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.


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.


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.


Mancala for Kids: Use Mancala in Teaching Young Minds

You're always looking for innovative ways to "trick" your kids into learning something new. But lately, they've started to catch on.

Perhaps you're a teacher yourself, and a sense that students are growing a bit tired of the standard lesson plans. You find students retain information much better -- and even that their focus improves -- when you can gamify the lesson plan in some way.

No matter what situation you're in and what skills you'd like your child to develop, playing mancala for kids can help. This classic board game is as popular as ever, and it's not hard to see why it's stood the test of time.

In this post, we'll fill you in on the basic mancala game rules, variations of play, the benefits of mancala, and much more.

This game can get even the most stubborn children excited about learning, socializing with one another, and thinking strategically about their next move.

Mancala for Kids
Mancala For Kids

What Is the Mancala Game?

First, let's start with a bit of a history lesson.

Believe it or not, mancala has been around for thousands of years, since at last 500-700 AD. The word itself is based on the Arabic word "naqala," meaning "to move."

The game was created in Africa especially within Ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, it made its way to America as a result of the slave trade.

Mancala boards have been found carved into the roofs of ancient buildings, in the tombs of pharaohs and kings, and in ancient Greek and Roman ruins.

So, when your children or students play mancala, they're taking part in a game that was enjoyed by children from thousands of years ago.

Now, let's talk about how to play mancala.

Basic Mancala Games Rules

The good news is that learning how to play mancala for kids is relatively easy, even though the game itself can be seriously tricky!

The basic rules in this section are for the popular Kalah version.

Each mancala board consists of 12 small circular "houses" and two large rectangular "storage houses." There are 48 "seeds" in total, and each player gets 24 seeds each.

To set up the mancala board, each child puts four seeds into each of their six small houses. At the start of the game, no seeds should be placed in the storage houses. The players sit directly opposite one another, and the storage house to the right of them is their own. Each player has six houses total, in the row directly in front of them.

To begin the game, the first player will pick up all four of the seeds in the house of their choice. They'll then "sow" those seeds by moving counter-clockwise (to the right) across the board.

They place one single seed in each of the houses that they pass by. This means that, yes, the child will likely end up putting some of their seeds in their opponent's houses.

If they pass by their own storage house on the way, they put one of their seeds inside of it. They do not put any seeds in their opponent's storage house.

Then it's the other player's turn.

Children may only use one hand to both pick up and drop the seeds, and they can't change their minds about which house they're playing with once they pick up the seeds.

The game ends when one player's small houses have no more seeds in them. Then, any seeds that the opponent has left over go into their own storage. Whoever has the highest number of seeds in their storage house is the winner.

There are lots of different variations of mancala, which we'll get into more later on in this post. They include oware, Ayoayo, and much more. As you become better at the game, try new versions of play to keep it interesting.

The Benefits of Mancala for Kids

Now that you have a better grasp on the history and rules of mancala, let's cover a few of the many benefits that this game has to offer.

Mancala helps children with social skills, the development of critical thinking, logical thought, and more.

Whether you're a professional educator or a parent, we're confident you'll be amazed by just how much this game is able to help children gain confidence, work with others, and even improve academically.

A Boost in Counting and Math Skills

Whether you're trying to fight against summer math loss, math anxiety, or if your child has trouble with counting and basic arithmetic, mancala for kids may be able to help.

The game offers a tactile way to help children understand addition and basic counting, as children are physically picking up the seeds and counting out loud while playing.

It also strengthens the subitizing skill, which means that children recognize the number of seeds in front of them without actually having to count them individually.

Especially if a child is less than enthusiastic about math, you can switch out traditional glass seeds or beans for candies and pieces of chocolate.

Critical Thinking and Mancala

Children often have trouble thinking before they act, and about 3-6% of children have serious difficulty with impulse control.

A lack of critical thinking, no matter how severe, can impact your child socially and academically.

Mancala forces children to stop and think about their next moves, evaluate the benefits and risks of that decision, and look at their choices in a larger context. It also strengthens strategic thinking skills.

Plus, since the rules aren't quite as complex as checkers or chess, mancala is the ideal game for younger learners.

Fine Motor Skill Development

Does your child have trouble tying their shoe or correctly holding a pencil or utensil? If so, then mancala is a wonderful and fun way to work on fine motor skill development.

Children must drop the seeds one at a time, but hold a group of them in their hands. The game also helps with hand-eye coordination.

It's so effective that even physical/occupational therapists use it to help their patients regain fine motor skills.

Social Development With Mancala

Many children struggle with following rules, taking turns, and sharing.

Mancala reinforces the importance of all three of these things and can also help to foster additional social skills in children. They may offer advice to one another, ask questions when they don't understand something, and even develop good sportsmanship skills.

Mancala teaches children that they can't win every time, even if they did their very best. It also helps them to learn from their mistakes and boosts their self-confidence when they do come away with a win.

Exposure to Different Cultures

Perhaps one of the most overlooked benefits of playing mancala is that it helps to teach children about other cultures, often ones that are quite different from their own.

It's an excellent game to include in a history lesson about Ancient Egypt or even about what life is like in African countries today. From mancala, children learn that other cultures have wonderful and fun things to teach us and share with us.

This promotes a sense of curiosity, inclusion, and diversity. 

Popular Mancala Variations

Depending on the age and intellectual development of the children you're teaching or playing with, you may want to switch up the rules of mancala from time to time.

There are tons of different mancala variations, outside of the traditional Kalah style.

Basic variations include a style of play where, if your last seed lands in your storage house, you get to go again. Another option is that, if your last seed lands in an empty house, you can cross capture your opponent's seeds in the house opposite your own.

Let's take a look at some now.


One of the most popular is known as Oware, and it's especially great for kids that are over the age of 11 or more intellectually developed than their peers.

In this variation, you'll begin with two rows of 6 houses, with 4 seeds in each house. Each player will also get their own storage house/pit (two in total.)

When it's a player's turn, they choose one small house in their row, pick up all the seeds in the house, and then, moving counter-clockwise, drop a single seed into each of the small houses until the hand is empty.

While it might sound pretty identical to the traditional Kala game, there are a few major differences.

Seeds aren't placed into the storage houses in this variation -- they're only allowed to be placed in the small houses.

When you're ready to capture because you've ended the move in another player's house, you need to look at the number of seeds the house contains. If there are either two or three seeds, you don't get to collect the seeds and it's the other player's turn.

But if there are either two or three seeds in the house, you win them, and get to put them in your storage house. Next, take a look at the next-to-last house. If it's your opponent's, and if it also has either two or three seeds in it, you also get to take those seeds and put them in your storage house.

You just work backward until you see a house that doesn't have either two or three seeds. This video gives you a visual representation of how oware works.


Another popular variation of mancala is called Ayoayo, which is the standard method of play among the Yoruba people in Nigeria.

Here, you'll still begin with four seeds in each house of the two rows, with nothing in either storage house.

Players pick up and drop their seeds counter-clockwise, skipping the storage houses. When the last seed is placed into a house that still has seeds in it, the contents of that house are gathered up and distributed again. The move goes on until the final seed is dropped into an empty house.

If that empty house is on your side, then you get to take your opponent's seeds in the house directly across from yours and put them in your storage house. If not, it's your opponent's turn. They must figure out how to get their seeds back.

The player that gets the most seeds at the end of the game is the winner. Here's a great video tutorial that you can show students.

Building Mancala Boards

Another valuable lesson that playing mancala will teach your children is that board games can be made from almost anything.

The process of building your own mancala board is a great idea for an art project or even an excellent complement to a lesson on recycling/sustainability. It also serves as a gentle reminder that children don't need fancy or expensive toys to have fun.

Tell students to bring in an empty egg carton to school.

Let them paint their boards in any color they like, and add any accessories and drawings that make them smile. You could also cut the tops off of small paper cups, and use those to create the board.

Children also love being able to choose whatever materials they want for the seeds.

Let them use unique buttons, marbles, rhinestone gems, or anything else they'd like.

If you want to keep the classroom mess to a minimum, then consider playing mancala online.

Are You Ready to Use Mancala for Kids to Help You Teach?

We hope this post has helped you to understand not only how to play mancala for kids, but also the numerous benefits of doing so.

Mancala offers a wonderful -- and much-needed -- break from all the electronic toys and social media scrolling that children of all ages get sucked into.

The game teaches critical thinking, sparks curiosity in other cultures, and is truly fun for the whole family. Plus, it's also an effective, affordable, and easy teaching tool for educational professionals.

We love the idea of having a standard mancala game night each week in your home, or allowing your students to participate in an ongoing mancala tournament.

Looking for more tips and tricks on how to play mancala?

We've got you covered.

Keep checking back with us to pick up more strategic advice, mancala variations, and much more.