Mancala-art – 1/31/08
“Mancala” by THL Dagonell Collingwood of Emerald Lake. A family of board games from the Middle East which share the common trait of taking counters from holes and re-distributing them according to specific strategies.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
[This article was first published in the March 2005 issue of “Aestel”, the Aethelmearc newsletter. – Stefan]
Game of the Month:
Mancala by THL Dagonell
In Western civilization, Mancala is a generic term for an entire family of board games which share the common trait of taking counters from holes and re-distributing them according to specific strategies. A wide variety of such games with differing names and victory conditions exist across Northern Africa, Egypt, the Middle East and Asia. The word 'Mancala' is actually the Arabic term for 'to lose'. Some regional names and variations are listed below. H.J.R Murray documents over 140 variations in his book, A History of Board Games Other Than Chess.
The game represents 'sowing seeds', which is strongly indicative of its agricultural community origins. The boards and counters may have originally been used for accounting and record keeping. Similar boards have been found in Ancient Sumeria as well as Ancient Egypt. Mancala boards have been found carved into temple roofs in Memphis, Thebes, and Luxor, indicating the game was played in Egypt as early as 1400 B.C.E.
From Time Magazine's June 14, 1963 issue (reprinted in Wikipedia):
"Carved on a vast block of rock in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo are two facing ranks of six shallow pits with larger hollows scooped out at each end. The same design is carved on columns of the temple at Karnak in Egypt, and it appears in the early tomb paintings in the valley of the Nile. It is carved in the Theseum in Athens, and in rock ledges along caravan routes of the ancient world. Today the same pits and hollows are to be found all over Asia and Africa, scratched in the bare earth, carved in rare woods, or ivory inlaid with gold."
It wasn't known in Europe until the 17th century. The earliest printed European reference is from Golden Trade by Richard Jobson in 1623, an account of his travels of the River Gambia in 1620. (Reprinted in Murray's History of Board Games):
"In the heat of the day, the men will come forth and sit themselves in
companies, under the shady trees, to receive the fresh aire, and there passe the time in communication, having only one kind of game to recreate themselves withall, and that is a peece of wood, certaine great holes cut, which they set upon the ground betwixt two of them, and with a number of some thirty pibble stones, after a manner of counting, they take one from the other, untill one is possessed of all, whereat some of them are wonderous nimble."
The board consists of two, and occasionally four, rows of three to ten small holes with six and eight being the most commonly used numbers. The more holes there are in each row, the longer the game takes to finish. Children's versions of these games generally have three or four holes. H.J.R. Murray documents one version with fifty holes in each row!
Larger holes called 'stores' are at either end of the board. Players face each other across the board and each player's store is to his own right. If you're playing this game simply to try it out, use an empty egg-carton and two cereal bowls.
The counters are undifferentiated and are used by either player. Pebbles, seeds, unripe berries, cowrie shells and even goat feces pellets have all been used as counters. The game starts with the same number of counters in each hole, the number usually varies between three and six.
On each turn, a player selects a hole and distributes the counters, generally counterclockwise, along his row of holes, into his own store and then into his opponent's row of holes. If there are enough counters to do so, he skips over his opponent's store and continues the seeding along his own row. In four-row variations, distribution is limited to the player's own side of the board along his outside and inside rows. Only captures are taken from the opponent’s side.
Some versions of the game use "multiple laps" or relay sowing. If the last counter lands in an occupied hole, the player collects the counters from that hole, including the last counter sown, and continues to sow counters along the holes. Play continues until the last counter falls in an unoccupied hole. "Indian laps" play similarly, however the player takes the counters from the next hole in line and continues until the play ends in front of an empty hole.
Captures vary from game to game, and generally require ending in a hole with a specific number of counters or a certain configuration of counters in holes.
Oware: Board: 2x6; Counters: 48 (4 at hole); Sowing: Single lap, counter-clockwise, both stores are skipped; Capture: If the last counter falls into an opponent's hole, bringing the total number of counters in that hole to either two or three, those counters are captured. If the hole prior to the last hole also has two or three counters, those counters are also taken; Countries played: Ghana, the Caribbean, Benin, West Africa
Kalah: Board: 2x6; Counters: 36 (3 at hole); Sowing: Single lap, counter-clockwise, opponent's store skipped. If the last counter ends in the player's own store, they get an extra turn; Capture: If the last counter falls into an empty pit on the player's side, the last counter and all the counters in the opponent's facing pit are captured; Countries played: Introduced to the West by William Julius Champion Jr. in the early 20th century. This version has been heavily commercialized.
Omweso: Board: 4x8; Counters: 64 (4 at outer hole); Sowing: Multiple lap, counter-clockwise, player's side only, stores skipped; Capture: if the last counter ends in one of the player's inner holes, and both of the opponent's holes in that row are occupied, the opponent's counters are captured. If the opponent no longer has a move, the player wins immediately; Countries played: Uganda
Li’b al-‘aquil (Game of the Learned): Board: 2x6; Counters: 72 (Each player distributes 36 counters as he likes across both rows); Sowing: Modified multiple lap, stores skipped. If the last counter ends in an empty hole, the player’s turn ends. If the last counter ends in a hole making it odd, a new lap is begun from that hole. If the last counter ends in a hole making it even, the player takes those counters and the counters in his opponents hole. Captures: see Sowing above. Countries played: Egypt
DeLuca, Jeff (SCA: Salamallah the Corpulent) Medieval Games
(Raymond's Quiet Press; 3rd ed. 1995; ISBN 0-943228-03-4; $10.00)
Murray, H.J.R. A History of Board Games Other than Chess
(Oxford University Press; 1951; ISBN 0-19-827401-7)
The Game Club -- http://www.game-club.com/cover1/mankrule.htm
Traditional Games -- http://www.tradgames.org.uk/games/Mancala.htm
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mancala
Copyright 2005 by David P. Salley. <dagonell at heronter.org>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.