The latest edition of Santorini, released in 2016 after a Kickstarter campaign, is a colourful and themed version of an abstract strategy, grid movement title of the same name from 2004. Published by Roxley Games and designed by Gordon Hamilton, the title sees 2 – 4 players spend around 10 minutes constructing and climbing iconic looking Santorini styled buildings. However, is there enough taking place on the 5×5 grid to engage players? Let’s find out!
Setup and the gameplay are both somewhat dependant on if you are playing the standard game of Santorini, or if you are playing with God powers – a sort of advanced variant. For the standard game, players need to simply construct the island board, each take 2 workers and determine whom the starting player is. Note, while the game is for 2 – 4 players at 4 players the game becomes a 2 vs. 2 team experience, with each team getting 2 workers.
On a turn a player chooses one of their two workers and performs two predetermined actions. First, the worker must move to an unblocked adjacent tile, with adjacency in Santorini considered to be the 8 surrounding squares (diagonals are included). Workers are limited in vertical movement, to being only able to move up one block of height per turn, though you can move down as many levels as you wish. Next, that worker must build in an unblocked adjacent. Buildings blocks come in 3 types, each type neatly stacking on the previous, and a dome that can be built on top of a 3 block building to block it off. Workers, both your own and your opponents also block spaces for movement and building.
The aim of the game is a simple one. You win at the end of your turn, if on the turn a worker has moved up to the third level. This wording is super important for the advanced God power variant, as some powers can also see workers reach the third level but not trigger victory. For the base game this just means you have to be able to move to the top of a 3 height building and construct a block to win. God powers minutely add to the setup with an ability randomly selected from a deck of 30 cards for each player.
God cards can affect different elements of play. Some tweak the movement or building rules on your turn, such as unlimited movement on perimeter spaces or being able to build the blocking domes on any level. A selection give a limit to your opponent, such as being them unable to move upwards on a turn if you have moved upwards on your turn. Some give new ways to win, such as Medusa where the power can remove opponents workers from the game if triggered. The movement, building and opponent affecting powers are great for spicing up the game, giving players something different to think about each game. Conversely, the powers which add additional victory conditions seem more powerful, as misjudging something will see someone instantly win not just gain an advantage.
Santorini is far from a difficult game, and the rulebook does a great job at both explaining how to play and detailing the various god powers. The rulebook steps players through a single side of rules for the base game and then goes onto describe how to spice the game up with the God powers. Roxley Games has however gone beyond this, producing video content to go over each unique god power. This means if you don’t fancy passing the rulebook around the table for everyone to individually read, or are uncomfortable reading aloud the rules, you are able to just head to Roxley’s YouTube and the issue is averted.
Some board games sit flat to the table, with solid but not amazing components. Santorini is not one of these titles, smashing it out of the park in terms of production quality and is attention grabbing in just the right way. Not only are the building floors built over time, giving height to the game, it is also set off the table via a cliff pedestal. People actively stop and look as soon as the game comes out of the box, let alone during play.
Each element is made from solid plastic, with details that fit the slightly cartoony style of the title. The buildings, which stack up perfectly, are also instantly recognisable by non-gamers, creating an amazing snapshot of the Santorini skyline, blue domes and all. When playing it can be a bit fiddly when building behind a tall tower of blocks, or in a gap between blocks, but the size of the building blocks reduces this negative impact.
Winning Santorini can feel very much like an underdog in a championship. Often you’ll be spending a lot of moves not progressing towards the winning condition, instead actively having to hinder your opponent. However, if you win from being in the position of blocking you get double the sense of accomplishment. Alas, much like at the end of a game of Draughts/Checkers the losing player can often see there is no way out. This can see some people give up only a turn away from the other player winning. It’s only a small thing to move upwards to the third tier. However, a conceding player takes away a small bit of the fun by not allowing the game to officially finish.
Overall, Santorini does a lot of things right. I’m not normally a huge fan of unique player powers but the majority of the God powers work well to make each game feel somewhat different, I’d just recommend removing the winning condition cards. They do this without overloading players with new information game after game, or giving advantages to any one player. The production quality of Santorini speaks for itself and ties up the perfect bundle of entertainment. Calling Santorini a 2 – 4 player title seems misleading. Despite their being rules for 4 players it is more of a forced variant, that could be applied to any 2 player game, to boost the perceived amount that the game will hit the table. At the completely other end of the spectrum, the game works incredibly at 2 players. So much so that I’d effectively refer to it as a 2 player title and recommend it for that situation.
[Editor’s Note: Santorini was provided to us by Asmodee UK for review purposes. The game is currently available on 365 Games for £25.99. It is also available from local UK board game stores, find your local store here]