Mancala, as it is commonly known in North America, is a game derived from a whole family of games described as “count-and-capture” games. The word mancala is thought to have come from the Arabic word naqala, meaning “changed” or “relocated”. The earliest known version of such a count-and-capture game is represented by a board found in what had been a 4th-century Roman fortress in eastern Egypt, while other, more fragmentary, versions have been dated to the 6th and 7th century AD.
The variant of Mancala most often played in North America was originally known as Kalah, and was introduced around 1940 by a man named William Julius Champion. Champion was born in Colorado in 1905 and attended Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. According to Champion family legend, Willie was a colourful character, who put himself through university (no mean feat even in 1905) by working odd jobs, including a summer job stint with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and is said to have walked from his home in Michigan to New Haven, a distance of about 1,370 km.
Champion conceived and marketed Kalah as an educational game, and there is no doubt that it does reinforce basic skills of counting and strategy. At first glance, the game appears simple. Forty-eight pebbles are distributed equally amongst twelve pits in the board. Each player “owns” the six pits directly in front of him, as well as the larger “store” to his right. On his turn, a player takes all the stones from one of the pits on his side of the board, and distributes them anti-clockwise around the board (including dropping one into his own store). If he manages to drop the last stone from his handful into his store, then he may play once more. If he drops his last stone into a previously empty pit on his own side, then he may take all the stones (if any) from the opponent’s pit directly opposite, and add them to his own store. A player never drops a stone into his opponent’s store, but rather skips over it.
And that’s it. A surprising amount of strategy is required — there is no luck involved whatsoever. Mancala is an extremely enjoyable game that can be played over and over by children and adults alike. You don’t even really need a board to play any of the Mancala family of games: it has been suggested that, since this version can easily be played by scraping twelve holes into the ground and finding 48 beads, seeds, nuts, or stones, the count-and-capture game may be far, far older than 1,500 years — but these early versions would leave no archaeological traces.
Finally, here’s a super-low-cost version you can try at home. You can use any small objects for the counters: buttons, beads, coins, marbles, or candies. (Bear in mind that small objects do pose a safety hazard for children under the age of four.)
And now you know. So get cracking!
2 players, ages 5+, 10 minutes. In stock ($14.99).