Santorini proves that the simplest gameplay can produce some of the deepest strategy in this beautifully produced and thematic (re)production of a classic game.
|Santorini||Roxley Games||Board Game|
In The Box
Editor’s Note: The version of Santorini we’re reviewing here is only available to Kickstarter backers. A retail version will be available soon with a slightly different configuration, that we’ll explain below.
I have fond and slightly painful memories of playing checkers with my great grandfather, who never ever let our 60+ year age difference prevent him from unleashing the skills he’d honed over his many decades. As gaming paradigms go, checkers and Santorini occupy similar territory. Both are easy to teach and work on a simple grid layout, but where Santorini came into existence minimally designed like checkers, it is now sporting a major upgrade.
That design refresh comes courtesy of Roxley Games and Kickstarter, where over 7,000 backers put up almost 3/4 of a million (CA$) dollars to release a game envisioned by Dr. Gordon Hamilton. Hamilton is part of the team behind Math Pickle so it’s no surprise that Santorini is pure strategy and logic at heart. The new layer of thematic content takes Santorini outside the realm of abstract strategy, with the addition of characters from Greek mythology. These gods, goddesses, heroes and creatures live in the game as oversized cards you’ll use during the game to imbue your workers with godlike powers.
These cards are incredibly well illustrated and durable, but they won’t be the thing you’ll marvel in Santorini. Scads of molded plastic blocks form a communal building pool for use during the game, modeled on the blocky, blue-domed buildings of the actual Greek island of Santorini. Building blocks come in three tiers and sit on a unique board that is itself stacked on a plastic base resembling a craggy Mediterranean isle. Top this off with a set of whimsically molded worker figures for each player and you’ve got the fundamentals for a game of Santorini.
The Kickstarter release differs from its upcoming retail version in that it also contains a copy of the add-on game, Santorini: The Golden Fleece. New cards and tokens, new worker figures and a plastic rams-head figure representing the fleece comes in a small box, that adds a huge amount of variation to the gameplay. All this added up to a fairly pricey bundle on Kickstarter, but it’s one of those games that will leave you feeling like you got more than you paid for once you take a look at all that’s included.
How It Plays
The core game is playable without any of the god cards and draws on the simplest rules: Move one, then build one. Santorini claims to be best for 2 players but supports up to 4 with team rules. Each player (or team) has two workers deployed at the beginning of each match and makes the choice to move one worker one space within a diagonal grid, before adding a block within one space at any height. The elevation of the board changes and workers can always move up one level or down any number of levels. The first worker to step up to the third level instantly wins for that player or team.
If this sounds impossibly simple you’re beginning to understand the appeal of Santorini. Much like checkers or tic-tac-toe you’ll find that what feels like free choice early in the game turns into a set of very limited options. Most matches end in some version of “check” or “checkmate” based on one or two moves that seem harmless enough until you realize your opponent is preparing to climb that third level and there’s absolutely nothing. you. can. do.
Adding the god cards gives you a special ability that can change…everything. Where you used to move one you may now move any number of spaces. Where you used to build one you may now build two. And those are just a couple of gods among the fat stack of cards you’ll find packed in with the game. A set of more advanced gods make things even more interesting, and what we loved was that all the god powers are in some way thematic. This game is like candy for fans of Greek mythology and the outrageous success Santorini enjoyed on Kickstarter allowed Roxley to unlock more and more gods from the pantheon.
After playing the basic game and exploring god cards you’ll want to crack open the Golden Fleece expansion. We may devote an additional review to this later but the basic idea is that the gifts of the gods are now only active when one of your players is near the fleece. There are also now hero cards that offer one-time-use powers, great for balancing the game when a more experienced player is battling a newbie. Also new to the Golden Fleece expansion are tokens, used with special cards like Charybdis, who drops whirlpool tokens on the board that whisk workers between them like a portal!
We often find ourselves recommending a game with some caveat like, “If you’re the kind of person that likes x, y or z…you’ll like this game.” That’s because we’re trying to be as fair as possible and recognize that not all players like the same kind of game. But Santorini? If you can’t find your happy place on this board, you might as well just hang up your gaming credentials and walk away. Simple mechanics but not simplistic strategy, easy to learn but hard to master, beautifully produced, this one has it all. Get your hands on a copy, you’ll be glad you did.