I first saw the strategy board game Sanctum at Origins 2019. At that time the CGE demo team explained how this board game is meant to recreate the feel of fantasy video games like Diablo. I was sold on the concept immediately.
Note due to this being a CGE game don’t expect a fast and furious dice chucker. This is actually a highly strategic Euro that is all about planning ahead, choosing which demons to kill and optimizing your equipment. But does it feel like Diablo? Read on to find out.
Disclosure: CGE provided me with a review copy of Sanctum, no other compensation was provided. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
What do you get with a copy of Sanctum, a Diablo based board game?
Sanctum was designed by Filip Neduk and features artwork from Jiří Kůs, Ondřej Hrdina, Jakub Politzer, František Sedláček. It was released at Gencon 2019 by Czech Games Edition. Sanctum plays two to four players, with games taking about two hours at the maximum player count and less with fewer players.
To get a look at what you get with a copy of this board game version of Diablo, check out our Sanctum Unboxing Video on YouTube.
There is a lot of stuff in the box for Sanctum. It’s a big heavy box, and not a lot of that is excess cardboard from punchboards. Most of the weight is due to three double-sided act boards, an achievement board, and a hordes board, as well as four player boards that are so large they actually fold to go back in the box.
The four heroes included in the game are The Huntress, The Outlaw, The Slayer and The Dancer. Each is totally unique with different starting Stamina and Focus as well as a unique set of skills.
To go with the player boards are four player reference sheets, twelve skill tiles and twenty-four skill cards (a set of nine for each of the four characters), rage tiles, health counters, and a highly detailed miniature. These miniatures are really sweet looking, on par with some of the best miniature game minis.
Sanctum at its heart is a dice chucker and it comes with twenty-four six-sided dice. Most of these are black with gold pips but there are four that are black with silver pips. Unfortunately, I find these really hard to tell apart. On a positive note, the colours really don’t matter much when you are playing. The silver dice are meant to represent dice you can only earn when using certain skills, so you remember to remove them from your dice pools at the end of a fight.
You get a number of very nice plastic counters in this game. There are twenty-nine blue and red clear discs for tracking Stamina and Focus, eighty-four frosted plastic gems in four different colours and twenty-nine clear grey discs for tracking damage and locked skills.
The punch boards include twelve achievement tiles, eighteen double-sided potion tiles and three divine intervention tiles that are placed on the main boards and give players more dice during the game.
The rules for Sanctum are full colour and include a ton of examples and artwork of actual game components. The book twenty-three pages long, with a reference sheet on the back. I personally wish that the rules featured a larger font and weren’t light text on a black background. I found it rather hard on my ageing eyes. On a more positive note, I did find the rules were presented in a very logical order which made looking things up during play easy (something we did have to do a few times during our first plays).
Finally, it’s worth noting that the game does come with a bit of a box insert. There’s a plastic tray that’s meant to hold and protect the miniatures and also hold most of the loose game components like counters and dice.
How is Sanctum the hack and slash fantasy board game played?
The overall theme of Sanctum is the plot of the Diablo series of video games. Characters start off in their village and go out and kill wave after wave of demons, attempting to improve their gear and learn new skills in order to breach the walls of Sanctum and fight the Demon Lord. Every monster that is killed lets that player advance their character skills and every dead demon also provides a piece of equipment.
While this sounds like Sanctum could be a cooperative game it is not. The winner of the game is the player who manages to have their character survive the final battle with the most life left or the player who manages to do the most damage to the Demon Lord if no one survives.
A game of Sanctum starts with everyone picking a character. The game comes with four characters that are all very different from each other, with each having a unique set of nine skills that can be unlocked during play. The two main resources in this game are stamina and focus and each character starts with a varying amount of both. These resources are represented by red and blue pools on the character board that are going to look very familiar to Diablo players. Players also start with two gold six-sided dice and place a third die on to their player board with a white gem on top of it. This third die is eared when the player equips their first piece of equipment.
Once player order is determined, characters get some starting stuff, either potions or the ability to level up some skills, based on player order. Interestingly potions are two-sided, with a red Stamina side and a blue Focus side, and you flip your starting potions like a coin to determine which you get.
Sanctum comes with six boards total and the number of boards used is based on the number of players. You lay the first two boards out, shuffle all the card decks and put them in their proper slots on the Hordes Board and save the two Demon Lord decks for later. The Achievement Tiles are also randomized and placed on the Achievement Board.
Each round players pick between three actions: Move, Fight or Rest. At the start of the game, everyone will need to move before they can fight, and there’s no reason to rest until you have fought. This makes it easy to teach the game as you are playing, something I appreciate.
Moving: The player moves their character to the front of the line on the board. If they are already in front, they just move up one spot. Then the player spawns Demons. Demons come in three levels, 1, 2, and 3, and there are three colours of Demon cards, red, blue and green. In addition to their level and colour, each Demon also indicates what type of loot it will drop when killed. The board space moved to indicates which Demons or pairs of Demons the player draws and places on the board. As the game continues the monsters spawned will get stronger.
After spawning monsters, the player will draft one of these sets of Demons to later confront by placing them on their personal player board. Choosing Demons to face is a tough choice as you need to take into account the monster level, the number of monsters you are drafting, what dice numbers are needed to defeat the monsters versus what dice numbers your equipment can help you produce, what colour the monster is (this affects what skills you get to level up if you defeat them), and what items the monster will drop when killed.
If the spot moved to is the last spot on the board everyone also plays through a special treasure round. The acting player turns over all of the already placed Demons on the board and players then draft the revealed equipment (which they get for free) in the order they are currently in on the board.
Finally, moving to some spots on the board will unlock more dice for all of the players. These Divine Blessing spots happen twice per game.
Fight: The fight action has you battle the Demons you have previously drafted during a move action. Each Demon card shows one or more dice on their cards depending on what level they are. They also show a number of blood drops at the bottom of their cards, which indicates the damage that Demon will cause if not defeated.
Players roll their dice and try to match the numbers on their dice to the numbers on these Demon cards. If the dice don’t match up, that’s when equipment comes in to play. Each character has seven equipment slots, five of which start with basic equipment printed on the player boards. Each piece of equipment will have a number of slots on its card where players can spend Stamina or Focus for some benefit, most of which involve modifying die rolls by one more pips.
In addition to using equipment, players can also modify dice by using Rage. Each character has a Rage ability that lets them set one die to any side they want. However, using Rage is limited to once a turn and it only refreshes if when a battle ends a player cannot spend all of their dice and there are monsters still left to fight. If a player can match all of the dice showing on a Demon’s card that Demon is defeated.
If there are any Demons left after a player spends all of their dice, their character takes damage. They add up the blood drops on all of the undefeated Demon cards and then the player has a chance to use equipment to reduce this damage. Damage reduction spots on equipment cards are usually found on armour, helmets and footwear. Like changing dice results, players spend either focus or stamina, depending on what the equipment shows, and place it on their equipment to prevent this damage.
After using equipment, any leftover damage is done to the character’s health which starts at ten. If a character runs out of health at any point during the game that character dies and the player is eliminated from play. Note this should only happen during the final battle with the Demon Lord.
Next, the fighting player gets their rewards for the Demons they defeated. Besides being a new piece of equipment for the character, each demon killed will let the player level up their skills on their player board by moving gems up. The gems moved have to match the colour of the demon killed. Players have three columns of skills, one in each colour. As gems are moved up the column and off of skill cards, if a skill has no gems left on it the player unlocks that skill for their character. Gems that reach the top of the skill tracks can be used during the rest action to equip gear.
Rest: When resting a player gets to remove all of the Stamina and Focus tokens off their gear and return them to their pools. Then they get to equip new gear.
Each piece of gear equipped will require the character to spend gems that they unlocked while levelling up their skills. The number of gems is based on the level of the equipment (which is determined by the level of Demon that dropped that piece of equipment). Characters can only equip one piece of gear in each of their seven equipment slots. The slots are Helmet, Armour, Right Hand, Left Hand, Boots, Magic and Signature Skill. The Signature Skill slot is a bit special, as it gets filled when the player unlocks one of their nine skills and not with an item dropped by an enemy.
Note: every character gets one free wild skill gem at the start of the game, but all other gems have to be unlocked through levelling up the characters’ skills. Also, when that free wild skill gem is first used to place a piece of equipment the player also unlocks another die for their character.
After equipping, any excess gear can be traded into the bank for potions. Each character can only hold four potions. Potions are used to move focus and stamina tokens off of a character’s gear and back into the respective pool.
Achievements: At the end of each action, you check to see if the acting player has unlocked any achievements. These are earned for being the first character to do certain things such as unlock a number of gems, learn a number of skills or equip a certain amount of gear. These achievements grant bonuses that the player can use during the final battle.
The game continues until a player gets to the last board and arrives at the gates of Sanctum.
At this point, the game changes tone quite a bit. The only actions players can now take are to Fight or to Rest. This continues until one player has beaten all of the Demons on their player board. Once this happens the Demon Lord appears and you enter into the end game.
Players now get an option to continue to fight the Demons they have left on their player board or to answer the call to arms. The longer they wait the more horrible things will happen to them before the final fight. These horrible things are represented by Demon Lord cards. Each of these when revealed gives the players horrible decisions that either cost the life points or cause characters to lose one or more resources.
Once all of the characters have answered the call to arms and faced the Demon Lord’s wrath, everyone gets one final chance to Rest and rearrange their equipment. From this point on players won’t earn anything new (no new skills, no new equipment).
To play out the final fight, players each deal out on to their own player boards a set of five face down Demon Lord cards and four Fury cards. They then place their miniature on the first Demon Lord card and start the final fight.
This final battle works basically like the fighting earlier in the game except the demon lord is tough. You have to face all five of his cards at once, each of which requires two dice to defeat and does two damage each. What this means is if you don’t get past the first card on the first round you are looking at taking ten damage.
To make matters worse, and harder for all the players, after defeating each Demon Lord card you flip up the next Fury card and move your miniature down to that next slot. These Fury cards have more of those hard choices where players will either need to take some form of permanent penalty or lose heath. The Fury cards each have two or three dice symbols on them and also need to be defeated or cause even more damage to the player.
As if that’s not enough, after each round during the final battle, depending on the difficulty level your group is playing at, the players may have to deal with more of the Demon Lord’s Wrath by flipping over a number of additional Demon Lord cards. The default difficulty is two cards after the first round and one card after the second.
This final battle is not an easy fight. In the games that we have played, not once has every character made it to the end. As noted above the winner is the character standing with the most health left, or the one that got the furthest when battling the demon lord.
My thoughts on the fantasy board game Sanctum from CGE:
I have to say that what I got from Sanctum is pretty much exactly what I expect from CGE, a game that takes what seems like a pretty simple theme and turns it into a rather heavy brain burning Euro game. This game is probably not what people expect when they see a dice rolling Diablo based game. I think most people are going to picture a ton of fast and furious die rolling, taking down wave after wave of baddies, and just getting more and more stuff and rolling more and more dice until you get to a big climactic battle. Actually, that sounds like a pretty solid real-time dice game, but that’s not this.
Sanctum is all about strategy, tactics and resource management. This starts right from the beginning of the game where players will be looking at their character skills and what they want to unlock first. Then using that decision to figure out what colour of Demons they want to take on, while also remembering to take into consideration what gear types they want to find.
While the game can be played just by grabbing random Demons that are up and being surprised by what you get, to play well every choice needs to be considered in relation to where you are at that time and where you plan to go with your character.
I think the system behind Sanctum is brilliant. The way the designer tied in the Demon Lord card colours to the character skills and the different equipment types is very well done. It’s all very well balanced and I would hate to see the amount of playtesting that went into getting this right.
As for being a good board game representation of Diablo, I think Sanctum does a really good job of recreating parts of Diablo.
What you won’t find here is the real-time dexterity requirement and that “stress of being swarmed by enemies” feel of Diablo. This is a deliberate thinky game that rewards planning and thinking things through over fast action. What I found most reminded me of Diablo was picking what to fight in hopes of getting the right type of item. For example, realizing I need a better weapon and specifically picking enemies that drop weapons in order to find one. What I found even more Diablo-like was the Rest phase where you are trying to optimize your character by equipping the right combination of gear, figuring out what gems to use where, etc.
My one complaint with Sanctum is the paradigm shift between the main game and the end game Demon Lord battle. Despite the fact that the final battle is still all about rolling dice to match the numbers on cards and using your equipment to mitigate the randomness, it just feels somehow different from the rest of the game.
You spend the entire game gearing up for the main battle and then that battle feels quite different from the rest of the game. Though you are doing the basic actions from a normal fight phase you are no longer learning new skills or getting new things, just rolling a bunch of dice and trying to use your existing stuff to the best of your ability. Even describing it right now I realize it doesn’t sound that different from the rest of the game but there’s something there, it just feels very different while playing it out.
Overall, I really dig Sanctum for what it is. Knowing this was a CGE game I had a good idea what I was in for. However, my biggest worry with this one is that people are going to pick it up expecting one thing and get another. While I do think this is a very cool board game adaptation of video games like Diablo if what you like about those games is the fast and furious hacking and slashing you aren’t going to find that in Sanctum. Instead, you will find a dice-based game that’s actually all about randomness mitigation and managing your resources while deliberately planning your next move and advancement path to prepare you for a final big fight. If that sounds like something you would enjoy then definitely check out Sanctum.
Sanctum isn’t going to be for everyone, not even all Diablo fans, but I do think it’s a very solid game for people who like dice-based Euro games, even if they don’t care for or care about the theme.