In which they become addicted to a thousand-year-old board game

by DaniGirl on March 29, 2010 · 11 comments

in Fun for kiddies, Life, the Universe and Everything

Like so many of the best things in life, it’s deceptively simply and devilishly addictive. No, we’re not talking about cupcakes, but about a thousand-year-old board game called Mancala that has overtaken our family like a virus.

420:1000 Mancala TtV

Have you heard of it? I had not. Tristan got a Mancala set (also known as Kalah) for Christmas from my aunt, but we hadn’t gotten around to pulling off the wrapper until the March Break. From the first time we played, the big boys and I were hooked. We got Beloved addicted within the week.

Mancala is a derivative of an ancient family of games that are played all over the world. It’s about as low-tech as a game can get — and can I just take a minute and say how delightful it is to see the boys engaged by something that doesn’t flash, vibrate, blast electronic warbles or detonate aliens? You have a small wooden board with six small ‘pits’ laid out in two rows, and a big ‘pot’ at either end. You start out with four beads in each of the little pits. In any given move, you simply scoop out the beads in any of the pits in front of you and move counterclockwise around the board, depositing one bead in each pit. Play continues, usually for 10 to 15 minutes, until one player has no beads left in front of him or her. Player with the most beads in their pot at the end wins.

Here’s a complete set of rules from the (I swear!) official Mancala wiki. They use the term “seed” instead of bead, and the “kalah” is the big pot at your end of the board on your right side. The “store” is your opponent’s kalah.

Play is counterclockwise. The seeds are distributed one by one in the pits and the players own kalah, but not into the opponent’s store.

If the last seed is dropped into an opponent’s pit or a non-empty pit of the player, the move ends without anything being captured.

If the last seed falls into the player’s kalah, he must move again.

If the last seed is put into an empty pit owned by the player, he captures all contents of the opposite pit together with the capturing piece and puts them in his kalah. If the opposite pit is empty, nothing is captured. A capture ends the move.

The game ends when a player has no legal move and the remaining pieces are captured by his adversary. The player who has captured most pieces is declared the winner.

Devilishly addictive, dead simple, and oooh, pretty colours. What’s not to love?

The beauty of the game is that you could play it anywhere, with anything. You could play it on the beach by drawing your pits and pots and using stones; one of my Flickr friends mentioned she made a set out of an egg carton. And you can get high-tech, too: there are online versions and yes, there’s an app for that. I’ve resisted the digital versions, though. Something about the tactile interaction with those glass beads really enhances the game for me!

Everyone who has played seems to love the game, so I’m a little surprised to have never heard of it before. Have you played? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it for your next rainy day or family game night. I see many, many hours of Mancala tournaments in our future!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 smothermother March 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm

i’ve seen the game around, but never knew how to play. how old is the suggested starting age? the bean is almost 3. too young?

2 DaniGirl March 29, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Julie, 3 might be a little young. (My 2 yr old keeps trying to filch the beads!) I’d say maybe five or so? Simon just turned six, and he’s old enough to understand the rules and begin to get the strategy of it, too.

3 Paula March 29, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I haven’t seen this game yet but will be on the look-out for it. Have you heard of the Family Past-Times cooperative board games? Great variety and every game is geared to build cooperation and teamwork amongst the players. Great for kids, they get enough competition in all other aspects of their lives. Here is the link

4 Tricia March 29, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Oh my gosh! Thanks for this — I have this game but had completely forgotten how to play despite how simple it is. I can’t wait to teach my son.

5 Vicky's Webgeek March 29, 2010 at 1:23 pm

When I worked at IBM, a colleague of mine who was originally from Gambia (I think) wanted me to create a computer version of this game. Best I could do was to recreate the “simple kiddie” rule set. I always wanted to return to the project.

6 Susan March 29, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Our mancala board is always out on the living room table–we love it! It goes quickly and it’s fun for all ages!

7 Paula Kelly-Bourque March 29, 2010 at 6:14 pm

RT @DaniGirl: Our new favourite family game: (warning: dangerously addictive and incredibly low-tech!!)

8 Gliding through motherhood March 29, 2010 at 7:16 pm

I haven’t played in eons put I love mancala! So fun!

9 Amber April 1, 2010 at 12:02 am

I have played a computerized version of this game and it was highly addictive. I was a little bit sad when we got a new computer and my husband didn’t bother installing it, actually. I would love to try a real version, but given my toddler’s current love of items he could choke on, it may need to wait 6 months or so.

10 liz April 1, 2010 at 9:03 am

I’ve played! I’ve even posted about it. My favorite online version is one put up by the AFL-CIO

11 Chantal April 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm

OH Dani, I have the most beautiful carved version of this game that I bought when I was in Cameroon on business 10 years ago. I had forgotten about it. I originally came with seeds as the pawns but they are all lost. I will have to get myself some beads and teach the boys how to play! I am so glad you reminded me of this!

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