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
6 5 4 3 2 1
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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
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 ...
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
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
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:
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.
- 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
- 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
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.
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!
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