Time: 10 minutes
Times Played: 15
If it hasn’t become apparent yet, I am a huge fan of games that fit into the abstract strategy category. Santorini is another game in the vein of Blokus, Patchwork, and Photosynthesis and with its recent inclusion in Target stores*, I figured now is as good a time as any to review it.
*Full disclosure, the retail store version of Santorini reportedly has a pared down component quality when compared with the version that I am reviewing but it is still incredibly functional and most importantly, cheaper.*
Santorini the board game takes place on the gorgeous Greek island of the same name, where players act as Greek Gods and Goddesses engaged in a battle of brainpower. The goal of the game is to be the first player to have a builder reach the top-level of a building. Sounds fairly simple, right?
Santorini might be the only game I have played that I would say is overproduced. This feels like someone loved the base idea of Santorini and wanted to pimp it out; not that I’m complaining.
My version offers a 3-D board that has several parts that fit together. The base acts as the waters around the island and provides stability for the brown, plastic-rock island to lock into. This gives the game an immediate wow factor as the board itself is three-dimensional.
Lastly, a smaller board fits into the ridges accompanying the plastic-rock and locks the board into place during play. The board is green with a grid system that represents the land of the island.
Not only is this feature lovely to look at but it is incredibly easy to assemble. I’m talking a minute or two, tops. But do note that if you are going to store this game in the box, it does have to be disassembled to fit back in.
But what about the pieces? Santorini comes with three 3-D building levels that are all white. The buildings are all roughly created to appear as cube forms, with the lowest level being the largest, the second level being a tad smaller and the top floor being the smallest.
When unboxing for the first time, you might look at the all-white buildings as a lazy design decision but when thinking about the aesthetics associated with the Greek Ancients (such as the Parthenon), the color is ideal in replicating the look of Santorini.
The buildings are not completely devoid of color however, as the blue dome pieces that adorn Santorini are the final building block included.
I really can’t stress enough how beautiful and cool these pieces are. They really make the game pop and stand out, almost like one of those designer chess sets. The game could be played with ordinary pieces but there’s something special about going all out.
The game comes with three pairs of builders that allows up to four players to join in on the fun (more on this in a moment). Each pair offers a male and female builder of one color and they are posed with a tool of some sort.
Like most miniatures, these could be painted to be brought more to life but I honestly think the monochromatic colors of the figures works for the game. I do wish the white pair was colored something different due to the all-white buildings but that’s only a minor gripe.
Just like the buildings, the builders offer fantastic detail for what is an abstract game.
Now we get into what separates this version of Santorini from the wood block version that has existed for decades: God Cards.
These are oversized cards that showcase artwork of a figure from Greek mythology and an ability that is bestowed upon the workers of the figure.
The game can be played without God cards and there are varying levels of powers so players can be eased into the game altering mechanics.
I personally love this aspect as it makes the game incredibly replayable as there are thirty God Cards in the base game that can be mixed and matched. The cards do have icons to denote which “power level” they belong to, which is important when you start mixing everything for balance purposes.
There is an expansion for Santorini already entitled The Golden Fleece that adds more cards if you get tired of the base powers. I do not have the expansion so I cannot comment on it but I did want to make you aware of its existence.
The rulebook is easy to understand and its length stems from showcasing what each God Card is and how it impacts the game. The rulebook (at least mine) outlines the abilities offered by The Golden Fleece expansion so you can see what that offers before buying. You could even try the powers out if you wanted.
But the absolute best part of the rulebook is that is tells players which Cards should not be used against others due to balancing issues and rule-breaking scenarios. It just shows the level of playtesting that went into the game.
The rulebook makes mention of an app but for the life of me, I was unable to find it in the Google Play Store on my android phone. Maybe it is for IOS only. I honestly don’t know what the app would add that the actual players can’t do physically, unless it is a digital port of the game a la Patchwork, which I would be all about.
So I just spent 900 words telling you about how cool Santorini looks. But more than likely you are curious as to what this game is about.
Basically, once the board is completely set-up and the players have selected their builder pair, the first player will place their figures on the board followed by the second player. As the board has nothing on it, any place is up for grabs with the only restriction being that players cannot occupy the same space.
If playing with God Cards, they are selected either before the game starts or after you place your builders. You can choose or pick at random. I prefer to offer two Cards to a player at random and let them pick one. Since the choices are public knowledge, you can consult the rulebook to ensure there are no balance issues.
Now the game begins. This is an abstract strategy game so there is not much to keep track of while the game takes place. On a players turn, the following must occur:
Move a Builder – A player must move one of their builder figures to an adjacent space that does not contain another builder or a blue dome. A builder can move to any space adjacent or diagonal from their location, as long as it’s available.
Builders are only able to move up a maximum of one level per turn but if they want to move down, they can move as many levels down as they wish.
Build a Building – After moving, the player places a building in an adjacent space to the builder that moved. It could be a ground level, second floor, top floor or blue dome piece depending on what is already there. No matter what level your builder is on, they can build to an adjacent space (for example, a builder on the ground can place a blue dome piece). Nothing can be placed on top of a blue dome piece. After the building is placed, the players turn is over.
So you are building the town of Santorini but why? What are you trying to accomplish? The goal is to have one of your builders reach the third level of a building. That’s it.
You could also win if the opposing player(s) is unable to move any of their pieces due to being boxed in. I have seen one builder become stuck but not two yet and I honestly don’t know if it could happen unless a player actively sabotaged themselves.
Do keep in mind that what I just explained are the basic rules without God Cards. God Cards will add a wrinkle to one or both of these rules.
Before I get too invested in what I like about this game, I want to mention my only negative and that involves the player count. The box says two to four players and this is simply not the case.
This is not a game for four players and while there are builders for three players, the game does not play well at that count either. It typically delves into a scenario where one player has to make a move that will let another player win, which isn’t incredibly fun for anyone.
At two players though, this game shines and the rest of my review will focus solely on two player interactions.
So that’s it. That’s Santorini. What could someone possibly find appealing about a game that has two rules (besides its looks)?
Santorini is appealing because of how simple it is. Two rules? You can teach this game in sixty seconds. Plus, with a finite amount of board space (even when building upwards), this becomes a quick game that can be a rewarding experience in ten minutes.
Ten minutes might be too generous. We’ve had games, once you get into the flow of things, last around five. Moves are quick and after one game you have an understanding of each play.
Santorini can be defined by the nature of “best-of”. One game is not enough so you play two, then best out of five, then seven, then more. No one wants to be the final loser in a game that takes the time allotted for a commercial break.
You will constantly have an “ah ha” moment where you realized where it all went wrong (or right) and want to repeat that process again.
After playing several times, games could get a little longer as there is more thought and strategy to each move but I don’t think I’ve seen a single one of our games go over fifteen minutes.
Most of our longer games were when introducing new God Cards to the game and learning how to best make use of their abilities.
I think the key with Santorini is that player downtime is seconds as opposed to “rounds”. You have to keep track of what your opponent(s) and what they are doing because one misstep could signal the end of the game.
Due to this downtime, you’re engaged with the game the entire time you’re playing. This isn’t some euro where you can take a bathroom break or grab a drink or let the dogs out as your friend finishes a turn.
“Okay, so this seems light and somewhat strategic, but I feel like this will run its place after I play twenty games of it.”
I had the exact same thought but luckily, the God Cards are here to alter the game in some simple way to promote longevity and honestly? It works.
This small change offers a huge variation to the game and breaks up the monotony of doing the same action over and over again. I think the unsung beauty of the God Cards is not what they offer, but that they can be added and taken away whenever you feel like it.
After playing with the Cards for a while, getting back to the base game can be fun and used as a nice palate cleanser.
Regarding the gameplay and components, one last thing I want to remark on is that the three-dimensional board does not obstruct the view or impede the game in any way. With each move needing to be seen and visualized, a higher board could in theory be an issue for players but the island can be easily rotated to be viewed from any vantage point.
I love abstract games. I love user-friendly games. I love gorgeous games. Santorini hits the mark for all of those categories.
I enjoy complex rules and engine building and variations as much as other gamers, but there is something to be said about a game that has two rules (with an occasional two modifications) that has the replayability and depth that Santorini offers.
I love my version of this game but for the availability and price that Target is offering, you cannot beat the value that you will receive from this game.