Astana 2005

Toguz Kumalak Tournament in Kazakhstan

A mindsport is a game, which is used for intellectual contest. A list of mancala games that are actually played as a sport can be found in the article about tournaments. The most popular mancala mindsports are Oware, Toguz Kumalak, Bao la Kiswahili, and Kalah.


Although every game can be played in tournaments, even games of luck, not every game is suited in the same manner.

Factors contributing to mindsport suitability

  • Openings should be balanced and therefore they should not give a player an immediate advantage.
Negative example: If the first player starts with the left-most hole in Layli Goobalay, he will have a decisive advantage, which cannot be countered. Therefore Layli Goobalay is not very well suited for serious tournament play.
  • Players should be able to recognize meaningful moves in the middle game. If this stage of the game is too opaque, the game becomes a matter of luck. On the other hand an opaque opening due to unpredictable multi-lap moves doesn't constitute a problem, if the opening lines can be analyzed in advance and then memorized.
Negative examples: Diffusion and Waurie do not have an identifiable middle game strategy. Games appear to be always decided in the early endgame. Therefore these games are not well suited for serious tournament play. Anywoli's middle game is so opaque that even a random move generator can beat a human player despite its very interesting endgames. On the other hand 55Stones, Giuthi and Kánji-guti have an opaque opening, which, however, can be tamed by studying the opening lines and learning them by heart.
  • Games should be characterized by a multidimensional strategic complexity. That is, there should be more than one strategic goal players strive to achieve. These goals can be capturing of stones, capturing of holes, tempi management, timing (e.g. deciding the best time to make a particular move), management of holes with special properties (e.g. the "nyumba" in some Bao variants), accessibility of certain store holes (to liberate its contents or to add stones).
Negative examples: The games of Mbelele and Boola are simply about capturing more stones. On the other hand, Kauri strategy is dominated by tempi management, captures are almost always of inferior importance.
  • No "mocking strategies: Some African games have inherent mocking strategies to hold up to ridicule an opponent who has already lost. Such a characteristic hardly fits for serious tournament play.
Negative example: Mwambulula has got a rule, which allows a player to add stones to his holes once during a game. It is always bad to be the first player to be forced to such an act of despair, which only prolongs his sufferings.
  • No "mirror strategies": Some games can be won by mirroring (imitating) the moves of the opponent.
Negative example: The original rules of Space Walk allow the second player to win every game by mirroring his opponent's moves.
  • A game should have a sufficient length to challenge the contestants over an adequate number of moves. If games are too short, they are reduced to the opening and the endgame by experienced players. While the minimum length is open to debate, it might be safe to assume that the average length of a game that is played to its very end should be 40 or more moves (every turn counted as a move).
Negative examples: Kisolo takes on the average about 25 moves, Cenne and Moruba each take about 30 moves, a game of 55Stones averages 19 moves. These mancala games are nice to play, but not really suited for serious tournament play.
  • Finiteness: Some games tend to last forever (or at least appear to be almost never-ending), if played by experienced players.
Negative examples: Royal Gabata, Katro and Hus (the latter if played on very large boards) often continue virtually with no end in sight. The existence of "never-ending moves" in games such as Bao la Kiswahili, Omweso or Hawalis, however, do no constitute a serious problem in actual gameplay.
  • A good game should have intricate endgames, that are far less than trivial. The existence can be proven by composing complicated endgame problems.
Negative example: Mbelele is decided by the number of stones that are left near the end of the game. As tempi are of no importance the endgame tends to be very simple.
  • Draws and ties should be rare. Contrary to Chess, Checkers and Morris draws do not occur very often in most mancala games.
Negative examples: Nevertheless some simple mancala games can easily be drawn even by humans, e.g. MiniMancala and Micro-Wari.
  • A game should have well-defined rules that cover all situations possible. Some rule sets reported by ethonologues raise doubts, whether they truly match those traditionally used.
Negative examples: Vai Lung Thlan appears to have incomplete or slightly misunderstood rules in the original source. Bulto has endgames, which cannot be resolved by the rules that were reported.

Excellent Games

Games suited as mindsports
Game Opening Middle Game Endgame General Conclusions
Bohnenspiel (2x6;6) The strongest opening is to play 1. Whatever his opponent does, the first player will either capture two stones in his own hole 1 or use his singleton in that hole to gain tempi. Captures and tempi are very important in the middle game. It is usually bad to capture in your own row, because it loses tempi. Even sacrifices are common to gain tempi. Another much used technique is to create holes with enough stones to sow a full round. On the average a game takes 41 moves. Endgames are mostly about tempi and yet capturing can be important. Beautiful endgame problems have been created by the Kazakh Toguz Kumalak master Maksat Shotayev.

South to move and win!

Bohnenspiel is a much underrated game. The strongest players do not live in Germany, but in Kazakhstan.
Kalah (2x6;6) If the pie rule is used, the game is well-balanced. A player should not start with hole 1 followed by a bonus move as this would invariably answered by a swap. Middle game strategies include capturing by opposition, bonus moves, and making a 13, which is always worth at least 3 points. Double threats are very important. Timing plays an important role too. The average game length is 49 moves. Tempi become more and more important towards the end as the remaining stones are awarded to the player who moved last.

South to play and capture 18 stones.

Kalah is often mistaken as a simple game for children. However, if played by very experienced players, Kalah displays a great variety of tactical and strategic options.
Toguz Kumalak (2x9;9) International masters (most of whom are semi-professionals) have explored hundreds of playable opening lines and named many of them. Bad opening moves are 1 and 9, the most popular one is 7. The middle game is very complicated. It is characterized by a tension between capturing more balls and achieving a better position by creating a tusdik (acquired storehole). Depending on the position of a tusdik its value can vary considerably. Double threats are frequent techniques. The average length of a game is 114 moves. The endgame is mostly about tempi. Due to the size of the board and the large number of balls, it can be extremley difficult to calculate the exact value of tempi. There are intricate tactics to force the capture of balls.

South to move and win the game

Toguz Kumalak is an outstanding mindsport with a huge variety of tactical and strategic ideas. The value of the game is proven by more than 10,000 players who practice the game as a mindsport.

Note: The solutions to the endgame problems can be found in the respective articles describing the game in full length.

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