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,

“Mancala, The National Game of Africa,”

“Mancala.” Penn Museum, Penn Museum, 15 Mar. 2001,

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