An Africian Game

K.P. Humpidge, Public Works Department

Nigeria, Lagos, Vol. 16, 1938, pages 300, 302

[Page 300] The June issue of Nigeria, (Number 14) contained photographs of players at Mancala (Ibo, “Okwe”, Yoruba, “Shayo”), a game more generally known to Europeans as Warri or the Warri Game. The sight is a familiar one to most dwellers in Nigeria, for the game is played, in various forms, in all parts of the country.

Experts play it at lightning speed and it is not generally realised that it is, apart from the existence of a certain scope for cheating by sleight of hand, essentially a game requiring a considerable degree of skill.

The game about to be described is the most common Nigerian form. The board contains twelve holes or tills as shown in the diagram.

Figure 1

The above diagram shows the simple form of the board used in playing the game of Mancalla described in this article. The dotted line shows the direction of play. A more ornate form of the board, in which the "tills" are shaped out externally, like rows of adjoining cups, and the end of the board enriched with a carved head, was illustrated on page 97 of our special Arts and Crafts Number (No. 14).

At the beginning of the game there are four pieces in each till or hollow, The pieces may be marbles or small round pebbles, but usually, in the Southern Provinces, a very hard grey-green seed about the size of an African palm kernel or an English hazelnut is used. The botanical name of the plant producing this seed is Caesalpina crista.

The game is played by two persons moving alternately, the object being to take the greater number of pieces. Referring to the diagram, tills 1 to 6 will be known as A's side, and tills 7 to 12 as B's side.

A move consists in taking all the pieces from anyone hole on the player’s side, and placing one into each till in an anti-clockwise direction, beginning with the till on the right of that from which the move is made. Thus if A’s first move is from till 4 he places his four pieces in tills 5, 6, 7, and 8.

[Page 302] A player "takes" by finishing his move on his opponent's side of the board in a till in which there are already either one or two pieces which become, by his move, either two or three. In this case he takes the pieces from the till at which he finishes. He can also take, by the same move, any twos or threes consecutively behind the finishing till, provided that he finishes with a two or a three. To take a practical example, referring to the diagram, suppose it is A's turn to play, and he moves from till No. 3 in which he has 8 pieces. His move will finish in till 11. If at the at the finish of his move there are either two or three pieces in till 11 he takes them. If there are also two or three in till 10 he takes those too, and also from till 9 provided that he has taken from 10 and so on back to till 7.


  1. A player can only begin his move from his own side.

  2. He must in making his move take all the pieces from the till from which he begins.

  3. He can take from his opponent's side only.

  4. If a player, in making his move, has enough pieces to go more than once round the board, he must pass over the till from where he started his move, leaving it empty.

  5. A player must keep his opponent provided with a piece or with which to play. If either player is unable to play because there are no pieces on his side of the board, he takes all the remaining pieces which are in play, thus ending the game.

  6. The game is finished when there are four or fewer pieces on the board, the pieces which remain becoming the property of the player on whose side of the board they are on.

A variation which improves the game by making it more difficult is made by ruling that in taking a row, only a row of twos or a row of threes may be taken, instead of a mixed row as allowed in the game already described.

A few hints on tactics are necessary for the beginner. At the start of the game, try to collect your pieces in the two tills on the right of the board. Move single pieces whenever possible, to gain time. Try and get opponent's side empty of pieces. For example, if A can contrive to collect 16 pieces in till No. 6, and to wait until there are no pieces at all on B’s side, he can then move from No. 6, putting one piece into each till on the first round, and finishing up at No. 11 on the second round, taking 10 pieces. One piece is left in No. 12 for B to play with when it is his turn.

The end game is important. When there are few pieces left on the board, A should get one piece into till 6 and two into till 5 and then move up his other pieces as slowly as possible until B has none on his side. A then moves from No. 5, B is forced to move from 7 to 8 and loses two. The process can then be repeated.

There are variations of this, and many other methods of attack which the beginner will soon find out for himself.

Last update January 11, 2010