In mancala games the playing pits are either arranged in rows (also called ranks) or form a circular pattern. The number of rows is an important criterion in some old mancala classification systems, for instance in those suggested by H. J. R. Murray and Larry Russ.
Mancala boards usually number from two to four rows, but some can have just one or as much as six.
The following account is just descriptive. It is not meant as a classification system as can be seen by the games that are given as examples.
Circular games can be considered to have just one row. Other one-row games seem to be a modern invention, except perhaps for tchuka ruma and what is known as Carolina solitaire. Two-person mancala games using just one row are the traditional sat-gol and the modern atomic wari, sowing, 55Stones, and progressive mancala. The Kazakh game eson korgool, although played in a two-row board, could be considered to have just one, as both players can play from any hole and the position of the holes in regard to the rows has no significance.
Three-row boards are mostly known for games from the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea) and some border regions in neighboring countries (Uganda, Kenya, Sudan). Isolated games were reported from the Congo and south-eastern China (Yunnan province). Examples are selus, komari, three-row laomuzhukeng, and perhaps historical lela or lele which (according to the British anthropologist P. Townshend) could have derived from Ethiopian games together with embeli or imbelece.
Games played on four-row boards are widepread in central, eastern and southern Africa including Madagascar and the Comores. Another game (hawalis) is played in Oman, a country with an old relation with Zanzibar and the East African Coast. Some four-row games were described in Yunnan, China (four-row laomuzhukeng, four-row laomuzhuqi, zigulzoqge, and dongjintian). The Chinese games are usually extended versions to accomodate more players. There are only a few modern four-row games, e.g. chuba, the amboseli game and four-rank diffusion. The most popular traditional mancala game played on a four-row board is bao, which is said to have the most difficult rules of all mancala games.
There is at least one mancala game that is played on a five-row board, laomuzhuqi, when five people participate.
The only six-row game known by scholars is six-row katro in Madagascar.
Most games played on one-, two- and three-row boards have just a single cycle shared by both players. There are, however, numerous exceptions among modern games and one in traditional mancala:
- Numerous overlapping cycles
- Two cycles
Almost all games with four or six rows boards are using two cycles.
The Yunnan games and the modern four-rank diffusion are exceptions, as they can have multiple cycles.
Some games, e.g. mbelele and a few played in Angola, have rather unusual boards with interlaced holes, but they can be considered to have two rows (the first) or four (the latter).
- Murray, H. J. R.
- (1951) A History of Board-Games other than Chess, Oxford.
- De Voogt, A. J.
- (1999) 'Distribution of Mancala Board Games: A Methodological Inquiry', in Board Games Studies; (2); 104-114.
- Eagle, V. A.
- (1995) 'On some Newly Described Mancala Games from Yunnan Province, China, and the Definition of a Genus in the Family of Mancala Games', in De Voogt, A. J. (Ed.). New Approaches to Board Games Research: Asian Origins and Future Perspectives (Working Papers Series 3), Leiden: IIAS: 48-62.
- Eagle, V. A.
- (1999) 'On a Phylogenetic Classification of Mancala Games, with some Newly Recorded Games from the Southern Silk Road, Yunnan Province, Shina', in Board Games Studies; (1): 51-68.
- Pankhurst, R.
- (1971) 'Gabata and Related Board Games of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa', in Ethiopia Observer; 14 (3): 154-206.
- Russ, L.
- (2000) The Complete Mancala Games Book: How to Play the World's Oldest Board Games, New York: Marlowe & Company.