Skip to main content Skip to main navigation menu Skip to site footer
African games, Étienne de Flacourt, fifangha, game rules, Madagascar, mancala

Translation of Étienne de Flacourt’s Fifangha Rules (1661)

Alex de Voogt (Drew University) and Lisa Rougetet (Université de Bretagne Occidentale )


Étienne de Flacourt’s Histoire de la grande isle Madagascar is famed for its descriptions of flora, fauna, as well as the culture of the population of Madagascar. The second edition of his work, published posthumously in 1661, includes a drawing of a four-row mancala board with certain spaces marked with letters together with a detailed explanation of the rules using local terminology. It is the earliest recorded set of mancala rules, the first known record of a four-row mancala game, and the earliest record of any mancala game in the Western literature. The complex rules still resemble those used in today’s game of Bao, known in Madagascar as Katra-be. It points to a long history of four-row mancala games, such as Bao, for which no archaeological or other evidence exists.1

Figure 1

Illustration of a Fifangha board as provided by de Flacourt (1661)

De Flacourt was the governor of a trading post and French settlement in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, appointed in 1648 under the auspices of the French East India Company. He encountered an Indigenous population hostile to his trade efforts. France’s trade posts competed with local kingdoms that gained power during this time period. After de Flacourt died in 1660, Fort Dauphin was destroyed by storms and local fighting, and was eventually abandoned in 1674. De Flacourt’s research survived and has remained in print until this day.

The translation has left words from the local language, Malgache, and their various spellings unchanged. Words used to explain but that are not in the original text have been put in square brackets. Some punctuation and some italics have changed while certain sentences have been restructured to improve the understanding of the text.

The second edition of Histoire de la grande isle Madagascar has been digitized and can be found on:


Chapter XXXIV [pp. 108–110]

Games, pastimes, songs, and dances

There is the game of Androuve and the game of Fifangha. Concerning Androuve, it is played with some sturdy shells that are found by the sea. They are used as spinning tops hurled into the distance against others that are already in play. All men, great and small, are well-suited to play this game, and they may even [gamble and] lose [their] livestock sometimes.

Fifangha is a mind game, while the other one [Androuve] uses dexterity. It resembles the games of Draughts and Trictrac. One plays with certain round fruit [pits] that are called Baßy, on a wooden board that has thirty-two holes in four rows, sixteen belonging to one player and sixteen to the other. One needs thirty-two Bassi each. This game is quite entertaining. The first holes or cells marked A are the first Chibou, of which there are four. The cells marked B are the second Chibou, of which there are also four. Those marked D are the cells in the back or on the outside and are sixteen in number.

One plays with sixty-four little balls, which are called Baßy, and which are put in storage holes located on one or both far sides of the game [board]. One may also play with counters.

First the twelve cells in the middle are provided with one Baßy each, including the four second Chibou [B]; then the first player takes one Bassy and puts it in one of the cells between two second Chibou[s] that are on his side and takes the Baßy from the cell on the opposite side of the cell where he [had originally] placed his Baßy. The player then takes this bassi to one of the two first Chibou [A] that are on their side. The other player has a Bassy in his hand and places it in one of the two [second] Chibou [B] or one of the four cells in the center that are on his side and takes the Bassy from the opposite cell and puts it in one of the two first Chibou [A] that are on his side.

The first player takes a bassi from the storage hole and places it in one of the cells on his side, then takes the opposite bassi and puts it into the first Chibou [A] on his side and if there is a bassi in the opposite Chibou, he takes it along with those that are in his first Chibou [A]. Then he puts one in the second Chibou, which is on his side, and another in the next cell until the last one that is in his hand has been put in the cell that follows. If there is a bassi on the opposite side, he takes it and puts it in the first Chibou that he emptied.

The second player does the same on his side and when the Chibou and the cells on your side are empty, you have lost and it is similar for the opponent. This is called Camou.

One may never put a bassi into a cell that has none. Also, if it is possible to take [capture], one is obliged to take [capture]. But if the cells opposite those in which you have Bassi are empty and the other cells of your opponent that are not opposite to those which are filled in front of you do contain some, you have created Mamoueatsrha. In this case, you take a Bassi [from storage] into one of your cells that contains some and then take the one you put in it plus all those in that cell together and distribute them [individually] towards the right or the left, whichever you prefer, in the adjacent cell, the next in the following cell, until the last Bassi is deposited. If the last one finds itself where there is already one or multiple Bassi in that cell, you again take all of them out together and place one each in the following cell, as before. And if you are in the first Chibou [A] on this side and you still have Bassi in your hand, you distribute them in the back row until there aren’t any in your hand. If you already filled all the cells in the back with the ones from your hand, then you continue and take the rest to the first Chibou [A] that follows and you keep on doing so until you have found an empty cell where you can put the last Baßi and which is called Mandre, which means ‘to sleep’ or ‘to rest’.

The game is quite entertaining and is easier to learn through play than through explanation.

One may play with counters instead of Baßi.


1. ^ For further reading of de Flacourt’s Historie, as well as the rules and distribution of mancala more generally, see : Alex de Voogt, “Distribution of Mancala Board Games: A Methodological Inquiry,” Board Games Studies 2 (1999): 104–114. Appendix: Mancala games in Madagascar: 111–114; Alex de Voogt, “Flora, Fauna and Fifangha: Madagascar by Flacourt,” in Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library, ed. Tom Baione (New York: Sterling Signature, 2012), 12–15; Luc Tiennot, “À la recherche de jeux de semailles de type solo à Madagascar.” Ethnologie et mathématiques, 29 (December 2014),; Luc Tiennot, “Modeling of Implied Strategies of Solo Expert Players,” in Indigenous Knowledge and Ethnomathematics, eds. Eric Vandendriessche and Rik Pinxten (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2022), 39–84.