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Mancala is a blanket term for a large family of board games which are played throughout Africa and Asia, under a wide variety of variations and names. Archaeological evidence suggests that mancala may be one of the oldest games played by humans, with clear examples of mancala boards being found in digs which date back to at least the seventh century BCE. This large family of games also has a huge international following, because they are easy to learn, but it takes a lifetime to master mancala.
The word “mancala” is derived from the Arabic naqala, “to move.” Many English speakers are unaware that mancala is a group term, rather than the name for a specific game. The game that many Americans know as “mancala” is actually usually kalah, wari, or bao. However, the basic rules of play for mancala games are essentially the same, and the equipment is similar as well.
To play a game in the mancala family, players need a board of some sort and counters. A mancala board may be as simple as holes scratched in the earth, or as ornate as a lacquered and inlaid table in the home of a monarch. Seeds, pebbles, stones, and other small objects can be used as counters; again, ornate mancala games may use valuable and distinctive counters.
To play, the counters are distributed onto the board and players pick specific pits in the board to start with. They remove all of the counters from the pits selected and distribute the markers sequentially until they run out of markers. Depending on the variant being played, players use different criteria to decide on the end of a turn; for example, if the last counter lands in a pit which already has markers, the player may empty this pit and begin the sequence again until he or she runs out of counters, signaling the start of the other player's turn.
As players move along the board, they capture pieces belonging to the other player, often storing them in special pits at the end of the board. A good game can involve strategy and complex higher math, putting mancala on par with chess and similar strategy board games. Mancala probably also contributed to the development of board games like backgammon and checkers, which also use counters on a specialized board.
Some people call mancala a family of count and capture games, in a reference to the actions performed during the game. Others call mancala “sowing games,” since players alternately “sow” counters, which are sometimes made from seeds. Many game stores sell equipment for mancala, often including directions for several variants.
I have never understood quite how mancala works. The computer game I have beats me regularly, and I still don't really "get" it.