I want to open with two seemingly unrelated pieces of information. First, that I am spending this summer working at a childcare program in my school district and, second, that I am not an expert in Mancala-based games.
My first actual play of “Mancala” was last Friday, when two girls taught me their homebrew rule set. Needless to say, I got thoroughly trashed as we negotiated the intricacies and special-cases of the way their game was played. When I eventually clawed my way to a win, I bowed out and let them carry on without me. The way they had taken a board and some faint memories of rules long-since abandoned, and cobbled together a serviceable game was interesting. It needed some thinking about.
I should go over what their rules actually were. The board is a two-rank board in rows of six, with a larger “home” pit on each side. Set-up consists of placing two seeds (glass counters, in this case) in each pit, including the homes. Play is taken in turns, counter-clockwise with a relay mechanic, as follows. You take all the seeds from one pit and sow them one at a time into the following pits. If your final seed lands in an occupied pit, you take all those seeds and sow again. If your final seed lands in your home pit, you take another turn. Additionally, you may only take seeds from your own side, and the opponents home is skipped when sowing. There are no capture rules, if you’re familiar with these kinds of game and are wondering.
It’s pretty clear that there are some(!) flaws in how they play. Why are there seeds in the homes when the game begins, for example? I asked, and they didn’t know – it’s just how it’s done. With only two seeds in each pit, there’s a pretty limited number of outcomes for the game, and the lack of capturing makes this even worse. A huge number of games came down to shuffling one seed around the board until it fell into a home space. When one of my young teachers realized this, she took to counting out the remaining steps and assigning the seed to wherever it would inevitably fall.
Games were almost always a tie between players who had any experience with the game as they played it, but that never seemed to bother anyone. The pair would count their scores quickly, congratulate the winner, and immediately begin doling out seeds for the next round. The pleasure they seem to derive from the game comes from two places, it seems to me: from the satisfaction of playing a “grown-up” game, no matter how distorted, and from the sheer tactile joy of scooping and sowing the seeds with as much confidence and speed as they can muster.
Something that I feel supports this conclusion is my observation of children playing alone – there’s no strategic satisfaction to be drawn in playing yourself at this game. It’s almost mechanical in nature when you’ve reduced it so far down to the basics as the kids at camp have.
Next to be observed and noted: Battle-Pool.
Edit: Later, I found out that at least one of the children knew they were meant to have four seeds in each pit, they were simply making do with what was available. Their adaptation is interesting, nonetheless.