Sunday, February 4, 2018

Gods like buildings

Recently the board game Santorini came into my household and I wanted to write about it because I think it is an excellent game for parents to acquire to help bridge the gap between complicated strategy games and trivial children's games.

The board is a 5x5 grid with each player having 2 workers to move about.  Every turn you move a worker and then that worker builds 1 unit of a building next to themselves.  The buildings have a maximum height of 4 units, and when the little blue top cap is put on you can't move onto it anymore.  You win by moving onto a building of height 3, and since you can only move up 1 level at a time there is a lot of strategy in terms of blocking opponent's plays and working on your own plans.

The game is actually pretty great for little kids who want to make up their own rules and just play with the pieces.  The buildings can be fun to build and even if a little kid hardly knows how to win they can easily enjoy themselves just using the bits.

A slightly older kid will be able to play the game properly and have fun with it even if they aren't much good at it.  The rules are incredibly simple but the possible ways the game can play out are extremely varied.  It is like chess or go in terms of possible number of plays but dead simple to get started on.

The game as described so far would seem to be solved, or at least repetitive, but there is a wrinkle.  It can be played just as is for small children but better players get a God card to change their abilities.  Some Gods can move twice in a turn, some can destroy enemy workers if they move a particular way, yet others have new win conditions.  There are dozens of Gods available and each one drastically changes the strategy so the game has an enormous number of different configurations. 

Advanced players will find all kinds of interesting challenges depending on which God cards are in play, and if any particular card emerges as being obviously too powerful there is a way to play that fixes it:  Player 1 picks two God cards and Player 2 decides which player gets which one.  This strikes me as a good competitive structure to use and certainly keeps a single unbalanced card from wrecking the game.

The game can be played with 2, 3, or 4 players and my limited experience suggests that the 2 and 4 player variants are the best ones.  4 players play on 2 teams of 2 players each, which works, but the 3 player version did not seem ideal to me.  It was a lot of people forcing other people to defend against the 3rd player's win condition and then kingmaking occurred.  I think in a well played 3 player match it would nearly always be decided by kingmaking and that sucks.  For non competitive players or small children this probably isn't an issue, but for good players I think the 3 player version is bad.

Santorini does a bunch of things well.  It is a good toy for small kids, a good introductory game for medium ones, and seems to have deep strategic potential for adults.  It is dead simple to explain but optimal strategies are hard to calculate, and that combination makes for a great game.

I don't know that I would play a lot of Santorini competitively but for a hybrid game that can be good for all ages and skill levels Santorini is top notch.


  1. How long does it take to play? Is it something to bring over when we expect to have an hour to kill between/after other games?

    1. Highly variable. Can play in five minutes, probably an hour only if people sit there thinking for fucking ever.