Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

West African Game: How to make and play the mancala game Oware

I always thought Mancala was a game - as it turns out, mancala is a family of games found throughout the world that are considered "pit and pebble" or "counting and capturing" games. These sowing games are believed to have originated in Africa seven thousand years ago, and continue to be played throughout Africa today. 

Oware/Mancala game board
Photo Credit: Adam Cohn

The variants of mancala games (over 300 in all) are known by many names: in Ethiopia it is Tegre; in Kenya it is Bao; in Ivory Coast it is Awale; in Ghana it is generally known as Oware (though has many other names depending on the language and dialect). The name Oware literally means "he/she marries" which is based on an Asante legend about a man and woman who were so taken by playing the game that they married in order to continue playing endlessly. 

Mancala game board carved in a castle
Photo Credit: Colleen Morgan
The boards for these various sowing games also differ - with varying numbers of rows and pits. The most common, and the one used for Oware has two rows with six pits in each. Though the game is played by two people, Oware is considered very social, involving all who gather round to witness the play, and give advice on strategy. 

Playing the mancala game Bao
Photo Credit: Constantine D.
Carved with gold and ivory inlay, it has been a game played by the Asante kings. Whether scratched out of a patch of dirt, or carved in wood, it has been used as an educational tool for children in Africa for over a thousand years.

Oware game played in the sand
Photo Credit: Adam
The girls really enjoy playing this game, Pea especially. It's a quick game, one round lasts no more than 10 minutes, and is a great mini break (especially from homework). It's been sitting on our coffee table, within easy reach, for a couple of weeks now, and we play almost daily. 

How to Make an Oware Board

Other than playing in the sand (which might be fun on a beach day), here's the simplest way to make a board for mancala games.

You'll need:

  • 1 or 2 egg cartons (for painted version pictured above, we used 2 cartons, but you only need 1 to get started)
  • 48 counters - we used kidney beans, but any small object would do such as pebbles, marbles or dry beans. The colors make no difference.
  • Glue
  • Paint or sharpies if you want to decorate it.
1. Separate the lid from the carton, and keep. Cut off the overhanging tab and discard.
2. Cut the lid in half. Glue to the bottom of the egg cups leaving a section available for use, as seen above. That section is your house, where you will store the beans you have won. Along with your counters, that's all you need to start playing. You can paint it or color it with sharpies for a more colorful version. 

We started with the above version, then  were inspired by Traditional Crafts from Africa  (affiliate link) to change it a little by using two egg cups on the sides rather than the lid. The only difference is how it looks, and if your markers are medium to large (rather than small beans) then the above version will work better. 

1. Separate lid from egg cups as above from one egg carton, and discard the lid. With the second egg carton, cut out the two egg cups on one end. Trim as below.

2. Glue the two egg cups to the ends of the egg carton (we used a glue gun). Make sure it's sturdy.

3. Paint and decorate :)

How to Play Mancala & Oware

As mentioned earlier, there are many versions of the "sowing" mancala games. Here's the version I came across the most often, and that I considered the easiest to understand:

The object of the game is to capture more seeds than your opponent.

  • Start by placing 4 beans in each pit. 
Game board set up. 4  beans in each pit. Player A & B facing each other, their houses to the right. Play is counter clockwise.
  • Sit across from your opponent. You each have one row of beans (6 pits), and one end to store the beans you've won. Your house is the one to your right.
  • Play is done by going counter-clockwise
Example of player A starting game play - sowing four beans consecutively 
  • To start, choose one of your pits, and take all four beans. Sow your beans by dropping them one after the other in the next four pits, again going counter-clockwise. You should have one empty pit and five beans in the next four pits.
Example of player A starting game play - sowing four beans consecutively and ending in her/his house. Player A gets to go again.
    • If your last bean ends up in your house, you get to go again.
    • If your last bean takes you past your house into your opponent's pits, just continue sowing into his/her pits. 
Example of player B having a turn - 4 beans are sown consecutively, giving him/herself one for the store, and continuing on into player A's pits
  • Continue the play, each player taking turns sowing beans in the next four pits.
    • Do not place your beans into your opponent's house. 
  • If your last bean ends in one of your empty pits, you capture the beans in the pit directly across from yours - take your opponents beans and the bean that won them and put them all in your house. 
  • Continue playing until one player is out of beans on her/his side. The opponent then takes whatever beans are left on his/her side and puts it into his/her house.
  • Count out your beans - the one with the most beans wins.

Oware, considered the national game of Ghana, has a few variations from the version above. Set up is the same, sowing is basically the same, and the object of the game is the same. Here are the few differences:
  1. When sowing your beans, do not place a bean in your house. Just skip your house and move onto your opponent's pits. 
    1. Your house is there just for captured beans.
  2. When sowing your beans, if you have enough beans (12 or over) to come full circle, do not place a bean in the pit you emptied and started with, just skip it and sow into the next pit. 
  3. Capturing beans differs as well - when sowing, if your last bean is placed in your opponent's pit and you bean brings the pit's total to 2 or 3 beans, you capture them and put them in your house. Likewise, if the previous to last pit's total was also brought to 2 or 3 beans, you capture them as well. And the pit before that, and the pit before that, working your way from the last bean.
    1. However, if this play would capture all of your opponent's beans, then the capture is forfeited in order to be able to continue to play.
In the Oware play, player B would have started with 5 beans, skipping the house cup, and ending up with 2 beans in his/her opponent's pit with the last bean. Player B captures those 2 beans, and the 2 beans in the pit preceding it. Player B captured 4 beans in total.
The game of Oware is over when one player has captured 25 or more beans. 

I hope you get to enjoy a fun game of mancala!

You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:
You can find more creative and kid friendly activities at the following linkups:
Entertaining & Educational,  AfterSchool Blog Hop


  1. You're so clever! I love the colours you used to decorate the game. Your girls are very blessed to have you!

    1. Thanks Claire :) Though I'm rarely accused of being clever at home!

  2. I thought Mancala was a game, too! I love the story of how Oware got its name. Thanks for this, we will definitely learn to play. I bet it will be a favourite with my son.

    1. Yes, isn't it a fun legend? Have fun with the game!

  3. I remember playing Mancala a lot in college with friends. I might have to make this for my kiddos, I think they'd really enjoy it.

    1. Such a simple game to make, isn't it? Have fun with it!

  4. We play Mancala all the time. We only know the Ethiopian and the Egyptian versions. My kids have even played it at the beach with pebbles. I like that it is a game that they can play anywhere. I will be happy to add this version to our playing. I love your homemade board, too. It is quite beautiful.

    1. I also really like that you can play it anywhere - it's simple yet challenging enough that it doesn't get boring.

  5. we just the game as a present for Christmas and have been "into" Mancala :) Its fun and simple to play anywhere and anytime!

    1. I'm so glad we learned about this game - it really is simple and fun!

  6. This is just super! I'm featuring this on Friday. We have a Mancala game, and the kids love it, but I had no idea it was from a family.

    1. Thanks Julie :) Hard to believe there are over 300 differing versions, isn't it?

  7. What an amazing tutorial! Thanks so much for sharing this at the After School Linky Party!


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