How To Play Mancala, One Of The Oldest Board Games In The World

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how to play mancala
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Have you ever played or watched someone else play Mancala? Mancala comes from the Arabic root word “Naqala” which means, “to move.” “To move” is, in essence, the overall objective of the game. But first, a little bit of history. Mancala is actually one of the world’s oldest board games, with evidence showing it was played in Asia and Africa as long ago as 3,600 B.C.E. in Ghana and Sudan. The board game’s origins are rooted in ancient Egypt and Mancala boards were carved into the roofs of temples in Memphis, Thebes, and Luxor. It is currently one of the most popular games in Africa.

Here’s the gist: You start out with 48 little stones in 12 divots and work your way around the Mancala board until all the divets are empty and each player has a collection of stones. Whomever has the most stones is the winner. Of course, we’ve oversimplified it here. We’ll get into a the nitty-gritty details of the game below. For now, it’s most important to know that Mancala is a ton of fun and, on the surface, seems like a game of chance. Much like Rubiks cubes and Cracker Barrel’s peg games, however, there is a way to win. Wanna know the secret? It’s all in where you start! Read on to find out more.

What you need and how to set up your game of Mancala

You’ll need a Mancala board and 48 stones. The board is long and narrow with large divots at each end, called “stores” and six smaller divots, called “pockets” along each side. To start, you leave the your store empty and disperse your 48 stones evenly among the 12 pockets. That’s four stones in each. If each player is sitting at the ends of the boards, the “pockets” to the right of their “store” belong to them.

How to play Mancala

Playing Mancala can be easy. Decide who starts and allow that person to scoop the four stones from any pocket. They must then go around the board counter clockwise, dropping one stone in each pocket or store on their path. From there, things can be as simple or as tricky as you want to play. For the sake of making sure everyone enjoys the game, we’ll give you the most basic rules. As players drop stones along the path, they skip their opponent’s store (or mancala). If they drop the final stone in an empty pocket on either side of the board, you’re done.

If, however, your final stone is dropped in a pocket with more stones, you get to scoop up that new collection of stones and keep going. If your final stone is dropped in your own mancala, you get to pick any pocket and continue your turn. Confusing? It seems like it, when you’re not playing. With a board and stones in front of you, though, it can feel a lot easier. Keep in mind, there are several other rules you can implement if it gets too easy. You could even take some away, if it seems too hard.

Our most important tip: Make sure your kids are having fun.

How to win the game

There are a ton of strategies that can help you win. One way to start the game off on the right foot is to start on the third hole, so your last stone will land in your store and you get a second move. From there, your second move is just as important. Choose your first or second nearest pocket, so you can empty the final of your four stones into a full pocket and continue playing. Beyond that, it’s always just a matter of doing some quick thinking and counting. Whenever it’s your turn to scoop more stones to play, always look for pockets with enough stones to drop into your own store or carry you to even larger pockets.

Online Mancala Games

Don’t have a mancala board? No problem. You can play mancala online and practice your strategy at these outlets:

Math Playground


Cool Math Games

Memory Improvement Tips

If you’re a mama looking to teach a few new math skills to the kids mancala can be a great solution. According to Scholastic, this ancient game actually teaches a mathematics skill called subitizing. Here’s how they explain the concept: “Subitizing is when a child can naturally ‘see’ the number of objects in a set without counting the objects. For example, a child could see three seeds in a mancala pit and recognize the three seeds without counting them individually. Mancala also provides a natural context for multiplicative thinking in older elementary students.” Not bad for what looks like yet another board game.

Solitare Mancala

Want to get into mancala but not big on group or partner games? You can play mancala solo as long as the fundamental objective is the same at the end: the winning player ends by removing all the seeds from their board.

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