Jesse Jarnow

mancala fever

A few days ago, my neighbor’s new loftmate introduced me to mancala — an ancient (?!) game involving strategy and the counting of rocks.

“I call it ‘Ug!'” my friend grunted happily, upon the realization that people of any age from any culture in any period of history could (and likely did) play and understand the utterly elegant principles of the game.

The rules are simple: pick up a pile of shiny pebbles and move them around the board, counting them off as you go. If your last piece lands in your mancala (your bank at the end of your side), you go again. If it lands in an empty bowl on your side, you collect whatever pebbles are in your opponent’s adjacent space.

And from those two rules flower all manners of possibilities, and various strategies by which to parse them. Over the past several days, several friends have dropped by, each with their own minute variations. Each has shifted the game in new ways. On the cyberweb, we’ve found other variations — Egyptian rules, Nigerian rules, Ethiopian rules.

Especially if one has been playing for an hour or so, allowing himself to get fully inside the logic, the introduction of a new rule is a mathematically awesome experience, his brain automatically spinning out equations, unfolding inwards into hypothetical spaces of endless pebbles.

There, I encounter eternally finite riddles, and the vague ghosts of fellow puzzlers past. I envision myself in the midst of some desert city, playing mancala in a cool alleyway between wind-beaten sandstone structures. I am winning.


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