Mancala is played in many cultures. From what I understand it is a seed sowing game. Some cultures use holes in the earth with seeds in them, some use stones in carved wooden boards, and I’ve seen pictures online of children using egg  cartons they have decorated and versions made using pottery. This board game would make a great, inexpensive gift. Including a set of rules on how to play would complement the board game nicely.

For my game I scavenged a piece of ½”plywood from a pile of discarded construction supplies. My game is roughly 21” long and 5 1/2’” wide.  It has 2 parallel rows of 6 holes (called bowls), with a collector hole area at each end (called a Mancala).

I used an adjustable wood bit to make my holes. The downside to this is that the bit has a point that creates a hole in the center, of each puck shaped hole, that goes deeper into the wood (and I wanted my holes to have flat bottoms). I filled these holes with wood putty and sanded them flat. I made my collectors by using the same adjustable wood bit: drilling two or three holes side by side. I used a chisel and mallet to remove the excess wood between the holes and make the collectors pill-shaped. After getting the main form to the game, I sanded it and sprayed a coat of black paint on it. I would have preferred to stain it; however, with the amount of putty I put in the base of those holes, I figured the stain would highlight those less-than-perfect areas.

If you aren’t familiar with using tools like the ones mentioned in the instructions below, have someone help you who is familiar, or do some research/watch videos to better understand. Don’t go and use a power tool unless you know how to or you are being supervised by someone who does.

How to:

  1. Find a piece of wood. Try to stick to untreated wood (some wood is pressure treated and can contain chemicals hazardous to your health. This is not wood you want to be working with and making a board game out of).
  2. Draw in a rough idea (in pencil) of where you want your holes to be.
  3. Make sure the bit you are using will allow you to put two parallel rows along your board.
  4. Drill two rows of six holes. Don’t forget to leave room at each end of your project for the collector holes.
  5. Drill to make your collector holes and use a chisel and mallet to remove the excess, or create some straight edges.
  6. Sand it to remove splinters and rough edges/areas.
  7. Paint it or decorate it however you wish. I’ve seen ones with funky paper placed in the bottoms of the holes, and paper along the face of the game. I’ve seen ones that are painted a solid colour and then decorated with contrasting details after.I finished mine with a coat of black spray paint. Once it dried, I sanded the edges of the holes to give it a rustic, worn appearance.

There are more precise ways to do this. Anyone who works with wood will probably make a game board way nicer than mine, taking more care to measure and plan, and use the proper tools. I used what I had at the time (not what I would have preferred to use), and wasn’t sure how much effort I should put into the game because I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to get anyone to play it with me! I would have preferred carving the bowls so they are actually bowl shaped as this makes it easier/more smooth to swipe the games pieces out. I figure if some cultures play this game by digging holes in the earth, then maybe rudimentary wooden version will do just fine.

I have also seen all of the holes, for bowls and Mancalas, drilled completely through a piece of wood. Then glue a thin piece of wood or masonite board to the bottom (this layer will give “bottoms” to your bowls and Mancala holes).

Some friends and I went on a nature hike along the Bow River in Alberta, and everyone collected a few stones to use as game pieces (48 in total, 4 per bowl). This was a nice way to involve other people in the process, and it also made them more interested to play the finished game.

This is a board game that really comes from the earth!

Mancala Game Play:

The rules vary from culture to culture. The rules I play by were told to me by a friend and so far they work well.

  1. Place equal amount of pieces in each bowl (Mancalas start empty). I use 4 stones per bowl.
  2. Sitting across from the other player (board between you), the 6 bowls closest to you belong to you, and the other 6 belong to your partner.
  3. Your Mancala is the collector on your right, same goes for your partner, his/hers will be the collector on his/her right hand side.
  4. Until the stones are dropped into the Mancalas, they belong to nobody.
  5. The game is played in a counterclockwise fashion.
  6. To begin, one person removes all of the stones from a bowl (leaving that bowl empty) and drops one stone per bowl, going around the board, until there are no stones left in your hand. Then the other player does the same thing. Take turns doing this until the game ends.
  7. If the LAST stone in your hand lands in your Mancala, you get to go again.
  8. If the LAST stone in your hand lands in an empty bowl, across from a full bowl, you get to take the stones from the full bowl and promptly add them to your Mancala. (When we play, a person’s turn ends if they get to steal a full bowl).
  9. The game ends when one side of the board is completely empty.
  10. Leftover stones are discarded.
  11. Count the stones in each Mancala, whoever has the most wins.

There might be a turn where you have so many stones in your hand that you place one in each bowl of your opponent and end up placing one in his/her Mancala before you’re finished dropping your stones. It is ok to drop a stone in your opponent’s Mancala, it simply means he/she gets to keep it.

After playing this game a couple of times you will begin to develop strategies: for lining yourself up to steal a full bowl, for making sure to have your last stone land in your Mancala many times in a row, and to set up your opponent for desired moves.


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