Santorini Review

Santorini Review

Santorini is as picturesque as the island it is named for, with its brilliant white cuboid buildings and wonderfully aquamarine domes, it is a seemingly simple, yet refreshing abstract strategy game that will satisfy many a gamer should they chose to visit.

I have a great fondness for the simple, perhaps because I am so, but games that can be taught and explained in a handful of rules will forever hold a special place on my game shelf.  Santorini takes pride of place on that shelf.  As can often be the case, just because it is simple, does not mean it is not capable of great depth, with Santorini its depths, despite the simplicity, are easily overlooked.  When explaining the game to people I was frequently met with “Is that it?” and a barely concealed sneer of indignation that this was my offering for game’s night.  Oh, how quickly those sneers were replaced with puzzlement and dumbfoundedness as the little green board blooms with white cuboid blocks, where each is a new opportunity, each is a risk and often at the same time.

Santorini board game Review long shadows

You have two workers, represented by exceedingly cute mini-miniatures.  In your turn you move one to any vacant, adjacent space, then, with that same worker, you must build one additional piece of a structure to any vacant, adjacent space.  When building on top of a structure, you simply add the next level, of which there are three and then the dome.  If you can get one of your workers to third level you win.  If you can’t move or build, you lose.  That is the entire basic game.

It’s so simple you could play this with young children, true, you’d probably kick their arse, but you can still do it.  But playing with another adult, this game can be gruelling, within a handful of turns your plan has already spiralled widely out of control as your opponent storms over and begins thwarting each attempt to build, or worse yet, races up your edifice that you have painstakingly built.  Although there is no direct conflict, no workers are removed from the game and buildings are not torn down.  Instead, the mere presence of the “enemy”  is conflict enough.  It is so easy to dome a building, thus making it void for the purposes of winning.  In Santorini, there are no idle workers, each one is a threat.

SANTORINI BOARD GAME REVIEW IN PLAY

You can’t be passive in Santorini, you have to act, trying to strike that balance between protecting and investing in your own interests but also never straying too far from those structures of your opponents.  There’s no ownership, it doesn’t matter which player lays the foundation of a structure, just who stands atop it.  This is the very centre of the game, where the joy, like in many games of this ilk, thrives on prediction and calculation.

Placing a worker on the top of a three storey building is the means by which you will win the game, but the game is really about being at least three steps ahead of your opponent.  With deft skill, you’ll have to shepherd your opponents to where you need them to be, which is far enough away to not interfere, but close enough that they cannot run amok.  This paradoxical balance will cause most of your thinking time, as you are torn between progressing your own design or scuppering an opponent's.  The big problem here though, is that everyone is attempting the exact same thing.

The simple actions you take each turn prevents an overload of options.  You move, then you build.  There's nothing that you can really get in a twist over, even when the more taxing God cards are thrown into the mix.


Santorini scales rather neatly in difficulty, with some wonderfully cartooney God cards  These add special player powers or win conditions that dramatically shake gameplay up.  All of a sudden, you are no longer forced to build, or you can make additional moves, some powers even limit what your opponent can do. The God cards not only add more complexity to the game but also a lot of variety.  As games can often be very short—especially at two-players—by refreshing the God deck games will play out differently, the board state will look completely different as you have more ways to act and interact with your opponent.

Santorini does what all great abstract strategy games do, it forces you to plan way ahead, to anticipate your opponent.  You’re never just thinking about this turn, never simply reacting.  Everything has a consequence, and due to the slick rules, these consequences are all visible, just not always seen.  There comes a great deal of satisfaction from hearing your opponent say something along the lines of “I didn’t see that move.”, and equally so to say it.  This satisfaction stems from the fact that the game and your opponent has ultimately surprised you, and there aren’t a lot of games that do that.

Santorini board game Review god cards

As you play more and more of this game, and it is easily done very quickly, you’ll start to develop your own set of strategies, patterns of play that you find especially effective.  Yet, like many games of this ilk, Chess being the obvious example, Accumulated Wisdom becomes a factor, as player refinement can mean that experienced Santorini players will find less enjoyment and challenge in games against someone less experienced.  On the flip-side of that, the new gamer at the table probably won’t enjoy being trounced.

However, one thing about this game in particular that makes it a great gateway game, or a game for younger players, is that you’ll never really feel robbed, or cheated by a loss.  There is experience to be collected for both players at the end of the game, whatever the outcome.  All the information is perfectly visible to all players and so tracing the series of actions that lead to a win is easy.

There are no complex choices, just a complex series of simple movements and buildings.  There is a surprising, and delightful depth to a game that looks more like a toy than what most would consider a “hobby board game”.  This all blends together to present a game that at once is light, fun, and charming but also poses interesting and thought-provoking choices.


This review is based on a full retail copy of the game provided by the publisher. 
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