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5 Challenging Math Games

The setup for Mancala is an array of cups -- you can even use an egg carton, if you want to.
The setup for Mancala is an array of cups -- you can even use an egg carton, if you want to.

Mancala is the name for a group of games that are among the oldest in the world. They originated in Africa and are still widely played there, but Mancalalike games have spread as far as Central Asia and the Philippines. The name comes from the Arabic word for "transfer," and may have originated from devices for keeping merchants' accounts. The version in Ghana is known as Oware; in Kenya it's called Giuthi; in the Philippines they play Sungka. The rules vary by region, but the concept is always one of moving stones or seeds through a series of cups.

The setup for Mancala is an array of cups, usually 12 divided into two parallel rows, with a scoring pit for each of the two players at either end. Think of an egg carton, which can in fact be used to play the game. Each player puts four counters in each of the six cups on his or her side. The first player takes the counters from any cup and, moving counterclockwise, deposits one counter in each cup until they're gone. If the last counter is dropped into one of the opponent's cups and forms a group of two or three, those pieces can be captured and transferred to your scoring pit. The goal is to win the most counters.

The game gets interesting as you calculate not only your own move, but the number of pieces left in your cups and how your opponent might score on the next move. You have to do lot of fast counting.

The beauty of Mancala is that it can be played with an elegant board and glass beads or with pebbles or beans in hollows scooped in the dirt. Despite the simple layout, expert play is very difficult. The fact that it draws on complicated calculations, intuition and planning makes it one of the most challenging of all math games.