Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa is the first heavy hitter of 2024, and it’s coming in swinging. It’s a spiritual follow-up to 2020’s Merv (review here), which I loved to bits, so I was incredibly happy when Osprey Games agreed to send me a copy to put through its paces. Designer Fabio Lopiano is joined by Mandela Fernandez-Grandon to deliver this table-filling, colourful, cornucopia of a game, and they’ve done a remarkable job. Sankoré is fantastic, staging a successful coup d’etat against Merv and claiming the crown as my favourite of Fabio’s games. There’s a lot going on though, so be forewarned.
Shush now students, pay attention
Sankoré is set in West Africa in the 14th Century, and is based on its namesake university in Timbuktu. You’ve been tasked with spreading knowledge by the emperor, Mansa Musa, and during the game you’ll be teaching students, adding courses to your curriculum, and adding books to the shelves of the great library. All of this takes place on the four areas of the main board, each of which is related to the four main subject areas in the game: Astronomy, Mathematics, Theology, and Law.
Explaining how the game is played in detail is too much for a review. Sankoré is a heavy game that requires the same kind of planning and strategy that you’d normally find in a Vital Lacerda game like On Mars (review here). At the very highest level, there’s a dependency loop which you need to keep an eye on to make sure you have enough of the game’s three principal resources: salt, gold, and books. Actions on the theology area of the board will gain you books. Books can be spent in the mathematics area to gain gold. That gold is used in astronomy actions, which result in getting salt, which in turn can be spent to do the theology actions. Thus, the circle of life is complete.
The game design around the four different areas on the board is especially good. Each area has very different actions, with different costs and different dependencies, but there are some core concepts that permeate every teaching action. Prime among the concepts is the idea of knowledge, which makes a lot of sense in a game about learning and teaching, right? Each area has its own shared level of knowledge, which increases as pupils are recruited to players’ boards. As you put more buildings on the board your personal knowledge increases, and adding that to the shared knowledge dictates which level of each action you can take. It’s a cool concept which means that actions slowly build in power as the game progresses. If you choose to min-max in one area, you can dominate the most expensive spaces there.
The other important aspect of the design is the way the different areas are divided and contested. Each area is split into four sub-areas A-D, and each area has two separate mid-game assessment points which award books and prestige to the players building in each sub-area, based on the level of competition there. It’s a simple concept, but it needed to be because there is so much going on that you need to try to stay focused on. By keeping one system of scoring area control, an unnecessary layer of overhead has been avoided by not using unwarranted asymmetry.
Books are the most important thing in Sankoré. They’re also one of the most confusing things. As the game goes on you’ll gain books which go on your player board into their allocated spaces, while other actions make you ‘pay’ these books onto the shared library board. Putting walls around the Sankoré Madrasa with the mathematics action, for instance, or graduating students. There are three shelves to choose from when you add your book, and this simple act – putting a book on a shelf – leads on to the most complicated concept in the game.
You might notice that there’s no VP track on the game board, which is unusual nowadays. This is because no scoring is done until the end of the game. It didn’t even register with me until halfway through my first play, and my immediate thought was to one of the guys in my games group. He hates it when a game doesn’t have any visible way to keep track of scoring until the end of the game. While the rest of the world loves Great Western Trail, he won’t play it again for that very reason. If that’s a deal breaker for you, you might want to consider it before spending your cash.
Scoring is based on the amount of prestige you collect during the game. It’s everywhere, from little wooden stars you collect, to stars on graduate student tiles, and stars on your player boards when you build enough in one area. The value of each prestige isn’t fixed though, it’s based on the books in the library. Each shelf is appraised separately, with two points being awarded to the colour of the most numerous books, and one point for the colour in second place. If there’s a tie at the end of the game, it’s the colour which managed to get all its books in first that wins.
This all goes to add a really interesting dynamic which some people aren’t going to have a good time with. Not on their first play, anyway. I remember my first game, thinking “I’ve got loads of orange prestige, this is great”, before the hideous realisation that there were almost no orange books in the library, meaning they were worth nothing. That’s hard to stomach if you’re used to games that throw points at you as if they’re dollar bills and you’re the only stripper working the 11 am shift. It adds in this ever-changing, plasma-like layer to an otherwise rigid Euro experience. Your strategy can and will adapt as the game goes on, and a well-placed book in the final turn can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Maybe that’s not your thing, but I love it, like the parallel universe morning shift stripper I could be. My biggest gripe is that there’s nothing included in the box to help you with the final scoring. No track to tally your points, no little notepad to write your totals. In a game which makes you hang on until the very end to find out who won, it’s a janky experience to have to go and find some paper and a pen.
Sankoré then. A game that honestly, not everyone is going to enjoy. The scoring is unusual. There are a ton of interconnected dependencies. It takes a while to set up. If you prefer your games on the heavier end of the spectrum though, this is a real treat. Ian O’Toole’s artwork and graphic design lift the whole thing and make it feel much friendlier and approachable than it might have been. The guy’s a wizard if you ask me. And for once, I play one of Fabio’s games which doesn’t make me feel like it ends one turn too soon. I love his games, but that feeling of “always leave them wanting” isn’t my favourite thing.
There’s so much I haven’t even touched on, from the skill tiles that boost your actions, to the spatial puzzle of which lessons go where on your board and where to place your students. I haven’t mentioned sending your camels across Africa for the Astronomy action, building outposts as you go, or the competition for position around the courtyard you build together. I haven’t talked about the objective cards to help give you some focus in the early game. As ever, my goal here is to give you a feeling of what the game is like to play, and what you’re likely to enjoy or dislike. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty, you can read the rules here.
I want to give a special mention to the solo mode. I was worried running the AI bot was going to be an exercise in flowchart hell, but it’s not. It’s easy to learn and it runs smooth as silk, which is perfect in a game which is going to drain your cognitive ability like a Hobnob soaking up a cup of tea. There are four different bots of varying difficulty to compete against too, which is great. As a solo experience, it’s a fantastic way to practise and enjoy the game on your own.
Thematically it holds its own. The idea of accepting students, putting them through classes, spreading knowledge, and trying to gather prestige in your chosen academic area, is a solid one. It’s represented well in the game. The components are great, especially the game’s insert which does the job very nicely indeed. Setting up and playing the game feels like an Eagle-Gryphon experience, but without the associated price tag, and I love it for that. It’s only January, but I can already see Sankoré being in my top 5 games of 2024.
Review copy kindly provided by Osprey Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa (2024)
Design: Fabio Lopiano, Mandela Fernandez-Grandon
Publisher: Osprey Games
Art: Ian O’Toole
Playing time: 150-180 mins