Santorini (Spin Master Games, 2016)

Date played: April 7, 2020 (with follow-up research on April 8)

Basic details: 2-4 players (though designed for 2; 3&4 player games have modifications); 20 minutes

Expansions used: Golden Fleece

Gist of the game: You’re a builder on the Greek island of Santorini. Your task is to construct beautiful buildings and be the first to arrive at the top of the 3rd level of a building. You can keep others from reaching the 3rd level by placing a dome on the building before your opponent can make it to the top.

To begin the game, players place their workers (one player at a time) on the game board).

On their turn, players move a worker to an adjacent space.  A worker can move up 1 level on a building or down any number of levels (i.e., you can move your worker from a level 1 building to a level 2 building, and down to the ground from a level 2 building, but not from a level 1 building to a level 3 building). After you move a worker, you build by adding a level (or placing the first level) to a building in a space adjacent to that worker. A building is “complete” once it has 3 levels and a dome. A player who moves to the 3rd level of a building on their turn instantly wins.

While the game can accommodate 4 players as teams, and has a modified version for 3 players, it is designed to be a 2 player game.

Color commentary: Ok. First, it is unclear what benefit having a “complete” building gets you, other than to maybe block an opponent from getting to that 3rd level, but this was largely a moot point because…

We did not have a game that the first player lost. Put differently, being the first player guaranteed a victory because first player gets to move/build first, and then alternating between that spot and an adjacent spot, you can quickly build your way up to a 3rd level and move there. We’ll return to this point shortly, but it definitely impacted our enjoyment of the game.

The game boasts that it is easy to learn, and indeed it is. The instructions suggest that you should play multiple rounds of the beginner game (no god cards, no expansion mechanics), but we live and play hard and after playing the first round in like 5 minutes decided to amp things up for the second game. God cards change mechanics of the game, whether it is what you can do in the move phase of your turn, in the build phase, during setup of the game, your win condition, your overall turn, or your opponent’s turn.

In this second game, I had Dionysus, who stipulates: “On your build: Each time a worker you control creates a Complete Tower, you may take an additional turn using an opponent worker instead of your own. No player can win during these additional turns.” M had Eros: “Setup: Place your workers anywhere along opposite edges of the board. Win Condition: You also win if one of your workers moves to a space neighboring your other worker and both are on top of Level 1 blocks.” Alas, God cards did not alter game play enough to make it any more enjoyable.

Feeling desperate now, we busted out the Golden Fleece expansion. In this expansion, you can place a little golden ram statue on the board. Any player adjacent to the ram can forego their regular turn and use the god card’s action. In this way, there is one god card per game rather than per player, and both players can in theory utilize the power. We drew the Siren card: “Setup: Place the arrow token beside the board and orient it in any of the 8 directions to indicate the direction of the Siren’s Song. Your turn: You may choose not to take your normal turn. Instead, force one or more opponent workers one space in the direction of the Siren’s Song to unoccupied spaces at any level.” M started this game with one of his workers next to the golden ram statue, which he used to move my pieces a few times. This did complicate things somewhat for me, but not enough to cause me to lose (and I was the first player).

There are also hero cards in the Golden Fleece expansion, which are not played in games with the ram statue (unclear why not, but we obey all instructions), and which give players a special ability once per game. These seem marginally more interesting, but we had already grown too bored with the game to play again when the basic strategy hasn’t been altered in any way.

I’d heard rave reviews of this game, and we ended the evening feeling like we must have been doing something wrong, so I went on Amazon in search of consumer reviews. One 1-star review noted that the game was very simple. The 3-star reviews were most helpful. A number of them talked about the game being chess-like in its strategy and presumably replay value, though others noted that gameplay could be repetitive and more like checkers than chess.

Still feeling confused and disappointed, I had a text conversation with my sister, who suggested that perhaps some of the strategy might be in worker placement at the beginning of the game, to prevent the first player from proceeding unimpeded. I experimented with this possibility the next morning while M was at work; I played both players. I deliberately tried to block in player 1, and while it seems like in this case player 1 might not be guaranteed a victory, there were still undeniable advantages to being player 1, and it still seems like an arms race (building race?) between only two of the workers, just like when we were un-strategically placing our workers to start.

I suppose that, if nothing else, this was a valuable lesson in playing a game before buying its expansions, which is a sad lesson for me to learn, because I really like the idea of having the expansions on hand when I start. On the other hand, buying the expansions with no knowledge of whether I actually like the game hasn’t produced all that many negative results, so maybe the lesson isn’t all that valuable. Also, I’m sending the game to a good friend to play with her tween, which makes it feel like less of a waste.

Thoughts from M: Why do I care? I don’t. The game board on its little rocky cliff and the set up are cool, but the game grants a pretty insurmountable advantage to the 1st player. Like tic tac toe, you just have to not mess up to win (or play to a tie, but you can’t tie in Santorini, and so Santorini is an even worse game than tic tac toe. By the way, I recently played tic tac toe with adults as part of a team building exercise and I was amazed by how many of them do not know the basic mechanics of the game.)

I do think this would be a much better game for younger children who are just starting to learn and think about strategy in games. For them, the first-player advantage and strategy of just moving back and forth between 2 spots on the board may not be so obvious, and the game might present more of a challenge and more enjoyment.

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