9 Interesting Facts About ‘Ayo Olopon,’ The Yoruba Mancala Game

Avo playing boards

The Yorubas of Nigeria have one of the richest cultures in West Africa and Africa as a whole. This
can be seen in their festivals, carnivals, gods, language and game play. The Yorubas love to have
fun. Although they might not have known it at the time, Yorubas were one of the earliest proponents
of a Mancala-type game, as we have come to know them today. Popularly called ‘Ayo,’ here are
some fun facts and expositions on this popular Yoruba game.


1. Locale

Image Credit: African Exponent
Ayo’ is an abridged version of ‘ayo olopon’ and was developed and is widely played by the Yorubas
in Nigeria. Given that this tribe is spread across different states in the country, it is amazing how they
all come together under the canopy of the same game. In fact, much reverence is given to a person who
excels at this game, just as much as a chess master today would be seen as a demigod in the midst of
men.


2. Etymology

Image Credit: PicDeer
The words that make up the name of the game are as significant as the game itself. 
The first word, ‘ayo’, means ‘seeds.’ This is in reference to the specially-crafted seeds used to play
this game. Other materials can be used when these seeds are not available, but the designated seeds
were considered standard practice even in the olden days. The second part of the name, ‘olopon,’
depicts a sort of container used to hold something. This does accurately describe the game, seeing as
it is played with seeds held in a wooden chamber.


3. Playing Time

In the Yoruba culture, ayo MUST only be played in the evenings
The Yorubas pride themselves on hard work and diligence, so much that they would not tolerate
seeing a man lazing around when he should be up and about. Thus, they have reserved the day
time for work, which is mostly agriculture, and in the evenings they enjoy the game.  Any man
seen doing otherwise would be regarded with scorn and tagged a lazy person.


4. Players

This game can only accommodate two players at a time – no more and no less. Depending
on the score line, the players will be called ota or opeA player who has the upper hand in the
game is called “ota,” which literally means ‘bullet’ while his opponent will be referred to as
“ope,” literally translating to ‘knowledgeable.’ When a person is passing by two people playing
this game, it is customary to greet the players by saying “Mo ki ota, mo ki ope o,"” which means
“I greet the winning side, and I salute the losing party too.”  To this greeting, only the ota, player
with the winning hand at that point, can respond.


5. Cultural Significance

Unlike today when we have cinemas, concerts, restaurants and other forms of entertainment around,
ayo olopon provided one of the ideal means of not just entertainment, but bonding between the men.
This was back in the days when men were expected to go farming and hunting while their wives
cooked and tended to the children. Therefore, these men would head out in the day to bring back
food while resting with a game of ayo in the evening as their wives made dinner.
Speaking of bonding, ayo also provided a means for the men in a village to get to know one another
better. A standard ayo olopon spot saw different men gather for a chance to challenge one another
while also sharing experiences of the day, telling jokes, or drinking palm wine.


6. Rules

The rules of ayo olopon are quite simple, but applying them to gain the upper hand is quite
technical. Each player has six pots on their side, and these pots contain four seeds each.
From there on, this series of steps happen:
  • The first player starts by picking up all the four seeds and distributing them (one per hole) as they move through the pots in a right-hand (counter-clockwise) movement.
  • This movement might see them cross into the opponent’s side or stay on theirs, depending on which pit they pick their starting seeds from.
  • Each player gets one turn. As soon as the distribution move above terminates, it becomes the turn of the next player
  • This goes on till a player finds a way to ensure their last seed lands in a pit on their opponent’s side which brings the tally of the seeds in such a pit to 2 or 3 (less than four, but more than one). They are entitled to capture all of those seeds as theirs.
  • The game continues till there are no moves left, and the player with the most seeds win.



7. Educational Significance

Mathematical Prowess

It might not have been obvious at the time, but this game was also of immense importance to
developing strong arithmetic skills. This went beyond simple addition and subtraction, but also
made the players see moves ahead of the one they were making to determine which one will
yield a desired outcome.


8. Parallel Comparisons

Chess and Checkers Use Similar Skills

In some ways, ayo olopon bears close similarities to both chess and checkers. 
For one, players of the game who have achieved great mastery were often revered throughout
the village and neighboring towns. Likewise, there are slight modifications to the rules of the
game by area – just like we have for checkers. Finally, it is a game of strategy that often includes
‘feeding’ an opponent’s side to give a better chance at capturing their pieces, which brings chess
to mind.


9. Global Adaptations

Image Source: ResearchGate
Although there is no record of where the mancala game first came about, it has spread across
the world using multiple names.  Some call it Ayo, some call it Warri, and others refer to it as
Awala., Many other cultures have their own concepts of the game too.  No matter where it is
played, though, it still retains its fun nature and tendency to foster togetherness among a group of people.
SHARE:

Mancala in North America


If you’ve ever heard the term ‘mancala’ before, it probably immediately makes you think of something. For many around the world, mancala refers to any of a series of different games that require strategy, thought and attention to detail. 

These games are played in a range of different ways and with slightly different boards and rules. But there are a host of different ones, and they come from all parts of the world. 

They’re games that anyone can play, but it takes some time and effort to master. In North America, however, mancala refers to only a single game.


Mancala in North America
Lively game in Orlando, Florida


What is Mancala?

Mancala is a type of strategy game that pits two players against one another, no matter the size or type of board. It’s a game designed for those ages 8 and up and it comes in a range of different versions. 

Each part of the world, however, has their own most popular version. These include Kalash in North America, Bao in East Africa, and Oware in West Africa and the Caribbean as a few examples. 

Different versions have ventured throughout the world, and some are definitely more well known in some areas than others ("Mancala" 2001).


The History of Mancala

Let’s take a look back a little further, at where Mancala actually comes from. To start with, the name comes from an Arabic word, which is naqala and means ‘to move (Arneson, 2018).’

 It makes sense when you think about the way the game is played and what you’re actually trying to do. Of course, from there the game is subdivided into hundreds of different varieties and versions that are each slightly different  (Arneson, 2018). Let’s look at the overall aspects of the game for now.

It’s believed the game came from somewhere around the Red Sea, with some of the earliest versions of mancala boards being found in regions like Al-Qurna, Karnak and Luxor which are located in modern day Egypt or what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia, with boards dating back as far as 500 to 700 AD (Arneson, 2018). 

With the simplicity of the original board design and the ease of playing the game, it’s likely that people have been playing it for thousands of years in different forms and the game has been passed on through generations.

Primarily found in regions of Africa, to begin with, the game managed to travel throughout regions of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China as trade continued to occur throughout these areas and between different regions (Arneson, 2018). 

It did not travel throughout Europe, however, it is found in some areas of the country, such as the Baltic region. Other areas do not seem to have adapted the game, though it later spread to North America by way of the slave trade and later by way of immigrants entering the country (Arneson, 2018).


What it Has in Common Throughout Versions

When it comes to mancala and all of its different variations there are a few things that are always the same. 

First, it’s a two-person game in all of its iterations. Second, it uses a board that’s filled with holes or a section of the ground with holes and the pieces are small items like seeds, beans or stones. It’s also a strategy game that requires players to think hard and to plan every step of what they’re going to do in order to win. Finally, the object of the game is to win at least a portion of your opponent’s pieces. 

But how you do that happens differently in different versions of the game.  In general, gameplay consists of collecting all of the pieces out of a single hole and ‘sowing’ them along the way around. Starting with the hole directly to the right of the one you took the pieces out of, you must drop one piece in each hole until you run out of pieces. 

Then it’s your opponent’s turn to do the same. The gameplay continues until a specific objective has been met. Sometimes it’s to clear your side of the board. Sometimes it’s to collect a set number of pieces in the bank. Sometimes it’s something else entirely.


How it Differs Throughout Versions

The method of winning is going to be slightly different in variations of the game. Also, you’re going to have entirely different boards depending on where you play. Some boards are rectangular with two or three rows of holes. 

Others might be shaped entirely differently, like the Toguz Korgool board from Kyrgzstan which is shaped like a yin yang symbol or uniquely shaped Congkak boards from Malaysia. Of course, another way that this game differs is what the subset of the game is called. 

Since ‘mancala’ is actually only a grouping of games rather than a single game, there are different names for the variations around the world. You’ll find that different boards are going to have different numbers of holes as well, which makes gameplay slightly different. 

Depending on where you’re planning to play, it’s important to get a good look at the board and to understand the rules before you start out. After all, you don’t want to get mixed up and start playing the game the wrong way; it could cost you a win.


Mancala in North America

When it comes to other parts of the world, mancala is actually a very popular game and children and adults participate. The rules are taught to many, and they may learn several different versions. 

In North America, however, the game isn’t quite as well-known and is generally not as popular. In fact, large amounts of the population don’t even know that the game exists or what it’s about. 

It seems that most find the game entirely by chance or by being introduced to it by someone older who has played it before. Even then, few people really understand what it is.

That doesn’t mean that people in North America aren’t playing, just that they’re getting far less immersion. As a result, in North America mancala is actually considered a singular game and many don’t even know that there are multiple versions.

In fact, you can purchase the game of mancala from the store, although you’re only going to see a couple simple boards when you do. The game tends to be buried among other games that are more popular.

There are some variations that have made it to different parts of North America, and the game originally ventured to the country alongside the slave trade. In fact, enslaved peoples brought the game from their homeland in the version Warra. 

This was later changed and adapted into what is now referred to as Kalah, a more commercial version of the game in this part of the world. Some parts of New England have also adopted a slightly different version of the game called Ouril, which comes from Cape Verde and was brought in by immigrants to the area.

Perhaps the game was once quite popular within North America, even outside of the enslaved peoples who brought it over. During the time when these individuals were playing the game themselves, it may have gained some popularity with the rest of the nation and may have spread over the subsequent years. 

Now, however, it seems that the game is only known by small groups. Where it represents a culture and a deep history throughout Africa, this game seems to have had trouble taking off as much in North America, at least until recently.


A New Beginning?

Though for a while the popularity seems to have been decreasing, recently, things have been turning around for this unique and very worldly game. In fact, trends seem to suggest that more and more people are starting to discover it within North America and even other parts of the world. 

One possible reason may be the rise in popularity of online gaming and apps of all types, which have recently expanded to include versions of Mancala. 

Another may be simply that vintage is the new trend and more and more people are looking for ways that they can venture into this space in new and exciting ways. Bringing mancala out of the shadows and thrusting it back into the spotlight where it belongs can absolutely be an exciting endeavor, and it will bring about a whole new slew of people who have never tried it before. 

And perhaps, even more, versions of this fun strategy game will finally make it across the world and into North America.


Kalah Game Board with bank on end


How it’s Played

In North America, mancala is played on a rectangular board with 12 small holes and one large ‘bank’ on each end ("Mancala, The National Game of Africa"). 

Two players start with the same number of colored marbles in each of the 12 regular holes with an objective to clear out your side of the board and get as many pieces in your ‘bank’ as possible. 

The gameplay is simple enough with each player choosing one of the holes on their side of the board to take all of the pieces out of and then sow one marble in each hole following until they run out of marbles. Play continues until one player has completely cleared their side of the board.  The banks are then counted.

Sometimes clearing your side of the board first isn’t the way you’re actually going to win. Sometimes you’re going to need to strategize and let the other person get rid of their pieces first. 

After all, it’s generally about the bank rather than the pieces on your side. With this game, as you learn more about it, you’re going to learn even more about how to play and how to make the most of it. You might just find your new favorite game.

There are some specific rules and different tips on how to play best, but in general, this game is quick and simple to learn. In fact, children as young as 8 are considered the target audience while even younger children may be able to figure out the rules and understand the gameplay. 

The hardest part of this game is the strategy of figuring out which pieces to move and when so that you can clear your side of the board and leave your opponent without enough pieces in their bank to win.


Trying Something New

If you’re looking for a game to play with your family or students, this one is really simple and it’s definitely one that you can pick up quickly. 

Even if you’re looking to play one of the different variations of this game, you can find the instructions and start figuring things out in no time. There are even instructions available online for making your own board using an egg carton with beans or marbles as playing pieces.

For those who haven’t tried this game before, it’s a great way to test out your mental agility. You’ll need to think hard and carefully about each move that you make in order to win the game and that’s definitely going to be a great skill for anyone at any age. If you’re working on teaching younger children about thinking ahead and strategy, this is a great way to do it. 

If you’re looking to help older adults with memory and working through problems, this is a great way to do it also. Not only that but you’re going to have something that you can do with just one other person, without needing a whole large group to enjoy. That’s great for couples or smaller families who want to trade off and teach their young ones something entirely new.


Playing the Game

If you’re interested in playing mancala, there are a host of different ways that you can learn to do it. The best way is to look online, especially if you’re learning to play in North America. 

That’s going to give you the most variety and the most versatility of games to play. Of course, you can always pick up the Kalah board that is typical in North America and learn how to play that version first. It’s a fun game and one that requires you to think outside the box in order to win. 

No matter how old or young you are, you’ll learn a lot with this game and enjoy the experience. Just take the time to learn.




Tags: Mancala, Mancala in North America
________________


Arneson, Erik. “Basics, History and Origin of the Mancala Board Game.” The Spruce Crafts, The Spruce Crafts, 28 Nov. 2018, www.thesprucecrafts.com/mancala-411837


“Mancala, The National Game of Africa,”
healthy.uwaterloo.ca/museum/Archives/Culin/Mancla1894/index.html.


“Mancala.” Penn Museum, Penn Museum, 15 Mar. 2001, www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/mancala/.
SHARE:

Rules May Vary: Fun Mancala Rules Variations to Liven up Your Game

Mancala is one of the oldest board games of all time.

Because it's relatively simple to teach but endlessly entertaining to play, it's not hard to see why the game has stood the test of time.

Whether you're using mancala as an educational tool or if it's a staple of your family game night, mancala helps to improve critical thinking skills and brings out the competitive side in all of us.

Especially if you've been playing mancala for a long time -- or if you need to simplify the game so it's easier for young children to play -- you're likely curious about new ways to play Mancala.

This post is here to help.

In it, we'll teach you some of the most popular mancala rules variations that will bring different challenges to the table. We'll also include a few strategies that will help you to win no matter which type of mancala you're playing.

Plus, because many the different ways to play mancala are based on a variety of cultural traditions, you'll be able to learn more about the world around you in the process.

Villagers playing a mancala game in Yagba, Nigeria, byAugust Udoh.

How Do You Play Mancala?

Before we get into some of our favorite mancala rules variations, let's make sure you understand the basics of the game first.

In America especially, the Kalah version of the game is the most commonly played option. Remember that there are lots of different variations of the mancala game, but that the Kalah style is likely the one most familiar to you. It too, can have different variations.

The object of mancala is to collect more seeds (the rounded game pieces) than your opponent does.


Setting up the Board

First, let's go over the setup of the board itself.

Each mancala board has 12 small holes in total, usually referred to as "houses" or "pits." Each player has six individual houses, the horizontal row directly in front of them.

On each end of the board, there's a larger rectangular house, referred to as the "storage house." This is where you'll collect the seeds that you "capture" when playing.

The game has 48 "seeds" (pieces) in total. Though these are often found in a variety of colors and materials, this is just a style preference. In other words, one "color" is not more valuable than another in the rules of the basic play.

Each player gets 24 seeds in total, and they place 4 seeds in each of their six small houses. The storage houses will be empty at the beginning of the game (the storage unit to your right is your own.)


Basic Mancala Rules of Play

The first player chooses any one of their six small pits/houses to begin, and picks up all four seeds inside of it.

Keep in mind that it's customary for players to use only one hand when both picking up and dropping the seeds. (This is just one reason why Mancala is a popular tool for fine motor skill development in children.)

Moving in a counter-clockwise direction, the player then drops one seed in each of the small houses/pits as they move around the board. If they cross the large storage house (the rectangles at both ends of the board) in the process, they can drop one seed in it.

Do not deposit any seeds into the opponent's storage house, only into your own.

In a common variation, if your last seed drops into your storage house you, get to go again. Also, if your last piece lands in an empty house/pit on your side,  you get to "cross capture" all of the pieces in their opponent's small pit/house directly across from yours.

You do not get another turn if your last seed lands into any empty small pits/houses.

Once all six small pits/houses are completely empty on one player's side, the game is over. The other player gets to capture any pieces left on their side of the board.

Then, the two players count up the number of seeds in their storage house.

Whoever has the highest number is the winner.

Now, let's talk more about even more different ways to play Mancala.


Ayoayo

In Nigeria, board games are a kind of national sport -- so it's no wonder that the country has its own unique mancala rules, known as Ayoayo.

Here, the setup is similar to the traditional mancala game. There are two rows with six small storage houses, and each storage house has four seeds in it to start.

The first player picks up their seeds and moves in a counter-clockwise direction -- but no seeds are distributed in the stores in this style of play.

When the final seed is placed into a small house, the player then picks up all the seeds inside of it and distributes them across the board again. This keeps on going until the last seed is placed in an empty house.

If the final empty house of the turn is on the player's side, they get to capture the opponent's seeds directly across from the empty hole and put them in their storage house.

Then, it's the opponent's turn.

Their goal is to get as many seeds as possible.

As in the traditional rules, whoever has the most seeds in their storage house at the end of the play is the winner.


Omweso 

Many African cultures have their own unique takes on the mancala game, and perhaps one of the most interesting mancala rules variations is found in Uganda.

Omweso, sometimes called Mweso, is the most common Ugandan style of mancala play. Experts believe that it was invented by the Bachwezi/Cwezi people, who have a fascinating history of their own.

Speed is often the name of the game here, and play can go on for hours at a time.

The main difference here is the board itself, which has 32 houses in total.

Each player has 16 total small houses, arranged in horizontal rows of 8, 4 small houses deep. There are 64 seeds in total -- but interestingly, the storage house is missing in this variation.

So, the object of Omweso isn't necessarily to capture the highest number of seeds possible. Instead, players win by being the final person to make a move on the board. This can happen when the one player captures all the stones, or when the opponent only has one seed in each small house.

Sometimes (among advanced players) the winner is the player is the person who captures both sides of the board in just one turn.

The game starts with four seeds in each small house, and the first player gets to strategically arrange their own seeds on their side of the board exactly how they'd like. The other player can then make their own adjustments to their seeds.

The first player must choose a small house that has a minimum of two seeds, and then move and drop them in a counter-clockwise direction around the board. The players can only drop on their side of the board.

When the player drops the last seed in a small house with seeds, the player can then sow all the seeds again, without allowing the opponent to take their turn. This goes on until the player hits an empty house.

Seeds are captured when the final seed is placed in one of the 8 inner pits, and when the opponent's opposite columns are also occupied.

This can be complex, so check out this tutorial to learn how to play if needed.


Children's Bao Mancala 

Mancala is an incredibly popular classroom game all across the globe.

Because it teaches mathematics, social skills, sportsmanship, and even coordination, it's certainly not hard to see why.

However, children may be confused by some of the more complicated variations of mancala. The Kenyan children's version of traditional mancala, called Bao, makes it easy for everyone to play.

The board has 16 small houses, and each one has three seeds instead of four. There are also specific rules around how the first player is chosen (which is excellent for avoiding fights.)

One person puts a seed in their fist and holds up both of their fists towards the child, who must the correctly guess which hand the seed is in. If they get it right, they get to go first.

To start, the first planter picks up all the seeds from one of the small houses in the row closest to them. Then, they sow the seeds in a counter-clockwise direction. They only deposit a seed into the storage house when they reach the end of their row. Then, they start sowing again from the opposite side of the same row.

If they don't reach the end of the row, it's the other player's turn.

The game ends when all of the small houses are empty, and whoever has the most seeds in their storage house wins. 


Team-Based Mancala Games

Finally, remember that you can play any of the above variations on mancala in teams.

This is especially helpful if you're looking to shorten the duration of play, or if you're playing in larger groups. To keep things from getting too out of control, it's best to have no more than three people on a single team.

If you're using mancala in a classroom setting, you may want to have several games going on at once. Younger children especially will enjoy a tournament style of play.

You can even let younger students make their own mancala boards out of old egg cartons or cups.


Strategies for Playing Mancala

Now that you know more about the different ways to play Mancala, let's talk about some of the most effective strategies that players of all ages and skill levels can use to walk away with a victory.

First, look for moves that will allow you to remain in control of the board for as long as possible. This will allow you to put as many seeds as possible into your storage house, increasing your chances of a win.

Starting off with the right move is incredibly important when it comes to masting mancala. We suggest starting with the third small house (either of the two center pits) when you're making the first move.

This guarantees that you'll get at least one seed in your storage house -- meaning that you'll also get the chance to go again. Remember that, once a seed is in the storage house, it's completely removed from play.

As in chess, when you're playing mancala, it's also a good idea to think defensively from time to time. Before you make a move, do a quick check to ensure that you're not setting yourself up to be captured by your opponent.

The best way to do this is to place one of your own seeds into an empty pit on the opponent's side. They won't see it coming, and you'll avoid capture.


Use These Mancala Rules Variations to Liven up Your Next Game

Many people simply aren't aware of all the fascinating mancala rules variations that are out there.

There are countless ways to play this epic game so that it will never get boring -- even to the most experienced of players. We especially love the idea of coming up with your own "house rules."

Putting a unique spin on the game and making it your own is an awesome family bonding experience.

Looking for even more mancala rules and variations? Curious about how you can play mancala online? Want to learn more about the origins and history of mancala, so that you can use it in your next lesson plan?

No matter what you want to discover about mancala, we're here to help you find it.

Keep checking back in with us to refine your strategy, understand how to use mancala in your curriculum, and much more.



SHARE: