Initial Thoughts on a Mansa Musa board game

Mansa Musa (cover)

In 1324, Musa I, the king of Mali, set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Unfortunately, the Mali empire left behind few written records, but we do have the eyewitness accounts of Musa's extravagant procession of 60,000 people and animals. All carried large quantities of gold bars and gold dust that were given to the poor along the way. In fact, Mansa Musa singlehandedly depressed the value of gold across the Mediterranean for decades after his pilgrimage (and supposedly inadvertently helped fund the Italian Renaissance).

I've been fascinated with this story mainly from a science-fiction perspective. I'm reading Iain M. Banks' Culture novels which mostly concern an interplanetary post-scarcity utopia. It's kind of like if Star Trek's Federation, the Borg and Kahn all teamed up to make the universe a happier, more peaceful place. I'm mostly interested in seeing how citizens of the Culture value their time and possessions when neither are in scarce supply.

I've also been playing Jaipur a lot lately. I really like the elegance of taking the top chip from the resource stacks to reward early trades and reflect the relationship of scarcity to value. At UnPub3, I was also talking about roll-and-move games and how they get a bad rap despite several very nice roll-and-move games being out on the market for years.

All these subjects are mashing up in my head into an idea for a roll-and-move economic trading board game. See, Mansa Musa was essentially a medieval singularity moving across North Africa, totally up-ending the stable rule of gold at the top of the economic hierarchy.

It would be fun if you played traders trying to maximize the value of your goods in the time of Musa. You move back-and-forth ahead and behind Mansa Musa along his pilgrimage. Ahead of him, gold and precious metals were still valuable. Behind him, they're pretty worthless and instead education and culture are the most valuable goods.

Here's a mockup of what such a game might look like, mashing up elements of Jaipur with some new stuff.


Components and Setup
  • Two standard six-sided dice.
  • A board showing Mansa Musa's route from Mali to Mecca as a series of 30 spaces. There are also designated spaces are available for resource cards, resource chips and bonus chips.
  • A camel token for each player, placed in Mali.
  • A big Mansa Musa token, placed in Mali.
  • Resource cards Food, Gold, Gems, Silver, Poetry, Maths and Architecture. These are shuffled face down and placed on the board. The top five cards are dealt in a row into the designated spaces of the board along the bottom. As play progresses, cards will move down the line from left to right.
  • Each player gets dealt a hand of five random resource cards.
  • Corresponding resource chips come in a range of values and are stacked in descending order of value, so the most valuable tokens are on top. Food is the only resource token without an inherent value and can be stacked in any order.
  • Bonus chips are separated into three denominations, representing sales executed with three cards, four cards, or five cards. Their values are hidden, so you don't know the value of a claimed bonus token until the end of the game, but generally it's more valuable to claim a 5-card bonus token. 

Outline of Play
This is all still loosey-goosey, so please forgive any vagueness. The player facing east takes the first turn. Turns proceed clockwise around the board. On your turn, do the following:

Step 1: Trade (Optional)
You may trade one card from your hand for a two cards from the board. First, take the two cards you want from the board. Then place the one card you don't want from your hand onto the board in one of the designated spaces on the line. This leaves one gap in the line indicating a benefit you will gain this turn:
  • You don't have to move Musa on your turn OR you can double Musa's movement.
  • You may add 1 to your movement roll.
  • If you sell this turn, treat the sale as if you sold one extra card. So a sale of two cards counts as 3, for example.
  • Gain 1 pt.
  • Gain 2 pts.

Step 2: Sell (Optional)
(You may not do this step if your camel is in the same space as Musa.) Sell two or more cards of the same type from your hand to take one chip from the corresponding resource stack. You will take either the top or bottom chip depending on if your camel is to the east or west of Musa.
  • West of Musa: Top Chip: Poetry, Maths, Architecture. Bottom Chip: Gold, Gems, Silver.
  • East of Musa: Top Chip: Gold, Gems, Silver. Bottom Chip: Poetry, Maths, Architecture.
  • If you sell food cards, take any chip from the stack. They're not valued individually.
  • If you sell three, four or five cards, also take the top chip from the corresponding bonus chip stack.
This swapping of values reflects the depressed prices of scarce resources once Musa passes a city. According to history, on his return trip he tried to repair his damage by borrowing back much of his gold at exorbitant interest rates.

Step 3: Move (Mandatory)
Move your token and the Musa token by rolling two dice. Choose one result to move your token and the other result to move Musa's token.
  • Both tokens may move up to the full distance indicated on the die result but no farther.
  • Musa must move in the direction indicated by the gold arrow until he reaches Mecca, at which point he turns around and begins moving back to Mali.
  • Your token may move east or west at any time.

End of Turn
Move the remaining cards down to fill in the gap. Add more cards from the deck from left to right. If you have more than seven cards, you must discard down to your hand limit at the end of your turn. The next player may take their turn.

End of Game
The game ends immediately when Musa returns to Mali. Each player scores total points from their collected resource tokens, any points earned from trades, and points for food tokens.

Food tokens are scored as a square. For example, one token is worth one point. Two is worth four points (2x2). Three is worth nine points (3x3) and so on.

The player with the most points at the end of the game wins!


  1. Daniel, I'm really sorry we didn't get to meet at UnPub. I heard a lot of buzz about "Belle of the Ball" and really wanted to get to play it.

    I love the historical inspiration behind this "Mansa Musa" game concept. My wife and I are huge fans of Jaipur (which I picked up at WBC after hearing Chris and Cherilyn Kirkman's recommendation), and I see the strong influence here. The shifting supply-and-demand mechanic is clever; it would be great to see how it plays out. I'm just a little hazy on the mechanics of the card array and how they relate to the words in the spaces (gold, poetry, maths ...)

    I'll be following to see how this develops.

  2. Yeah, that's just the limitations of this mockup. It's meant to show that the cards will show one of those six resources. Cards that don't get picked up move down the line and become increasingly more valuable.

  3. I'm guessing that this was in part inspired by Crash Course History? Since you mentioned them with the Monsoon Market, I can't stop watching :)

  4. Yup! Something about that series presents history in very game-able nuggets.


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