Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa proves that higher education takes time

Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa is going to be called a lot of things in this review… It’s clever, it’s beautiful and it’s fast-paced once you teach it, but it’s also daunting and opaque to truly understand, and I’m already predicting that it will be the heaviest game I play in 2024. If you like games that offer instant gratification in the very first play, this isn’t one for you, but spend some time with it and Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa might reveal that beauty isn’t just surface deep.

In Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa each player acts as an administrator in the great university. On their player board, they add students into each of the four disciplines (mathematics, law, astrology and theology) and then take them through classes, ultimately graduating them when the time is right. 

Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa

On their journey, each student will pass through a basic class and then up to three advanced classes that the player must first add to the curriculum. As each class is taught, the focus of the player will move from their player board and to the main board — which is split out into four areas that each align to the four disciplines.

Given that Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa is one of the most arduous rules teaches that I’ve ever had to give, I am going to spare that here and try to just give you an overview of how things come together. The gist of it is that when a class is taught, the player doing the teaching will take one of four types of pieces (wall for maths, crowns for law etc) that are lined up on their player board and will place it onto the relevant area of the board. 

The strength of this action (which is the sum of the numbers shown in that section of your player board, the shared value for that discipline and any bonuses you may have) dictates what strength you’ll have to take that action with. As an example when a maths class is taught, the player would look at their walls section (let’s say the one is revealed) and pick the next wall up, then move it to the main board and look at the shared knowledge (let’s say two) and then place that wall on any free section up to a value of three (one plus two).

In the maths part of the board specifically, placing walls allows the player to gain gold based on the row or column that runs outwards from where the wall is placed. They may also get to take the bonus on a single tile in that row or column and to flip it, but that’s only if there is one. On the Astrology board when a class is taught, the player moves their camel outwards into North Africa and places a camp where they land. In law, a crown is placed in one free space and then takes a skill token. In theology, a mosque is taken and then built in one of the great cities of the Malian empire.

Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa

Even with all that said, I haven’t even touched upon the scope of what happens in Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa. On their turn, every player must take two different actions, and teaching a class is just one of them — whilst thankfully the remainder is much simpler. Perhaps one of the most interesting other actions is to take a student, and these appear (randomly seeded) in the four discipline locations around the board. To be clear, the game starts with four rows of random students (each focusing on one of the four disciplines) and when you enrol one, you’ll take the rightmost student in any row.

This is interesting because up to twice per game, taking these students can trigger a majority scoring. The first of these will grant the winner (if there is one) a book, which is a key resource and critical to end game scoring. The second majority scoring will grant a prestige token, which is the other part of end game scoring — I’ll explain this once I’ve finished talking about students. 

A student must begin its journey on your player board below the correct introductory lesson, but as a student makes its way up the board, even an astrology student (for example) can learn theology or law. The key thing here is that each lesson has a bonus on it that will only trigger if you use the correct student, so whilst you don’t have to, you will want to try and make your students take an optimal path through your lessons based on their discipline.

This is also made interesting because aside from one advanced class that you’ll draft at the begin of the game, players must choose to add classes later in the game by spending a book and using an action. Many of the bonuses on these classes do interesting things including adding more power to the action itself, providing resources such as books, salt or gold or even (for very high ranked classes) providing a prestige token.

Now, I did promise you that I’d talk about scoring — and that would depend on me having a solid understanding of it — which is debatable, but I’ll do my best. Scoring can be boiled down to a simple mathematical equation if you like, but getting to that equation is the difficult bit. In short, you’ll score each prestige token that you’ve collected during the game (including those on tiles, printed on objective cards and those on graduated student tiles) and then multiply it by the score for that particular discipline which is determined by a player-created library.

You what? I hear you ask. Yes, I haven’t mentioned the library yet, so let me do that now. Whenever you spend a book in Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa (for example when you build a wall when teaching a maths lesson) you’ll place it into the library. The library has either three or six shelves (depending on whether you use the basic or advanced sides) and basically, only the discipline that has the majority of books on a shelf will score. On the advanced side, each of the six shelves scores either one or two points (with no prizes for second place) whilst on the basic side, the three shelves will each give two points for the most popular book and then one for the book in second place.

Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa

To try and give an example, if a player has three blue (astrology) prestige tokens and two green (maths) prestige tokens, then they will take those values and multiply them by the book majorities held by the blue and green books on the shelf. For example, if blue has a majority on two shelves then this player will have a blue score of three multiplied by two (ie six). If green has no majorities among the books, then believe it or not, your green prestige tokens won’t be worth anything.

Scoring ranges in Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa can vary dramatically, and a new player may well score 20-30 points whilst after a few games, that same player could easily reach 70 or more. The thing to take away from that is that Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa is a proper, grown up game. There’s no hand-holding here, and you will truly need to think two or three moves ahead at all times.

On the note of there being relatively little assistance in Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa, it is also possible for players to get themselves irrecoverably out of shape. As an example of this, there are two main sources of books in Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa (which are via the general supply and through the theology action — which rewards the player with a book for building a mosque). When the general supply runs out, that’s it — so any “take a book of any colour” symbols are no longer of any use and that can mean a player wanting to take the maths action is pretty much stumped.

I only mention books because of course, everyone wants (and needs) them for scoring, whereas the other resources (salt and gold) are nowhere near as tough to get hold of or as sought after. I don’t know how long it will take me to fully understand — let alone master — all of the nuances of Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa, but I can tell you that the six and a half games that I’ve had so far are not enough. 

In attempting to keep this review readable, there’s also a lot of low level detail that I’ve had to skip over. For example, I haven’t mentioned the favour track — where players can clog up prestige token spaces on their board in favour of taking an immediate benefit. Nor have I mentioned that the ultimate spots on the theology board allow the player who builds those mosques to claim spaces on the maths board that trigger smaller, immediate scoring for prestige tokens.

If I had unlimited time and a willing group of players, I’d love to play a game like Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa every day. It looks absolutely gorgeous (as almost all Ian O’Toole games do) and following a very heavy initial teach, the actual flow of gameplay is very quick and relatively clean. But what’s really interesting about it is how the random nature of the book and student placement drives a completely different game each and every time.

Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa is a tough game to get to grips with, but as your score iteratively creeps up with each successive game and you feel you really understand it, the reward comes in the form of satisfaction. Clever games like this are worth spending time with, and this superb design, whilst definitely one for fans of heavier games, is going to be among the most interesting titles of 2024 without doubt.

You can find Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa on Wayland Games.

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