‘Mancala’: Rules and Winning Strategies

Sabina Nisioi
Sabina Nisioi

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If you were looking for a game to put your mind to work, you’ve reached the right place. ‘Mancala’ is one of the best strategy games out there and today, we’re not only going to teach you how to play it, but also how to win it. 

If you’ve never heard of this game and you have no clue how to play ‘Mancala’, we give you a tiny hint: ‘mancala’ means ‘to move’ in Arabic.

What is ‘Mancala’?

‘Mancala’ is an ancient African game. So ancient that it has gathered around 300 variations, across different cultures and timeframes. You might know it as ‘Count, sow, and capture’, ‘Kalah’, or ‘Pit and seeds’. Some versions are much more difficult – ‘Bao’ or ’Omweso’ – because they are played in a reverse direction and require 2 board games. For now, let’s stick to the classic version.

Skills and abilities

You really need to put your mind to it if you want to play this game. ‘Mancala’ challenges your:

  • Math skills
  • Strategic planning

Materials and equipment

For this game, you do require some supplies. The good thing is that if you enjoy being a handyman, you can master these on your own. To play ‘Mancala’, you will need:

  • A game board. It consists of 2 rows and 6 holes/pits. You can make it out of wood.
  • 48 colored ‘stones’. You can use 48 plastic pieces, but make sure they are of different colors. 

Players and purposes

This activity requires 2 players. Ages 7 to adult would be our recommendation. It can be played both as an indoor game and as an outdoor activity. Since the age group is so extensive, you can consider ‘Mancala’ in team building with teens, get-togethers with the family, social gatherings in the backyard, or camping with kids.

When playing ‘Mancala’, your purpose should be to collect the most stones by the end of the game.

‘Mancala’: Rules

*Players sit across from each other, with the game board in the middle. 

*Every player owns the 6 small holes on their side of the board.

  1. Next, the players must place 4 stones of each color in each of their 6 pits.

*On the right side of the Mancala board, each player has a ‘store’. This one is also known as the ‘Mancala’.

  1. The player who begins the game chooses a pit on his side of the board and collects all the stones.
  2. The player now deposits one stone into each pit in a counter-clockwise direction. 

*If they drop a stone into their own store and deposit it, that stone is safe. If they come across their opponent’s store, they must skip it.

*If they drop the last stone in their own store, they get a free turn.

*If they drop the last stone into an empty pit, they capture the stones, as well as any stones in the pit directly across from it, on the opponent’s side of the board.

  1. Once players capture a stone, they must immediately place them in their own store.
  2. A player’s turn is over once they drop all of their stones (and captured any stones). 

The game continues as players take turns.

  1. The game ends when all six pits on one side of the board have been emptied. The player with the most stones on his side of the board captures the rest of them.
  2. The players now count their stones in their stores, and the player with the most stones wins.

Strategies for winning ‘Mancala’

Mancala is a game of pure skill and strategy in every way. Each sowing must be calculated in terms of how it affects both your ability to capture the stones in your opponent’s cups and your opponent’s ability to capture the stones in your pits.

Flight

Flight is a simple move used to protect your stones from capture. If you determine that your opponent is in a position to capture the stones in one of your cups, you can simply empty that cup and sow the stones to prevent capture. If your opponent makes the intended move, his sowing will result in an empty cup and no stones will be captured.

Raiding

You capture an opponent’s pit of stones by placing the last stone in an empty bin on your side, directly across from the opponent’s bin being raided.

Hoarding

We discuss hoarding when a player allows stones to accumulate in a specific pit and then refuses to play that pit. In this way, the pit functions as a ‘virtual mancala’. The player must try to avoid playing from that pit so that its contents are swept away at the end of the game. However, be aware that it is a tempting bait for your opponent.

Threat

The Threat tactic is a more offensive strategy that can be used to deflect an opponent’s attack. In this case, you might want to plan a counter-attack that would pose an immediate threat to the stones in your opponent’s cups, forcing him to defend rather than attack you.

Looping

In a game where the opponent is not keeping careful track of the stones, looping is an effective ambush strategy. The pit fills quickly, to the point where counting stones is impossible. When you know the number of stones has reached the target for a successful raid, you have the advantage of a surprise attack.

Use this strategy when there is a large amount of booty at stake. You go around the board to raid stones from an opponent’s pit that is too far to the left to reach without the loop. A loop usually has an overhead cost of 5 pits because one populates the opponent’s side on the way around.

Rushing

Run out of stones on your own side of the board as soon as possible. It is sometimes possible to do this in one turn if you carefully plan a long sequence of moves (depending on the board setup).

Starving

You refuse to replenish the opponent’s side with stones carried beyond your own Mancala. When one has enough stones on one’s own side of the board to win the game and can force the opponent to go out quickly, this is a great strategy. Make sure you count correctly so you can outlast your opponent. Keep an eye on your stones on your own side of the board, as your opponent may capture them as they go out.

Stalling

We do the opposite of rushing here, which is a companion strategy to starving. Stalling does not always avoid placing stones on the opposing player’s side. Both strategies can be used in tandem to achieve the best results.

Sacrificing

Giving up stones for a higher net gain or lower net loss can be a good baiting strategy.

Rookies frequently avoid being raided at all costs, but a careful player will weigh the cost of being raided (or of giving up stones by playing around to the other side of the board) against alternatives or concurrent benefits because the cost of an avoided raid can be higher.

Overkill 

Overkill is the act of defending a threatened pit by changing your opponent’s sowing position. In this case, you can sow from a pit, which will result in an extra stone being added to your opponent’s cup, threatening your stones.

Sowing from your opponent’s threatening pit will overshoot your vulnerable cup with the extra stone.

Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a more indirect defensive strategy that involves making a threatened pit ineligible for capture.

With all this in mind, your opponent doesn’t stand a chance! Check out eTeamBuilding for other strategy games. And if there’s one, in particular, you’d like to know more about, just leave us a comment, and we’ll make sure to do the research for you!

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