Pocket Tactics Presents: A Guide to Mancala

By Dick Page 09 Nov 2017 1

Mancala might be most familiar to many as the weird wooden game on the shelf in fifth grade that nobody knew how to play. Who needs it when there's Connect Four?

Actually, mancala is an entire family of games that are incredibly popular all over the world. The game Americans know as mancala (Kalah) is in fact one of the less popular versions and is quite simplistic compared to others. However, thanks to the magic of a globalized internet, the games of all the corners of the earth are at our fingertips. There are dozens of Kalah, Oware, and other variants on the Play Store and App Store and it took quite some time to dig through them all.

 

What unites all the variations are the core mechanics. Players have two or four rows of pits and a large number of stones or seeds. The games all use a "sow and harvest" movement mechanic. The player can pick up all of the seeds in one pit and seed them one by one around the pits in a proscribed order. This usually results in capturing some seeds in some way, either by taking them from your opponent or by creating a pit with a certain number of seeds. The winner is usually the player that captures more seeds or that leaves their opponent with no possible moves. Mancala games can be a challenge to read ahead, since each move alters the possible moves the player or the opponent can make from any space.

In Kalah, which Americans know as mancala, the objective is to capture more seeds than your opponent. Kalah is somewhat unique in its use of a special storehouse pit to keep seeds, and lets you go again if you land on it. For a mobile app, there is no one ideal choice. AppOn's Mancala [Android and iOS] is free with your usual IAP annoyances, and also uses a chip system that requires you to bet on the games if you want to play online. Mancala & Friends [Android and iOS] is another good choice in the same vein. If you just want to play against AI, Clockwatchers [Android] has the best-looking version with a simple $.99 payment to remove the unobtrusive ads. For Apple users, Mancala FS5 [iOS] is a popular option with online (chip supported) and offline play.

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Oware (also Awari) is one of the most common mancala games worldwide. Originating among the Ashanti, it is also played in the Caribbean. Oware is one of the simplest but also most elegant variations of mancala. You capture seeds if you can cause a pit to total two or three with your final seed on your opponent's side. It is possible for an Oware game to reach a looped state, which results in amusing stories like the lovers who had to marry one another because they couldn't stop playing their game of Oware.

This version by Lucian Software [Android] is definitely the most beautiful graphically of any mancala app, and I wish more games would imitate it! its simple circles and dots bob in a blue mist and playfully bounce from pit to pit. The number of seeds in each pit is exceptionally easy to read. Best of all, it's totally free with not an ad in sight, with AI and pass-and-play both an option. If you want to play Aware online, you'll want this app [Android and iOS], which uses a more traditional but still good-looking graphical style. It is free and a typically ad-supported game. There are not many players online, but it uses Google Play Games, and there is also AI play while you are waiting. Oware 3D [Android] lets you play Facebook friends and has a pretty cool graphical style that emphasizes the physicality of the game and includes whimsical touches like floating seeds that decide who starts first. Oware Master [iOS] is good-looking and has a nice tutorial, with ads and some premium features.

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One of the most interesting mobile versions of mancala is Kissoro [Android], which is not only one of the more complicated variations of mancala (similar to oware), but also integrates a storyline into the game, with very cool comic-book artwork. There's also an online component where you are part of a team that can take territory by winning Kissoro games.

Bao la Kiswahili is one of the most complex variants and is popular in East Africa, especially Zanzibar. Bao uses four rows of pits with each player controlling two rows. It is a game of capturing the opponent's seeds where the loser is the first to run out of seeds in his front row. It is unique in that the seeds must be initially deployed from the player's hand, followed by a phase of normal play. If you want to give it a try, there's a free app on [Android], but it doesn't hold your hand, so make sure you familiarize yourself with the rules first.

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For the very ambitious, Togyz Kumalak (or togyz korgool) is the Central Asian version played in Kazakhstan and parts of Russia. It deals with 162 small balls that start the game in groups of nine, and players can create traps that capture balls on their opponent's side. Algebra of Nomads [Android] is a starkly pretty version of the game, taking place on a stone tablet floating in a void. IOS users are out of luck. I guess iPhones aren't popular on the steppe.

There are lots more mancala variations and lots more games on the app stores, so let us know if we missed anything cool!

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