Back in the game

Recently, a friend asked if I could make a Mancala board as a gift for her two boys as she wanted to teach them how to play. I must admit that I’d never heard of it, so I did a quick search online.

The search revealed that there are a number of commercial versions of this ancient board game with a wide range of prices. Most of these were around 457mm long, so I went with this. I thought that a folding board would be a good idea for two reasons: less room needed to store it, plus, when folded, the playing pieces could be safely housed inside.

Timber choice
My friend had no preference for timber, so I chose ash as I had a 150mm wide board that was just wide enough; this turned out not to be the best decision I’ve ever made! A couple of passes through the thicknesser reduced the board to around 18mm – anything less would restrict the depth of the recesses.

Marking out
I had a couple of attempts at marking the position of the recesses before I was happy; I wanted them to be the maximum diameter so the playing pieces wouldn’t be too small. I considered using a Forstner bit to create them but this would mean a sharp shoulder at the bottom with a dimple in the middle, so I routed them with a bull-nose bit with a top bearing to follow my MDF homemade template.

I didn’t have the correct bit so needed to buy one, which proved to be easier said than done, but Axminster Tools & Machinery finally came up trumps. This template was simply drilled with the correct size Forstner bit. The elongated recess, or ‘Mancala’, was carried out in the same way but the two holes carefully opened out with a saw and chisel to create the oval-shaped template (photo 1).


1 The MDF template used for making the Mancala board

The hinge mechanism
I could have hinged the two halves with conventional metal hinges but thought they wouldn’t look as attractive as floating wooden ones, so after a bit of trial and error – two of the best teachers in the world – I cut notches out of the corners of the two halves and made two pieces using iroko with rounded ends to fit (photo 2). I chose iroko as it is naturally oily and used panel pins as the pivots.


2a The hinge mechanism used on the board...


2b ... The hinge mechanism used on the board

Open & shut case
To keep it closed when not in use, I recessed four rare-earth magnets into the outside corners of the two halves, just below the surface, and covered them with black walnut cross-grained plugs to contrast with the ash (photo 3), keeping them as thin as possible. I mentioned earlier that making the board out of a single width of timber wasn’t the best idea, as by now the board had started to ‘cup’ and as I wanted the grain pattern to be continuous when folded, the convex faces meant the magnets were no longer close enough to hold it together. To solve the problem, I carefully sanded the high spot down the centre and ran a router with a round-over bit around the edge, which helped to soften it when closed.


3 Two of the black walnut cross-grained plugs, which contrast with the ash. Underneath each sits a rare-earth magnet


4 The completed Mancala board, prior to adding the pieces and carving detail

Name games
To make it more personal, I carved the boys’ names onto the top after carefully drawing them out in pencil (photo 5). They were smaller than the size I would normally attempt and most of my carving gouges were a bit big, so a lot of it had to be carried out using a Stanley knife (photo 6).


5 The boys’ names were first drawn out in pencil


6 The boys’ names were carved into the top of the board using a selection of carving gouges, as well as a Stanley knife for the fiddly bits

Finishing off
Starting with 120 grit and finishing with 240, I carefully sanded the entire board, taking care not to lose the crispness on the edges of the lettering and recesses. I applied three coats of Danish oil with a soft cloth, wiping off the excess after 10 minutes followed by a couple of coats of wax polish, which left a nice soft sheen. I used glass beads for the game play pieces, in two different colours. Traditionally, beans or seeds were used, but this seems like a good, modern alternative.


Play the game
I watched a video showing game play on YouTube, but after viewing it twice, I was still none the wiser! It’s supposed to be a simple game to play but obviously not simple enough! In my defence, there are several different ways to play. The boys love it, which is great, and use it everyday. After all, playing board games is much better than being bored!

According to Wikipedia, Mancala is one of the oldest known games to still be widely played today. Mancala is a generic name for a family of two-player turn-based strategy board games played with small stones, beans, or seeds and rows of holes or pits in the earth, a board or other playing surface. The objective is usually to capture all or some set of the opponent’s pieces. Versions of the game date back to the 7th century and evidence suggests the game existed in ancient Egypt.

General game play
Most Mancala games share a common general game play. Players begin by placing a certain number of seeds, prescribed for the particular game, in each of the pits on the game board. A player may count their stones to plot the game. A turn consists of removing all seeds from a pit, ‘sowing’ the seeds – placing one in each of the following pits in sequence – capturing based on the state of the board. The object of the game is to plant the most seeds in the bank. This leads to the English phrase ‘count and capture’, which is sometimes used to describe the game play. Although the details differ greatly, this general sequence applies to all games.

If playing in capture mode, once a player ends his/her turn in an empty pit on his/her own side, he/she captures the opponent’s pieces directly across. Once captured, the player gets to put the seeds in his/her own bank. After capturing, the opponent forfeits a turn.