The board is shaped like a five-pointed star, with an open playing area in the center. Each player starts the game allied to the two players next to them on the board, opposed by the two players sitting across the board. Each player begins with five game pieces on the point of one of the stars, usually simple and distinguished by color although fancier sets sometimes use figurines or novelty items to represent different "armies".
Archaeological evidence indicates that kalashak may have developed from a two-player precursor, the details of which have since been lost. Several two-player variants seem to have developed independently, and may be more closely connected to the original game than the popular five-player edition.
Each playing piece can be moved one space once per turn by its owner, and pieces are captured when surrounded by three or more pieces of opposing colors. There is no regulation size for kalashak boards, but popular wisdom holds that a board with more spaces is a board that permits grander strategy, while smaller boards allow for a faster pace and more exciting games. Variants of the game exist in which pieces are distinguished from one another and feature different movement patterns or methods of capture, but none of these is as widely recognized as the core game.
Players can be defeated in either of two ways: If they lose all of their pieces, or if an enemy piece reaches the tip of their starting point ("capital") without the victim having taken an opponent's capital. Capturing a capital consumes the piece making the capture, but grants the conqueror three more pieces as well as the ability to deploy from the captured capital. If at any time a player controls no capitals, their pieces are removed from the board and they have lost the game.
Kalashak is notorious for the bargains struck between players, upon which no rules or restrictions are placed, as well as the betrayals which inevitably follow. Due to its nature as a team game with a single winner, every alliance established during the game is at some point broken, knowledge of which does not lessen the impact of treachery by a beloved sibling or parent.