The History of Mancala


Mancala is a game that makes regular appearances at board game nights. Played by school children and bar patrons alike, the game is immensely popular and we all have a cousin or a friend with a board and a set of marbles. Though it has fewer pieces than Monopoly, it hardly requires less strategy; it has simple rules, but it’s not easy to win. This paradoxical quality is likely why mancala has been played for literally thousands of years.

The word “mancala” is derived from the Arabic word “naqala” which means “to move” and is generally used to describe a family of board games that represents sowing and harvesting. It’s a two-player game that’s also called “pits and pebbles” since players sometimes choose to dig small holes to play if a board is not available. Mancala is so old its precise origins are unknown, but the most reliable evidence exists for mancala having been played 3,600 years ago in Ancient Sudan or Ghana. There’s been slight speculation that it was also used as a ritual or divination tool since some ancient boards were found in temples. Historians believe that mancala spread throughout Africa, into the Middle East and Asia, before eventually being brought to the United States. There are still at least 200 regional variations in Africa including Ayoayo, Bao, Oware, Awale, Ouril, Warri, and Endodoi among innumerable others.

An Ekoi (Nigerian) board made out of wood and tin. Photo by: British Museum.

An Ekoi (Nigerian) board made out of wood and tin. Photo by: British Museum.

Several mancala variations made their way over to the Americas and the Caribbean by way of African people taken in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Different versions became more popular in different regions in accordance with the heritage of the people who had brought it over. The Cape Verdean “Ouril” became more popular in New England for example. A version called “Warra” became more popular in Louisiana and in 1940 a man named Willie Julius Champion Jr. started manufacturing “Kalah” sets after come to believe that they had strong educational value. This version is the one that most Americans are familiar with today as the game “Mancala.”

Much like chess, mancala has been a subject of interest for mathematicians and computer scientists. Programmers sometimes refer to the game as “Nim” after a machine exhibited at the World’s Fair in 1940. Without the idiosyncrasies of human players, very little of the game is left up to chance and mathematical analysis can illustrate what a flawless game could look like. Stronger players are able to do these kinds of calculations in their heads and can predict what the board will look like several moves out. While many of us won’t achieve the skill of a great mancala player (a “bao bingwa” or “fundi” in Swahili) we can enjoy the game as some great fun and mental exercise.

If you want to play Mancala, you have endless options! If you don’t want to buy a handcrafted or mass-produced board (or you just feel up to some arts and crafts), you can make your own using egg cartons and play using rocks or marbles. You can also download an app from the iTunes store or play online.