cup for each player.
- Oware (aka Awale, Wari, Owari, etc) and Kalah use a rectangular board usually made of wood with two rows of six pits, and sometimes a pit at each end to hold captures. These are the Mancala boards commercially available.
- Omweso and Bao both use boards with four rows of eight pits. The Bao board has two square pits - one each in the two middle rows.
- Ah-Wah-Ree (A 3M Bookshelf Game from the 1960's uses a folding plastic board with twelve pits arranged in a circle) can frequently be found on Ebay. Playable by 2-4 players, it included the possibility of capturing the other player's pits as well.
- 55Stones a modern Mancala variation by Ralf Gering (2002) uses a board of 11 pits in a single row, and simultaneous play.
Kalah Perhaps the simplest Mancala game, Kalah uses two rows of six pits and 36 stones, and storing cup for each player. The "Kalah" are the storage pits on the players' right sides. Considered by some to be a children's game, it gives an advantage to the first player to move. Its rules are frequently included with the Mancala boards sold commercially.
Omweso and Bao
These are played on a board with four rows of 8 pits and using 64 seeds.
- Omweso is
the national game of Uganda and
is played on a board with 4x8 holes and 64 seeds. The setup is a part of the strategy of the game as each player distributes his seeds through his two rows of pits as he choses. In historic Uganda culture, women, children and people with better things to do were discouraged from playing the game as it can become quite involved. It was useful way to keep a tribal king's retainers occupied though.
- Bao (Tanzania and Zimbabwe) is reckoned to be the most complicated of all mancala games: not only because of the complexity of the rules, but also because of the strategies and tactics it offers to its players. Aslo played on a 4x8 board with 64 seeds, each player has only ten seeds on the board at the start. The other 22 seeds are kept off the board and are brought into play one by one. Together with Wari, it is the only Mancala game to have championship tournaments.
Books on Mancala Games:
Another interesting African Board Game is Morabaraba Originally played by shepherds and herdsmen, it may have evolved from Mancala. Legend says this game was used to teach young men how to steal cows, and that the African Chiefs sought the best players for their advisors. It is obviously the forefather of Nine Man Morris a game with a long history in Europe. According to the rules of the game, two players have 12 cows each and play on a wooden board ringed with 24 circles. The ultimate aim is to take as many of your opponent's cows as possible while moving your cows forward and towards your opponent's back row. Captures are made when a player gets three of his cows in a straight line. Fabricating a board and pieces would be easy. There is an Shareware computer version of the game available and the game has been used as tournament game as well. strategy involved.
Also called Umlabalaba, the game is a very old game, played across the African continent. The "cows" tactically manoeuvred around the board are actually tokens, based on the traditional supreme symbol of wealth - the number of cows that a man owned. In Ghana, the game was used to teach kids how to count, add and subtract. Morabaraba is especially popular in South Africa. In the Eastern Cape it is called mlabalaba and in the Northern Province it is known as mefuvha. In Zimbabwe, it is called tsoro and in Angola it is referred to as mbau.
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