These ancient 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.
Mancala games have been played the longest and most popular in Africa, though various versions are played all over the world. Boards have been found dating back to 1400 B.C in Egypt. By 600 A.D. the game had spread to the Middle East and Asia. Surprisingly, the game was little known in Europe until the 19th Century. In some parts of Africa. Mancala was reserved for royalty and people of rank, and play was often limited to the men, or to particular seasons of the year, or to day time. Women had more important chores to do! The name, "Mancala," comes from the Arabic word meaning "to move." Names of various games may refer to the board, or the seeds, or manners of play in native languages. Depending on the culture, pieces are "seeds" or "cows."
These two player games are played with a board, usually consisting of two or four equal rows of cup-shaped Pits that may be carved out of wood or stone, or even just dug out of the dirt. The row or rows on each player's side belong to that player. Sometimes there is also a larger oval-shaped Storehouse for each player on his right side of the board. Several three row games have been found in Northeastern Africa, and modern inventers have even created a one row board with simultaneous play.
The playing pieces may be large seeds, pebbles, or marbles, and they belong to a player only when they are in his row of pits. The game starts with three or four seeds in each Pit. The game is played by scooping the seeds out of one of your pits and sowing them one seed at a time around the board. There are a variety of ways that seeds are captured depending on the game. Winning may be a matter of making the most captures, disabling your opponent, or by "going empty." Games may be played singly, or in rounds, or matches - where sometimes the next game will begin with each player using the seeds that were captured the previous game. Matches may be decided by capturing the most seeds, or by winning the most games.
There are over 300 documented names for various Mancala games and quite a variety of variations in how they are played. Some versions like American Kalah or African Oware are fairly simple; others like the four row games of Omweso and Bao are much more complicated. Mancala games can be classified a number of ways - by the size of the board, by the manner of movement, or by the ways of capturing, or of winning. And there are both traditional games, and modern inventions. Mancala games play a role in many African and some Asian societies comparable to that of chess in the West. It is one of the Mind Sports Games as well.
The best known traditional games of this family in the Western world are Oware (Ghana), Omweso (Uganda), and Bao (Zimbabwe) - though the names may vary from place to place.
Kalah is played on a two by six board with either 36 or 48 seeds. The number of the seeds used will affect the strategy, and some luck is involved. Seeds are sowed counter-clockwise around the board, including dropping a seed in the player's store house as it is passed, but not in his opponent's store house. If the last seed is sown in, it is placed in the storehouse. Cross Captures are made when the last seed is sown into an empty pit on the player's side opposite a loaded pit on the opponents' side of the board - those seeds are taken to the store house as well the capturing seed. If the last seed sown lands in a player's store house, he gets a go-again play. The game is won by capturing the most seeds.
OWARE (AKA Awari, Wari, Awele, etc) is played on a two by six board with 48 seeds. Seeds are sown counterclockwise around the board, but not into either store house. If seeds are sown all the way around the board, the pit from which they originated is skipped, sowing continuing in the next. Specific Count captures are made when the last seed sown falls on the opponent's side of the board in a pit with one or two seeds in it. The captured pit is emptied into the store house, along with a Series Capture of any two seeded pits immediately preceding that captured pit. If in doing so, the opponent's side is emptied of seeds - it is a Grand Capture and all capturing player's pieces are also taken to his store house, ending the game. A player must not allow his opponent's side to go empty. The game is won by making the most captures. It is often played in tournaments around the world, and has a couple of Associations promoting its play. There are a number of computer versions on the internet as well.
AYO is a variation of Oware played by the Yoruba people of Nigeria, using a two by six board and 48 seeds where if a piece lands in any occupied pit that can't be captured, then those pieces are used for Continued Sowing until the last seed lands in either an empty pit, or a pit with one or two seeds where it makes a Specific Count Capture. Continued Play is not allowed if it would empty the opponent's side of the board. The game ends only when the entire board is cleared of seeds.
J'ODU, another variation played by Yoruba women and children, uses only 36 seeds. Specific Count Cross Captures are made when the last seed lands in an empty pit on a player's side opposite a pit with one or two seeds. Those seeds as well as any seeds in pits preceding in the counter-clockwise order with just two seeds go to the store house.
ADI is played in Western and Northern Africa. It uses Specific Count Captures of pits containing three seeds on either side of the board and has Continued Sowing in play as well. The game ends when there are only eight seeds remaining on the board.
BA-AWA is played by children in Ghana on a two by six board with 48 seeds using Continuous Sowing. If at any time during sowing, a pit has exactly four seeds these are immediately captured by the player who owns the pit. Turns end when either the last seed is sown into a pit which then has four seeds, which are captured by the moving player, or it falls into an empty pit. When there are just eight seeds left on the board, the player who began the game takes these and the game ends. Won by most captures.
IIHUS is another simpler four row game played by the Hottentot in South Africa on a four by eight board with 48 seeds The board is set up with two seeds in each pit in the back row and the four pits on the player's right of the front row. Pits with only one seed in them cannot be played. Seeds are captured back and forth across the board by Pull Across Capture and are not removed from the board. When a player's last seed lands in a loaded pit in his front row, and the pit opposite it is also loaded, then he takes the seeds from it and the pit behind it, if any, and leaving the capturing seed in place, he Continues Sowing with the captured seeds beginning with his next pit, playing and capturing until finally he lands in a empty pit and his turn ends. The game ends when one player has only empty or single seed pits, and cannot make a play.
OMWESO is the royal game of Uganda. The king, or his chiefs, would play with their people while conversing with them about topics of concern and what was going on, or listening to and making judgment in suits. Omweso is played on a four by eight board with 64 seeds - players may start with four seeds in each of the pits in their back row, or using one of a number of conventional groupings, or the player's own arrangement. Pits containing only one seed cannot be played. While Omweso uses Continued Sowing with Pull Across Capture when both the opponent's opposite pits contain seeds; it also has Backup Capture, where a play that originates or continues from one of the player's four leftmost pits (that pit must contain nine or less seeds) can reverse the direction of sowing to clockwise to make a capture. Captured seeds can be used to make another Backup capture starting from the pit which precedes the pit of the initial Backup play (If there are less than nine seeds, and a capture is possible); or they are continued to be sown in the original counter-clockwise direction, play continuing until finally a seed drops into an empty pit and the turn ends. The game is won when the opponent has only empty or single seed pits and is unable to play.
BAO (Southeast Africa: Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe) is the most complex version of Mancala both in terms of rules and in terms of strategies. Played on a four by eight board with one square hole in the front row right of center on each side and with 64 seeds, the players start with only 10 seeds on the board, the rest are brought in one by one making Pull Across captures as they are placed in a loaded pit opposite an opponent's loaded pit. The pulled across seeds are sown beginning in either the extreme left or right pits of a player's front row so direction of play varies. Once all the reserved seeds are in play, the game continues by choosing any pit with more than one seed and sowing its seeds. Sowing can be in either direction - captures must be made if possible. There are special rules for the square hole, one allows for a grand slam play! Winning is by disabling the opponent.
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. Morabaraba is especially popular in South Africa. In the Eastern Cape it is called mlabalaba.