Designed By: Dr. Gordon Hamilton
Published By: Roxley Games
Playtime: 10-20 Minutes.
This copy of Santorini was provided to me free of charge by the amazing people over at www.chaoscards.co.uk who you should certain consider visiting and purchasing from.
There is a type beauty to be found in so many of the huge, sprawling boardgames on the market, a type of beauty that exists within the majesty of chaos. Right now I’m playing The Colonists, a massive game that can take anywhere up to eight hours to play through all of its four eras , weighs over 3KGs and has piles of resource tokens and tiles and wooden pieces. It’s dauntingly vast, a game that sucks up brainpower and spits it out like a particularly horrid brussel sprout. There’s beauty in its webs of rules, though, in the same way I find beauty in other huge games with complex rules and systems that take hours and hours to learn. I’m looking at you Arkham Horror and your myriad of fiddly mechanics.
But that messy beauty can never quite hope to match the pure pleasure that elegant game design can bring. It is, to my mind, the reason chess has thrived for as long as it has. At its core chess is simple, a few basic rules governing a game that can take a lifetime to master. Compared to learning how to play something like Arkham Horror picking up the basics of chess is like child’s play, but that simplicity hides a game of immense depth. It is elegant, and from that comes sublime beauty. From a few different types of moves flows a challenging game of predictive and reactive strategy that demands perfect concentration from its players.
Santorini is the same, just a handful of easily understood rules that govern a challenging, wholly satisfying abstract game where long-term strategy and reactive tactics are the key to victory. Luck is minimal, skill is rewarded. Yet it’s covered up in a wonderful aesthetic that makes it welcoming and relaxing, the kind of game you can play casually to pass the time or competitively, a furious duel of move and counter-move between players.
Here’s how you play; on your turn you must move either of your two workers one space in any of the cardinal directions, and then build one piece of a tower in any unoccupied adjacent square to that worker. Towers are composed of a base, middle block and a top pedestal, with a final blue dome being used to finish it completely and stop anybody from climbing up it. To win the game you need to move a worker up to the third level of a tower, whereupon the game ends immediately. The catch is that workers can only move up a single level at a time, so they can’t simply leap up to the second or third floor from the ground. They can, however, drop down any number of levels. Finally, if you can’t move or build on your turn you lose.
That’s it. That’s the basic rules of Santorini. But how the game plays out feels a lot like chess. You begin by making some long-term plans about how you want to build based on the initial worker placements. Once the game gets going it’s a case of predicting an opponent’s moves, planning multiple turns ahead, and in the eventuality that you’re wrong smartly reacting to their tactics. It’s so damn simple to learn that I taught it my niece, who is a mere eight years old, in a couple of minutes, and yet once you begin playing you realize just how much depth there is to it. It moves at a pleasing lick, too, with matches rarely going more than 15-20 minutes. It’s a relentless pace of move, move, move, agonizing decision, move. Truthfully it’s hard to put into words just how good Santorini feels to play.
It also helps that it’s a visually breathtaking game that boasts a damn near orgasmic level of tactility. The wonderful 3D board is entirely pointless but it adds so much charm to the game, as does the incredible artwork on the tarot-sized God card, a mechanic we’ll be getting to in just a minute. The star of the show is obviously the chunky plastic pieces used to create the towers as you play. These go together with a strangely satisfying sound and contrasted against the pastel colors of the board look beautiful, especially when capped with the blue domes. My only complaint with the presentation is that fitting everything back into the box nicely is a bit of a pain.
Now we arrive at the true genius of the game. Once you’ve gotten a few matches under your belt it’s time to introduce The Gods. Each player will get a God card, either drawn randomly or picked out if you fancy making specific matchups. These cards offer up a single power that doesn’t so much alter the way you play as it does seismically shift the entire game, often breaking the basic rules in order to get you thinking differently. Hera, for example, stops the opponent from winning on any of the perimeter squares while Pan can achieve victory by jumping down from the second level of a tower, a tricky thing to block. Meanwhile Athena stops opponent’s from moving up if you jump up on your turn, Limus won’t let anyone build next to her workers, Bia can remove the opposition’s workers from the board when moved correctly, Ares is capable of destroying the topmost floor of a tower, Zeus lets his workers build underneath themselves and Prometheus gives his workers the power to build twice on different spots provided you don’t move upwards during the turn. These Gods dramatically shift the way every match of Santorini plays, creating fascinating duels between two players. With thirty Gods in the box there’s a lot of variety and none of them feel less interesting to play. Indeed, you’ll probably wind up with a few favorites. My preferred method of playing was to lay out a pool of ten random Gods and then we’d just pick who we wanted. It led to some awesome matchups.
Of course, balance could potentially be a problem. Pan, for instance, feels like he might be too easy to win with since he just needs to drop down from a second-floor to pick up the victory. Without playing dozens and dozens of games, though, it’s hard for me to really say if every matchup is going to be fair. Figuring out how to counter specific Gods will undoubtedly be one of the things that keeps me playing for a long time to come.
So what other flaws does this staggeringly elegant game have? For starters this review has been focused on the two player version of the game because the three and four player variants just don’t work in my opinion. With three players another two workers are added to the small 5×5 board and things become too chaotic and awkward. You can’t move without bumping into someone else who will block your moves, and I found that the elegance of the game got lost. The four player game pits two teams of two players against each other, with every person controlling a single worker. This isn’t as bad as the three player version, but it does mean you have four separate God powers at work which can again make things somewhat messy. In other words this is a game I believe is at its very best with just two people sitting across the table from each other.
The few flaws I can find within Santorini never truly tarnish its extraordinary beauty. This, to me, is a masterpiece of design, an elegant game that hides something deep, engaging and fun beneath its simplistic exterior. The game clearly never did get the attention it deserved when it was initially released way back in 2004. This lavish production by Roxley not only immeasurably improves the games aesthetics but something special has been added in the form of the God cards whose abilities make every match more dynamic and exciting. Every person I introduced Santorini too became instantly hooked. They immediately grasped how it played, how to counter and block other people and could play competitively, but learning to plan many moves ahead is something that comes with time and experience, and that is time I’m more that willing to commit to this wonderful, wonderful game.