Awale or Ayo

An ancient game for two players that can be played with a Mancala board and pieces
These comments copyright 2002 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated February 14, 2002

Man, am I bad at this game ...

...but enjoy it anyway. I never win a game of Awale (pronounced uh-wall-lay) against a moderately skilled opponent. The only classic game I'm worse at is Go. But the difference between Awale and Go for me is that I enjoy Awale even when I lose, but just don't enjoy Go because I just don't get it. I don't quite "get" Awale either, but I come closer to grasping the concepts needed to play well.

Awale, a very ancient game, has many names: Awari, Ayo, Ayoayo, Oware, Woaley, Wari, etc., etc. What Go is to Japan, Awale is to Africa. It's in the Mancala family, which is a very large family of games, indeed. Saying you play Mancala is like saying you play cards: it really tells me nothing about the details of the game you play.

I first learned to play Awale while in France in 1971, from a man from the Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire). I don't play often now - there aren't many Awale players in central New Hampshire - but have occasionally indulged in a game here and there throughout the years. No wonder I never get good - I don't play often enough!

Awale as I play it

At any rate, there are many different variations on Awale. I play two different games, depending on my opponent and mood: Ourous and non-Ourous mode. There's really only one rule change between them, but it has a major impact on strategy. I'm no good at either of them, so challenge me to the one you feel like playing if you meet me and have a Mancala set handy.

Ourous mode is the basic Awale, so I'll start with that one. I assume you know what a Mancala board looks like - if not, find a picture of one on the web, there should be thousands of them. A crude illustration of an Awale board looks like:

        6    5    4    3    2    1
      |    |    |    |    |    |    |
      |    |    |    |    |    |    |
      |    |    |    |    |    |    |
      |    |    |    |    |    |    |
        1    2    3    4    5    6

Unlike the most commonly played variant of Mancala in the U.S. today, you don't use the two end bins (also called "Home" bins or reservoirs - not shown above) except to hold captured seeds - you never sow a seed into them.

"Seeds:" I know American Mancala sets come with stones, but Africans play with seeds and this - or sometimes peas - is the most comon term for the pieces. It's the way I learned it, so it's what I say. Besides, they always call moving the seeds around "sowing," and, outside of folk tales, you never sow stones ...
To start, place four seeds in each of the twelve bins on the board: six bins on your side of the board, and six on the opponent's. Randomly determine a start player, who must then choose one of the bins on his side of the board. He scoops up all four seeds and "sows" them counter-clockwise around the board. This is done by placing one seed in the bin to the right, then one seed in the bin to the right of that, and so on until you have no more seeds in your hand. When you get to the last bin on your side, simply go straight across and place a seed in your opponent's bin there. Keep going counter-clockwise.

If you have enough seeds to go all the way around the board (called a kroo), you skip the bin you started in.

You may never touch the seeds in an opponent's bin to count them. Master-level African players don't allow touching your own seeds for counting purposes, either, but we play you can count your own bins at the start of your turn, if desired. It's already hard enough for us to play, no sense making it harder ...

Capturing Seeds

The object of the game is to capture seeds - all seeds are alike, no matter who started with them. Each seed is worth one victory point, and you have to get at least 25 - over half the seeds in the game - to win.

You capture seeds by sowing in such a way that your last seed sown is placed in an opponent's bin that contained one or two seeds before you placed the last one in. That is, when you're done, if it has two or three seeds in it. Scoop those out and place them in your reservoir. They are victory points and cannot be taken away from you this game.

(I was actually taught to line up your captured seeds on the table along your side of the board edge, to make it easy to count the score at any given time. I still prefer that, but I've seen other African players just store them in the reservoirs and keep the scores as spread-out piles. I believe the score is always public knowledge, though.)
In addition, if the previous bin (the bin you sowed your next-to-last seed played this turn) has two or three seeds in it, collect those, also. And so on, up to five bins' worth - you can't totally wipe out an opponent's side of seeds this way.

(This is an area that is particularly subject to rules variations. Some play that if you would take all seeds from your opponent in a single turn, that instead you can't take any. Others play you only take the bin you land in. Yet others play you automatically win the game if you can take all seeds from an opponent provided they were in at least two different bins! I was taught you take all but the last bin with seeds.)
Players alternate turns, always choosing a bin on their side and never taking two turns in a row. If you ever need two turns to reach the opponent's side when they have no seeds in any of their bins, the game ends: give one of the remaining seeds to your opponent and scoop the rest into your own reservoir. (Again, variants on this rule abound.)

The game also ends if it becomes obvious that no one can ever capture another seed - this can happen when you get down to three or sometimes four seeds on the board.

Non-Ourous Awale has only one different rule: if you can play a bin such that it will put at least one seed onto your opponent's side, you must play from such a bin. This causes major strategy changes!

Kroo and Other Strategies

The basic offensive strategy in the game is building kroos. A kroo, if you'll remember, is enough seeds to go arond the board completely and (here's a part I didn't tell you) end on the opponent's side. Why is this potent? Because the best defensive strategy in Awale is to have bins that are either empty (and so cannot be captured) or have three or more seeds at the start of your opponent's turn (and so cannot be captured). But a kroo allows you to sow a seed into each of an opponent's empy bins, come around again and (hopefully) end in one of them, thus capturing at least those two seeds you put there that turn. If you're good (or in my case, lucky) you can capture a few bins' worth of seeds in a row this way.

Since a kroo has to go around the board and then into the opponent's area, it needs a lot of seeds. Your sixth bin (the farthest on your right) needs from 12-17 seeds to count as a kroo. Your first bin (farthest left) needs 17-22 seeds. So it takes some time to build up a kroo, though you can often build up two at once. It is easiest to make a kroo with your sixth bin, of course: not only do you need fewer seeds, but you feed it frequently. Compare that with your first bin, which you rarely feed - it's up to your opponent to build that one for you!

Since you'll always have at least one empty bin when your opponent takes his turn, you have to learn to defend against kroos. (You must empty a bin every turn - even if you have enough seeds to go around the board, you skip the bin you started in.) There are various ways to defend against kroos:

  • blocking is making sure the target end-space of a kroo can't be captured - this is the first defense a beginner learns, though probably applied to direct attacks rather than kroo attacks;
  • pressure is trying to deny all other moves on an opponent's side, making him use the kroo prematurely - this is done largely by making moves so as to keep the seeds on your side of the board as much as possible;
  • overloading is sowing so many seeds into your opponent's kroo that it loops around again and ends on his own side - only useful once he has reached kroo, of course;
  • counterattacking is setting yourself up to take advantage of the seeds he must be placing in his own empty bins when he attacks you with a kroo, thus capturing some seeds of your own. Of course, you have to take his sowing into consideration when setting this up - all your bins will have more seeds once he uses his kroo.
None of these are easy to do for a rank amateur such as myself, especially if I have no idea how many seeds are in a given kroo ... so I suppose the first essence of defense must be to know how many seeds an opponent has in a kroo.

I can't talk much more about strategy because I don't play well. But I try to choose bins that both build up one or two kroos on my side as well as keep as many of my bins as possible at zero or three+ seeds. I have no long-range strategy beyond trying to build up a kroo or two; I'm not good enough. I just try to hang in there and capture at least 13 seeds so my opponent doesn't beat me by triple my score ...

Strategies in Non-Ourous Awale revolve around keeping non-kroo bins able to reach your opponent's side so you don't have to use your kroo prematurely. I'm no good at that, either. (Thus pressure is a key defense in Non-Ourous Awale, and you tend to build a kroo in your first bin, as it must be fed every time the opponent plays.)

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

It's hard to play well! It's almost as hard to master as Go, though not quite. Possibly as hard as Chess. Of course, that's an incentive to some people to play it.

It's abstract - some folk don't like abstract games.

Much of the skill is in keeping an accurate count of your opponent's bins - some people hate games like that. Of course, if you're just learning with a friend, you can simply play that the number of seeds in all bins is public knowledge. That is, you can ask your opponent how many seeds he has in a given bin and he must tell the truth. You'll have trouble playing with Africans if you learn to use that as a crutch, though - better to wean yourself of the habit before too long. Nothing wrong with starting that way, though!

I don't know of any traditional handicapping system, and extreme skill differences are common. I never came close to beating the man who taught me the game, for example, though we played a few dozen times. I guess one form of handicapping is what I mentioned earlier: I consider it a moral victory if my opponent hasn't got triple my score at the game end ... I suppose you could give a beginner a dozen points or so, but I don't believe this is actually done in any African culture - I could be wrong.

No other reasons, but that's probably enough for most people.

Summing Up

A classic game, one of the most ancient games played. I imagine the earliest games were played with seeds or pebbles in hollows scooped out of sand. It requires great thought, and rewards it. It takes years to get good at it.

If you meet any Africans, ask them if they play this game - they might not recognize the name (as there are scores of names for it across Africa) but they'll recognize the description. If they do, ask them to play with you and teach you some strategy - though be warned that there are over a hundred rules variants, and strategy changes with the change of even one rule. It's also played in the Caribbean and as far east as Indonesia. It's a great cross-cultural bridge to enhance friendship and understanding between people. I like it far better than the rules that come with American Mancala boards - give it a try!

Back to SOS' Gameviews
Back to Steffan O'Sullivan's Home Page