Mancala games for kids: Count and capture games that promote strategic thinking

© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Mother and child playing mancala game known as ori or oware, Cape Verde

Mancala games to motivate young mathematicians

Looking for activities to motivate your school-aged kids to count and think strategically?

Try out mancala.

Also known as “count and capture” games, mancala games have an ancient pedigree. There is archeological evidence that these games existed in the Middle East more than 900 years ago (Rollefson 1992). Today they are played in Africa, Asia, and throughout the Western World.

The games encourage participants to conduct thought experiments — counting tokens and comparing tactics in their heads before they move a game piece. And these qualities have inspired educators to bring mancala into the classroom.

Does playing mancala actually sharpen math and thinking skills?

To date, nobody has performed the relevant experiments to find out. However, competent performance requires counting and the mental movement of game tokens across a game board. And research suggests that good players use abstract or hypothetico-deductive reasoning (Retschitzki et al 1986).

Here I provide an overview of the games, and I describe two popular variants of mancala: Kalah and Oware.

If you want to play the games, you can buy a game board, or create your own. One easy solution is to use a repurposed egg cartoon and a couple of bowls, as shown here. For tokens, you can use seeds, beads, or dried beans.

Mancala rules: An overview

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Though there are many variants of mancala, most versions share these elements:

  • A set of counters (e.g., seeds)
  • A series of small pits arranged in 2 or 4 rows
  • Two large storage pits (where players keep the seeds they “capture”)

A game begins by placing a specified number of seeds in each small pit. Then players take turns “sowing” and “capturing” seeds.

A player “sows” seeds by choosing a pit, scooping up all the seeds in that pit, and then — moving in a specified direction — dropping one seed in each subsequent pit until he or she runs out of seeds.

Depending on which variant of mancala is played, there are different rules for capture. In most versions, the object is to capture the most seeds.

Let’s review two mancala games. The first, Kalah, is usually considered a children’s game. The second, Oware, can be enjoyed by older children. It is considered a more complex, grown-up game.

Mancala rules for children

Kalah-Oware-board.jpg

Kalah

Kalah (also known as “Mancala” in the United States), is relatively simple to set up.

The game board consists of two rows of 6 small pits (or “houses”), with a large storage pit at each end. Picture an egg carton with a bowl at each end.

Four seeds are placed in each of the 12 houses.

And to play?

You and your opponent sit on opposite sides of the game board.

The row in front of you is your row. The storage pit to your right is your storage pit.

Let’s suppose you are the player who takes the first turn in the game.

You begin by scooping up all the seeds in one of the “houses” on your side of the board.

Then, moving counter-clockwise, you “sow” the seeds, one per house.

If you get as far as your own storage pit, you drop a seed there, too. And if the last seed goes in your designated storage pit, you gets another turn. Otherwise, your turn ends.

The second player then takes his or her turn, following the same procedure.

The game continues, with these alternating turns, often with these additional mancala rules:

  • Players don’t drop seeds in each other’s storage pits
  • If, during a turn, a player’s last seed lands in one of his empty pits, and there are seeds in the pit immediately opposite it, the player gets to capture both his last seed and the seeds opposite.
  • The game ends when a player runs out of seeds on his side of the board. The opponent gets to capture any seeds remaining on his side, and the player with the most captured seeds when.

To make the game more challenging, begin with more seeds –5 or 6– in each small house.

Want to play online? Check out  opens in a new windowMancala snails, an electronic version of “Mancala.”

Mancala rules for older children and adults

Oware, a West African variant of mancala, is a more sophisticated game. It’s recommended for adults and older kids (11 and up).

In Oware (also called Wari and Awale), the game board resembles that used for Kalah, consisting of

  • two rows of 6 small pits or “houses,” each of which begins with 4 seeds
  • two storage pits, one for each player

The “sowing” is also similar to that practice in Kalah. When it’s your turn:

  1. Pick one of the smaller houses in your row,
  2. scoop up all the seeds in that house, and
  3. moving counter-clockwise, drop one seed in each of the small houses until you’ve sown all the seeds in your hand.

But here’s where the rules diverge from those of Kalah.

First, you don’t drop seeds into the storage pits as you sow—-sow seeds only in the small pits or “houses.”

Second, the rules for capture are different. If you’ve ended your move in one of your opponent’s houses (as opposed to one of your own houses), then you count the seeds in that house. Are there 2 or 3 seeds in it (no more and no less)?

If the answer is no, your turn is over and your opponent gets to sow seeds.

But if the answer is yes, you get to collect the seeds and keep them in your storage pit. Then you examine the next-to-last house. If that house belongs to your opponent, and it contains 2 or 3 seeds, then you get to collect those seeds as well. Continue working backwards until you get to a house that doesn’t contain the correct number of seeds.

Mancala as a group activity

Games like Kalah and Oware are often played one-on-one. But they can also be played as team games. In Africa, people sometimes play with very large boards in a party-like atmosphere. Multiple players might work together on a team, or—if there are just two opponents in the game—the players get lots of free advice from very enthusiastic, vocal, and involved onlookers (Townsend 1979).

More information about mancala games and mancala rules

opens in a new windowMath Games & Activities from Around the World by Claudia Zavlasky presents school-aged kids with over 80 math games and activities played worldwide.

Included are the instructions for four different mancala games, and other board games, puzzles, crafts, and games of chance. Zavlasky offers historical and cultural explanations of each activity, as well as clear, well-illustrated instructions and questions designed to get kids analyzing underlying mathematical and strategic concepts. 


References: Mancala games

Retschitzki J, N’Guessan A, and Loesch-Berger MC. 1986. Etude cognitive et genetique des styles de jeu et des strategies de jouers d’awele. Archives de Psychologie 54: 307-340.

Rollefson GO. 1992. A Neolithic Game Board from ʿAin Ghazal, Jordan.  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 286: 1-5.

Townsend P. 1979. African Mankala in anthropological perspective. Current Anthropology 20: 794-796.

de Voogt A. 2001. Mancala: Games that count. Expedition 43(1): 39-46.

Image of opens in a new window Cape Verde Uril / mancala game players by opens IMAGE file DuncanCV / wikimedia commons