Full disclosure: A review copy of Santa Monica was provided by Alderac.
The outdoors! They’re still there, I assume; haven’t really had a chance to check, lately. Either way, games about the outdoors would be the next best thing if I had people in my house who were super into gaming at the moment. But, I don’t, so I’m making it work as best as I can. And though that makes reviewing harder, it seems like y’all have been enthusiastic about two reviews a week, and I appreciate that consideration since we’re gonna try to keep that coming until I run out my stash of stored reviews (and then will probably go down to one review a week, whoops). But some new games are gradually coming, which is good. I’m getting through them as quickly as can be expected for a person who doesn’t really have a game group, anymore. I digress. Next one on the list is Santa Monica, the latest from Alderac that reminds us of what going outdoors used to be like.
In Santa Monica, players vie to create the most tempting boardwalk by filling a street and a beach with attractions that cater to locals, VIPs, and tourists alike. This is done through a quick-and-simple drafting system, where you can always take a card from the front row of cards and it’s then refilled from the back row. While some cards award sand dollars, which can allow you to make more complicated moves, others give you Tourists or Locals, which can be moved around your play area to potentially score (or lose!) even more points. VIPs can also earn you points for following their specific requests. Play until any player has 14 cards in their tableau, finish the round, and then tally scores. The player with the most points wins! Can you create the ultimate boardwalk?
Player Count Differences
Not a huge difference between various player counts, I’ve found, depending on how you want to play. At lower player counts, you’re competing over everything anyways, so, competing over card types may not be that much of a new thing. The one thing to watch out for is that card churn is a lot lower at lower player counts (only 36 cards [14 * 2 + 8] will be seen over the course of the game, as opposed to 64 cards in the four-player game), so you may not see all the cards you want to see. Means at lower player counts you may be fighting just for Generally Good Cards, rather than cards that advance your particular agenda. At higher player counts that’s compensated for a bit with the extra cards, but now you have to worry about having overlapping goals with an opponent and them trying to come after your cards. That’s not too big of a deal if they’re to the left of you, but if you’re to the left of them you’re likely in a bad way, as you’ll have to get pretty lucky if you want to expose a card that they’re not going to swipe. Stay flexible. To that end, I probably like this most at two players? I’d rather have to deal with a bit of unfortunate card randomness than handling a lot of churn from my opponents.
- You really gotta try to get a combo going for you. I think that’s quite often the best way to get a ton of points in this game. Even more points if you can get multiple of the “one point per symbol” cards of the same type. That’s probably the best outcome, but don’t be surprised if your opponents try and stop it from happening. After all, they can usually see what’s coming up next, and see if it benefits you too much.
- Keep an eye on what your opponents are taking, but keep in mind it doesn’t always benefit you that much to try and snake them. Like I said, you can see what’s coming, but it’s not always to your benefit to take a card that will essentially help you score nothing. If you are worried about your opponent taking it, you can always do the classic Power Move and force your opponent to decide if they want to take it or if they want to let your mutual opponent take it. Just be careful! If they don’t notice, then your opponent ends up with a very good card. Up to you if that’s worth it.
- Try not to leave your rings unoccupied. They’re essentially bonus points if you can get enough people in them, so, try to do that.
- Don’t get more people than you can handle. This is kind of the fundamental problem with getting too many people; you’re going to start having crowds, in a bad way. The game will give you negative points for people who aren’t inside of a ring by the end of the game, so you should try to make sure you’re either gradually moving them or that you’ve got a plan to get them moved before the game ends, I’d say.
- That said, don’t let the negative points rattle you too much. Sometimes it’s better to take a -1 to gain a +5 than it is to take a +2, right? You’ve got to balance that risk/reward curve if you want to pull off a win. Just make sure you’re not teetering towards a -6 or something overwhelming.
- Your VIP can be a 5+ point boost if you work them correctly. Make sure your tableau accommodates this if you can. You need to get them moving pretty frequently and getting set up for the right cards to be in your tableau. The key to that is trying to balance getting cards that work towards your objective and cards that grant you mobility. Or, just get a bunch of sand dollars and use the abilities that let you move any person.
- Watch for how many cards your opponents have. There’s a chance that they can get more cards than you by a quirk of the sand dollar abilities (specifically the ones that let you take multiple cards. If this happens, they may be ahead of you in terms of “ability to end the game”, which might deprive you of a turn you were expecting to be able to take. Don’t take that for granted.
- Don’t forget that you get one final movement phase at the end of the game. This can also be critical to wringing out the last few points you might need to win. Tourists and VIPs can move 1 space each; Locals can move up to 3. Try to make sure that people are in place such that you can send them where they need to go. It can be very lucrative!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really like this game’s presentation. A lot. I think the box is particularly inviting, especially now (since as of writing I still can’t really go anywhere other than the grocery store, which isn’t that exciting). It’s just … a very pleasant beach experience. A bit washed-out, like staying in the sun too long. I really like it. The rest of the game is cartoony beaches and streets that are fun, vibrant, and brightly-colored. I like the world that this game creates for itself, and I think it just looks great every time it hits the table.
- The puns are also nice. A lot of the restaurants and attractions have some pretty solid puns to them. I kind of wish they were all puns, but this isn’t The Good Place, I suppose.
- It’s a very streamlined tableau-builder. It’s almost the simplest you can get as a tableau builder. You take cards for free and add them to your tableau, and then you have a bit of a point salad scoring at the end of the game (where you score a variety of points for a variety of different things). The major things that change this up are the rows of cards letting you preview the next card that’s available, the two rows of cards you have to create, and, of course, the movement mechanic of the tokens on your little beach.
- The movement mechanic for the guests is a nice add-on without increasing the complexity too much. I really like it as another thing that you have to balance and a potential area for losing points. It runs basically tangential to the game’s other tasks, so it becomes pretty easy to not focus on it and then get a bit tripped up, or to overindex on it and spend a lot of effort for comparatively few points. It creates tension, which is a good bit of design, I feel. Plus, it makes the game feel like an authentic beachgoing experience, as tourists and locals tend to congregate at certain places (sometimes the same place!).
- The final presentation of each player’s play area is also really nice. It’s similar to Everdell in that I feel like I made a lot of progress by the end of the game, and I really like how it turned out. It would be fun to come up with your own street name and canonize it, since the only really external thing that impacts your score is whatever the scoring tile you used for the game was. Plus, all the cards are numbered, so it seems like it would be possible to render them online, if you had a render for each card. But my imagination is working overtime, again. It’s a nice thought, though.
- The visual language / graphic design of the game is simple enough that it can be quickly understood and internalized, making this game really easy to show to new players. I think that this game has some really simple iconography and that allows me, the player, to quickly translate that into “how does that help me score?”, which is good. I think for what it is, it’s relatively easy to learn (at least among games with primarily iconography).
- The game plays pretty quickly, as well. It’s a fast 45, I feel, since all players take fairly short turns (since your turn action is really taking one card). There’s not even much of a point to like, trying to have players overlap their turns; the turns are very short and there’s just a lot of them.
- Some of the sand dollar abilities (particularly ones that let you take more cards and accelerate the game) can be pretty interesting. I like that they’re different every game, and that there are eight of them total. I think the variety of those and the scoring tiles can make for some pretty unique games without adding too much overhead.
- This is a game best played on a playmat or surface, particularly a wide one. Since you’re likely going to want to move cards around (or even swap them, depending on your sand dollar abilities), it’s easiest to play this on a surface that makes picking cards up off the ground easy. That, unfortunately, is not a valid description of my dining room table.
- There’s not much in the way of a box insert, which makes me feel like the game box could definitely have been a lot smaller than it … is. I could go on a tirade against oversized game boxes (and I have in the past), but I’ll just encourage you to read one of my reviews about that. The game box should fix the size of the game. Hopefully, this means that expansions are coming to fill out the box, but essentially only the middle third of the box is filled.
- The art’s great, but the components only being screen-printed on one side means if you’re particular, like me, you’re going to waste a lot of game time making sure your pieces “look right”. It’s a very minor nitpick, but it’s one that’s been affecting me a fair amount.
- Speaking of minor nitpicks: having only the sand dollars be double-sided is really throwing me off. It’s nice that there are eight unique abilities instead of four, but there are the scoring tiles and the start tiles as well, and neither of those are double-sided, so I keep forgetting that the sand dollars are. I suppose that makes me a sand dullard. Alas.
- It’s a bit unfortunate if you’re fighting for cards with another player and you’ve got other players who aren’t caught in that scuffle. It comes down to a bit of my problem with card luck in this game in general — I played one game where a player would have probably won, but they banked heavily on a card from a small set (one point per tree icon) coming up and it just … didn’t, for the whole game. Similarly, certain players have VIP overlaps and it may lead to some contention over a relatively small pool of resources. That can be a bit frustrating, but even moreso if that pool of cards doesn’t actually come up that often. If you aren’t seeing them, it might be time to consider changing plans to something that’s more available.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I’ve solidly enjoyed my plays of Santa Monica! I think it does exactly what you want to see in a fresh tableau-building game. It’s quick, easy enough to learn, and adds a few fresh new things to make it engaging. When I say quick, of course, I mean that it’s fast-paced; this is still a 45-minute game. What really draws me in is the art, honestly; I mentioned earlier in this review that it’s a bit washed-out on the cover, color-wise, and I love the feeling of like, time spent at the beach that that evokes. It’s a very pretty game. Add in that you get to develop a pretty fantastic beachy tableau, and it’s a game that looks good from start to finish. And y’all know I’m a sucker for that exact kind of thing. Even the graphic design is good! It took me a minute to figure it out when I was getting started (since things are at the top on the Beach Cards and the bottom on the Street Cards), but I’m with it now. I’ve got a few gripes around the production of the game itself — mostly that the box is too big for the game and there’s inconsistencies in what objects are double-sided and different on both sides — but that’s not explicitly bringing down my enjoyment of the game. It’s just one of those things I look at and am like, “meh?”. That’s the nature of things, I suppose. We’ll see how the game evolves, anyways; maybe there will be more to justify the full-sized box (as opposed to Point Salad or a similar box size). Either way, I do quite like Santa Monica, and I’m excited to play more of it, so if you’re looking for a fun tableau-building game with great art and some novel quirks, I’d recommend checking it out!