13 April 2019

Board Game Review: Santorini

I realised recently, much to my surprise, that I hadn't yet reviewed Santorini, published by Roxley Games and Spin Master Games. Let's fix that right now, shall we?

The cover art from the Santorini box.It shows a small island with buildings of the style of the Greek cities on Santorini being built by two cartoon representations of Greek Gods (specifically, Poseidon and Aphrodite). A few humans can be seen on the island, in the buildings, and on the nearby mainland. In the background, Hermes and Demeter are watching from a cloud.

This is a surprisingly deep and thinky-thinky game for as quick and simple as it is. It feels like it was designed as a kids game, and although the rules are simple enough that children can easily learn to play, there's enough strategic depth to satisfy most adults.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we? Let's look at the numbers:

the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome.   Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3   means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook   frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have   one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a   game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous   card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine   possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is   beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play   harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average:   The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design   is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design   is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay.   Worthless: The design is ugly, and makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game   Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings   measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These   areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive   challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct   hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social   Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy   describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 0
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 20 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: High
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Santorini

This game is actually a re-release of an earlier version. The original was released in 2004, and was simply a series of white wooden blocks in various shapes. According to Board Game Geek, it was a self-published game. But in 2016, it was rereleased by actual publishers, with a major upgrade in aesthetics. The nominal theme of the game is to build the white buildings with blue domes that are typical of some of the cities on the Greek island of Santorini. Here's a photo of one such city (specifically, the city of Iola):

A panoramic photo of the city of Iola, with its characteristic whitewashed buildings, several of which are topped by blue domes, on the craggy island of Santorini, with the Mediterranean Sea visible in most of the left half of the photo.

By comparison, here is a photo of a game of Santorini in progress:

The board is a cardboard square with irregular edges, printed to look like a grassy island, but with white lines resembling building foundations marking out a five by five grid. This board is sitting on a plastic frame designed to make it look like craggy cliffs rising out of the sea. On the board are several plastic buildings of various heights, some of which are topped by blue domes. Two blue and two grey plastic figurines can be seen on the board; one of each is on the board itself, and the others are on top of two of the buildings being constructed.

So the new version definitely has a significant advantage, attractiveness-wise. But of course, looks aren't everything; how does it play?

Santorini is an abstract strategy game. There is no randomness whatsoever in the base game; players start by taking turns placing their workers (the pawns they use in the course of the game) on the board in any unoccupied square. Each player has two workers (except in a four-player game, where players are on two teams of two, and share both workers of their colour).

After all the workers are on the board, a turn consists of moving any one worker of the active player's colour one space in any direction, and then placing a level of a building in any space adjacent to either one of the workers (the one that moved or the one that did not).

Buildings consist of three levels and a dome:

A completed building, along with the four pieces that go together to make up the building. The bottom level, on the left, is a square building with round-topped doors and windows, and a staircase that leads up along the sides of the building (starting on the front, continuing in the side, and reaching the top of the block in the back). The second level, to the right of the bottom one, is just a slightly smaller block with similar windows. The third level, one more space to the right, is a square base with pillars that support an octagonal platform with a circular indentation on top. All three of these pieces are white. To the far right is a simple blue dome of the right size to fit in the circular indentation on the third level. Behind these is the completed building, which is simply one of each of these pieces stacked appropriately to make a finished tower.

When building, you simply place the next lowest level of the building that is not already present. That is, you'll put the lowest level in an empty space; if there's a single level in the space where you want to build, you put the second level on top of that; if the space has two levels, you add the third level to that, and then you may put the dome on top of a building that has three levels. Nothing may be added beyond that.

When moving a worker, you are allowed to move up one level. Thus, if your worker is on the ground and is adjacent to a building that has only one level, you may move up on top of that level. However, if you're on the ground and the building next to you has two levels, you may not move onto that building, as you would be ascending more than one level to do so. You are allowed to move down any number of levels, but you may only go one level up at a time. You are not allowed to move onto a building that has a dome on top of it.

Players move around the board, strategically placing their workers and building buildings, until one player is able to move one of the workers onto a building that has three levels. That player is declared the winner.

Permutations in Santorini

As I said, it's a very simple premise. But there's a lot of strategy involved; preventing your opponent from moving up, whilst also manoeuvring yourself into a position to reach that coveted highest level and claim the victory. It's surprisingly thinky!

But then, to make it even more interesting, the game comes with a series of God Power cards. Each one is named after a character from Greek mythology. Here are a couple of them:

Four cards, each with a cartoon representation of a character from Greek Mythology: Hermes, the Minotaur, Zeus, and Chronos. The first two have a small flower icon in the lower right corner; the other two have a blue spiral icon in that place.

The rules state that the most 'god-like' of the players chooses which cards to use in a game, and each player then gets to choose one of those cards. What exactly a 'god-like' player is, I don't know, and the rules don't go into any detail on this. So effectively, I think it's safe to choose cards in whatever method you prefer.

But the god power cards come in two levels: Simple and Advanced. The simple cards are a bit easier to understand and don't have as big an effect on gameplay. In the photo above, Hermes and the Minotaur are of the Simple level, indicated by the flower in the lower right corner. The blue spiral icon on Zeus and Chronos indicate that they are Advanced cards.

Whichever card you have determines what additional ability you have in the game. Hermes, above, grants his player the ability to move an unlimited number of spaces around the board, as long as that player does not move up or down any levels when doing so. The player with the Minotaur card is allowed to move a worker into a space occupied by another worker; that worker is pushed one space away in the same direction as the active player's worker moved.

Zeus's ability allows the player with that card to place a level of a building on the space occupied by that player's worker. Effectively, one worker is building underneath itself. Chronos's player gains an additional win condition: if there are ever five domes on the board, Chronos's player instantly wins the game.

The inclusion of the god power cards is optional, and changes the feel of the game slightly. Without those cards, there is no randomness in Santorini at all. With them, there may be some (depending on how players choose their cards), but even then, the randomness will have only a very minor effect on the game. If it weren't for the cards, I would have rated the Strategy of Santorini at 6, and the Randomness at 0.

Final Thoughts on Santorini

I like this game. It's quick and easy, but with some depth and strategic complexity to it. In addition, the components are very pretty, and it's nice to see the game progress as more and more buildings get completed. The inclusion of optional asymmetrical powers adds a nice touch of customisation as well, allowing players who prefer a little less of a straight-up abstract strategy game to change things up just a smidgen.

Now, let's not forget the Six Characteristics of a Good Game:
  • It ends decisively.
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It's relatively simple.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency.
It certainly does have all six of those characteristics, and in spades! Not bad at all!

So there you have it. My review of Santorini. If you haven't already played this game, I hope I have provided you enough information to decide if you want to give it a try! I will see you back here again next week, and until then, remember to

Game on!

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