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Mancala is one of the oldest games in the world - or rather a vast family of hundreds of games with a common ancestor, played in Africa, the Middle East and large parts of Asia. Though little is known about this common ancestor, Mancala (from Arabic 'naqala', 'to move') most likely originated in Africa, possibly Egypt or Ethiopia, and is thought to have been spread by Arab traders. It never gained much popularity in Europe, except in some parts of Germany and the Baltic area, where it was known as the 'Bohnenspiel' ('bean game').

Also called 'sowing games' or 'count and capture games', Mancala games have a deceptively simple gameplay. One of their charms is that very little is needed to play: a number of beads or seeds and two or four rows of pits, arranged on a board or just as hollows in the ground. The rules vary considerably for different varieties, but the object of the game is to capture your opponent's seeds by moving (sowing) seeds around the rows of pits. It is essentially a mathematical, zero sum game.

The varieties best known in the West, and often erroneously referred to as Mancala, are Kalah (played with three seeds per pit), Oware (four seeds per pit) and Bao (one of the most complex varieties).

Online Mancala games are surprisingly primitive. Okay versions are 'Mancala Snails' (Oware, rather childishly animated) and 'Mancala Web' (Kalah).

A good introduction to Mancala games is this MindZine article. For a detailed, anthropologically oriented account, read 'Michezo ya Mbao, Mankala in East Africa'.

Update: An intriguing modern Mancala variant is the 'Glass Bead Game', by Dutch game designer Christian Freeling. The name is inspired, of course, by Herman Hesse's classic novel, though I don't think it resembles in any way the game played in Castalia.


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