The word mancala comes from the Arabic word naqala meaning literally "to move." There is no one game with the name mancala; instead mancala is a type, or designation, of game. This word is used in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, but is not consistently applied to any one game.
In the USA, however, "mancala" is often used as a synonym for the game Kalah.
Equipment is typically a board, constructed of various materials, with a series of holes arranged in rows, usually two or four. Some games are more often played with holes dug in the earth, or carved in stone. The holes may be referred to as "depressions", "pits", or "houses". Sometimes, large holes on the ends of the board, called stores, are used for holding the pieces. Playing pieces are seeds, beans, stones, cowry shells, "Gypsie jewels" or other small undifferentiated counters that are placed in and transferred about the holes during play. Nickernuts are one common example of pieces used. Board configurations vary among different games but also within variations of a given game; for example Endodoi is played on boards from 2 × 6 to 2 × 10.
With a two-rank board, players usually are considered to control their respective sides of the board, although moves often are made into the opponent's side. With a four-rank board, players control an inner row and an outer row, and a player's seeds will remain in these closest two rows unless the opponent captures them.
At the beginning of a player's turn, they select a hole with seeds that will be sown around the board. This selection is often limited to holes on the current player's side of the board, as well as holes with a certain minimum number of seeds.
In a process known as sowing, all the seeds from a hole are dropped one-by-one into subsequent holes in a motion wrapping around the board. Sowing is an apt name for this activity, since not only are many games traditionally played with seeds, but placing seeds one at a time in different holes reflects the physical act of sowing. If the sowing action stops after dropping the last seed, the game is considered a single lap game.
Multiple laps or relay sowing is a frequent feature of mancala games, although not universal. When relay sowing, if the last seed during sowing lands in an occupied hole, all the contents of that hole, including the last sown seed, are immediately resown from the hole. The process usually will continue until sowing ends in an empty hole.
Many games from the Indian subcontinent use pussa-kanawa laps. These are like standard multilaps, but instead of continuing the movement with the contents of the last hole filled, a player continues with the next hole. A pussa-kanawa lap move will then end when a lap ends just prior to an empty hole. ''
Another common way of capturing is to capture the contents of the holes that reach a certain number of seeds at any moment.
Also, several games include the notion of capturing holes, and thus all seeds sown on a captured hole belong at the end of the game to the player who captured it.
The first evidence of the game are fragments of a pottery board and several rock cuts found in Aksumite Ethiopia in Matara (now in Eritrea) and Yeha (in Ethiopia), which are dated by archaeologists to between the 6th and 7th century AD; the game may have been mentioned by Giyorgis of Segla in his 14th century Ge'ez text "Mysteries of Heaven and Earth," where he refers to a game called qarqis, a term used in Ge'ez to refer to both Gebet'a (Mancala) and Sant'araz (modern sent'erazh, Ethiopian Chess). The similarity of some aspects of the game to agricultural activity and the absence of a need for specialized equipment present the intriguing possibility that it could date to the beginnings of civilization itself; however, there is little verifiable evidence that the game is older than about 1300 years. Some purported evidence comes from the Kurna temple graffiti in Egypt, as reported by Parker in 1909 and Murray in his "Board games other than chess". However, accurate dating of this graffiti seems to be unavailable, and what designs have been found by modern scholars generally resemble games common to the Roman world, rather than anything like Mancala.
Although the games existed in pockets in Europe -- it is recorded as being played as early as the 17th century by merchants in England -- it has never gained much popularity in most regions, except in the Baltic area, where once it was a very popular game ("Das Bohnenspiel") and Bosnia, where it is called Ban-Ban and still played today. Mancala has also been found in Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece ("Mandoli", Cyclades) and in a remote castle in southern Germany (Schloss Weikersheim).
The USA has a larger mancala playing population. A traditional mancala game called Warra was still played in Louisiana in the early 20th century. In Cape Verde, Mancala is known as "orrim". It is played in the Islands and was brought to America by Cape Verdean immigrants. It is played to this day in Cape Verdean communities in New England.
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