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.


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