Base price: $50? [Currently unavailable for retail purchase.]
Play time: ~20 minutes.
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?) [Will update link once it’s available at retail.]
It was a good December for Kickstarter games. One Deck Dungeon, Santorini, Blend Off, and a few other games I had been looking forward to finally arrived. I’ll try to get them on the review queue as quickly as possible, though there is a chance I’ll switch back to biweekly a bit for 2017 just to slow my life down. We’ll see; no guarantees, yet.
Anyways, Santorini purports to be the “first game” (in its lore), as the various figures of Greek Mythology settle their differences not by fighting, but by encouraging the locals to build up on the island of Santorini, with the greatest god being the one who can coax the greatest building skill from the workers. Can you utilize your abilities to push your workers toward success?
This game’s got some cool setup. So, the first thing you’ll notice is two boards and a sort-of-connector thing:
You slap all that together and you get the island of Santorini, which should be slightly elevated. Next, each player gets a male and female Worker:
Cool. There are also some pieces — big base pieces, medium middle pieces, small top pieces, and blue domes:
Just kind of set those somewhere nearby. You’ll need them for the game. Now, you’ll have some God cards:
They’re very colorful. For your first game, set them aside — you’re just gonna want to learn the rules, which are incredibly simple. Seriously. And that’s about it! Choose a player to go first, and they place their Workers, then the other players place their Workers. Once everyone’s placed, your area should look like this and then you’re ready to start:
So let’s break this up into sections.
So the basic game is this: On every turn, you must move one of your Workers in any direction (orthogonally or diagonally). You must then build by placing a piece on any of the eight spaces surrounding your piece (if you’re on an edge or in a corner, there will be fewer options).
- You cannot move into a space blocked by another Worker, even yours.
- You can move up at most one level.
- You can move down any number of levels.
- You can move along the same level normally, one space at a time.
- If you ever move up onto the third level (from the second level to the third level), you win!
- You can place a base piece (level 1) on an empty spot, a middle piece (level 2) on a base, a top piece (level 3) on a middle piece, or a dome on a top. You can use the dome to block other players who would potentially win, since they can’t stand on a dome.
- If a dome is already on a tower or other space, you cannot build further on it.
- You cannot build on a space occupied by a Worker. You can’t build “under” them or “on” them. You just can’t.
Basically, building works like this:
So as I mentioned, if you move up onto the third level, you win! There are a couple game-end caveats:
- You must move up. This means that if, for some unknowable reason, you end your turn on the third level, you do not win. Similarly, if you move from the third level to another third level, you do not win. You have to be on the second level and then move up. It’s important!
- If you cannot both move and build on your turn, you lose. This is for if you somehow manage to get yourself locked in, so try to avoid that.
Continue play until someone wins. Yup. It’s really that simple.
Advanced Gameplay (God Powers)
So, as I mentioned earlier, there are a bunch of god cards (and I’m required by some Greek Mythology education to mention that they are not all gods):
Like, 30. That’s a lot. You can use these to augment your game by giving each player a different ability that bends or modifies an in-game rule, sort of the like Apothecaries in Apotheca (but without having to buy them, and only ever getting one per game [generally speaking]).
If you’re looking to get started, there are 10 Basic Gods (numbered 1-10) that are a bit simpler to play with, so you might want to try those first:
Once you’ve gotten the handle on that, try mixing in the extra God Powers. Some give you new win conditions (jump down two levels, build five complete towers, have your Workers adjacent to each other on the first level), some give you new abilities (if you don’t move up, you can build, then move, then build; opponents cannot win by moving into a perimeter space; you can push opponents’ Workers if you move into their space), and some are just weird (you can axe-murder your opponents’ Workers, or basically any of the God Powers in the Golden Fleece expansion). It’s a great thing. Try them out, see how you feel about them.
That’s really about it. It takes a solid minute, tops to learn the basic game, and not much longer to learn the God Powers.
Player Count Differences
The game itself suggests it’s best with two, so I’m inclined to trust it. Note that for three- and four-player games you must play with God Powers. I might have forgotten that my first couple games whoops.
That said, I’ve played it with three and it seems like there are a lot of times in which it’s (humorously) viable to set the player two turns after you up to win in order to force the player between you to block them, or ignore that player so that the player between you has to do something about it.
At four, you split into teams of two, and you alternate control of your workers with your teammate. Basically, it’s just that you get two God Powers and you alternate using them. It’s not as weird as it is at three, but it adds extra complexity to the space that I don’t think is super needed. It’s best at two.
A lot of the strategy is matchup-specific, so I’ll try to avoid getting too into the weeds with that. That said, there are a few things you should be mindful of:
- Building in the corner is fine, but moving into the corner is dangerous. You don’t want to get blocked by building (and there are only three ways you can move out of the corner), so be careful to make sure you always have a way out.
- Generally, the easiest way to win (without God Powers) is to block your opponent such that they can’t put a dome on the level three piece you just placed. Easier said than done, though.
- With God powers, I find that it’s useful if you have powers that enable you to build more than once to try to get between a few level 3 spots. This means that even if your opponent can move and dome one, there’s no way for them to dome both. That is, unless they have a God Power of their own.
- Try to figure out where and when your God Power is useful, and play to your strengths. Can you build twice as long as it’s not on the perimeter? Stay near the center. Can you move infinitely along the perimeter? Try to keep along that. In the same vein, try to figure out how to block your opponents’ strengths.
- Watch out for alternate victory conditions. This is often a problem if you’re playing multiple games in one session, but Pan, Eros, Chronos, and possibly more have alternate victory conditions and can still win the normal way. That can be a bit dangerous if you’re not paying attention or expect them to play the game normally. That said, generally, that means they have no special power, so you’ve got a leg up on them, there.
- Sometimes just being obnoxious is a perfectly valid strategy. You can just build a second level on your opponent’s first level placements, meaning that they can never climb up if you’re committed enough. Sometimes that sort of obnoxious playstyle will bait them into a mistake. I can’t recommend that it won’t get you punched in the face, though, so … at your own peril, I suppose. I spent an entire game as Atlas (I can place domes at any level) just placing domes on everything. It didn’t pay off, but we both got a good laugh out of it.
- Really watch out for God Powers that let your opponent remove your Workers from the game. As you might imagine, if you have no Workers, you cannot move or build, so you lose. That changes the game a bit, so be careful with those. Don’t want to get jumped in a Santorini alleyway or something.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- One of the easiest games to teach / learn I have in my collection. It really only takes a minute to teach the base rules. So simple.
- I love the art. It’s incredible. So colorful, yet whimsical, yet like, really cool and evocative of the mythological figures. Everything about it is great.
- The pieces are also really good quality. They’re plastic but stack together very satisfyingly. The island board is a super cool idea. Honestly, the production value on this game is preposterously top-notch.
- Tons of variety. There are 30 God Powers in the regular game alone, leading to, what, 435 combinations? (Someone check my math — not my forte). That’s a lot of potential games, especially if you want to swap God Powers and try again or get in a rematch after a silly loss. You won’t be playing the same game twice.
- Family-friendly. I’ve seen a lot of photos on Twitter / Instagram of backers playing it with their kids and, unfortunately for them, getting trounced by their kids. It doesn’t seem to have a super high age barrier, and it’s thematically appropriate (and could actually be a solid jumping-off point to teaching your kids about Greek mythology, if that’s your thing, though you might want to gloss over … most of it … until they’re a bit older. You do you. I’m not here to tell you how to parent).
- Satisfyingly strategic, given the length. I feel like I’m thinking the right number of moves ahead to be successful, and I am genuinely pleased. If I lose, it’s usually traceable to a mistake that I made. This is not a very luck-dependent game, unless you feel like there are “better” God Powers than others (and there might be, but I haven’t played enough to have much of an opinion on that).
- Plays fast. It usually plays in 10-20 minutes, which is short enough that you usually want to play another. And another. And another. It’s essentially Netflix bingeing, but as an abstract strategy game.
- Building up towers is satisfying. Something about the way the pieces clack together, maybe, but I like that every game results in a different-looking Santorini and that there are actual towers to build. It helps that the pieces look nice, too. It works well for my photography.
- Delivered on time. I know it doesn’t have to do with the game, but props to Roxley Games for actually delivering their rewards on time. I just really appreciate that.
- Fairly silent game. It’s a bit “thinky” (since you’re often trying to anticipate moves and think a few steps ahead), so I don’t hear a lot of conversation or discussion while playing. Not a big deal, but just something to be mindful of. I see this with Splendor a lot, too.
- It can be tough to place tower pieces in the center if you built up around the sides. It might have been nice to space out the board a bit, but, this is honestly the biggest complaint that I have and it’s the nittiest of nitpicks.
- Some of the matchups can feel a bit imbalanced. I imagine that’s just par for the course with 30 gods, but for instance, Hera (blocks your opponent from winning by moving into the perimeter) seems completely useless against Chronus (you win when there are five complete towers), which can frustrate some players. They do do an excellent job of “banning” certain matchups with the expansion (because some of them are literally hilarious), as well, but if you have a bad matchup, you can just … play with other Gods. I’m fascinated to see if a metagame or a tier list of God Powers evolves.
Overall: 9.5 / 10
I was going to sit on this review a bit longer to avoid giving it a review out of pure hype, but then the more I waited the higher my score went, so I kicked it out now. Plus, I’ve played 43 games and watched a good 10, so I feel like I’m pretty set in my thoughts on this. My current opinion is that Santorini is incredible! High production value, quality components, amazing art, fun gameplay, short + digestible length, really just firing on all cylinders. I could see myself playing this for a long time, as it’s a satisfying cross between a building game and some abstract strategy, which I really appreciate. I would overwhelmingly recommend this if you’re interested in abstract strategy games, and even if you’re not, it’s still worth a try. I can see this being a mainstay in my collection for a long time to come.