Bao is famous as the most complex of all mancala games. It is played on a board with 4 rows of 8 holes, and is a “multi-lap” game with several sowings on each turn. When the last seed on a sowing falls in an occupied hole in your inner row (the second row from you), you capture all the seeds from the inner row opposite (third row from you). The object is to deprive the opponent of moves by denuding his inner row of seeds.
One of the holes on each side of the board is a different shape – square instead of round. In Tanzania it is called the nyumba and in Malawi the kuu. There are special rules relating to this hole, and they help to give the game an extra dimension.
The Game Cabinet site has a listing of the rules.
Alexander de Voogt from Leiden University has studied the Bao masters of East Africa, who play this challenging game in tournaments at a very high level. He describes a player who, amazingly, played 44 moves of a game blindfold. This is a considerable feat considering that the amount of change on the board each move is very great, much more so than in a game like Chess where a single piece moves.
In 1994 Dr de Voogt organised a special Bao tournament in Tanzania, which was won by the master player Maulidi, then aged 26 from Stone Town in Zanzibar.
This is Dr de Voogt’s summary of his excellent book Limits of the Mind about the Bao masters.
There is a picture of an ancient Bao board on the very attractive site of the Sukuma Museum in Tanzania. And a picture of Bawo being played in Malawi on this Games Page from the Abwenzi African Studies site.
The strongest players are in the Zanzibar area of Tanzania. The game is also extremely popular in Malawi, where it is often called Bawo. And it is also played in Zambia, Ethiopia and Kenya. There are some variations in the rules – according to Alexander de Voogt, the rules are not fully formalised for all possible rare situations, and uncertainties sometimes have to be resolved by a consensus of the Bao masters.
In Tanzania, Bao is organised by the Chama cha Bao (Bao Society) which was founded in 1966. In Malawi there is a national Bawo league, which has been sponsored by South African Airways. And the game is played everywhere as a pastime.
Bao playing programs are available from the sites of Peter Nyasulu and Barry Fairburn.