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Santorini Review – Level Up

Within this board game renaissance there is a sub-category of games that deserve a bit of attention. These games are the two player strategy game, taking the concept of games such as Chess, ancient stratagems and a whole tradition of player-versus-player games, to a whole new level. The games we are talking about include the fantastic Onitama, the illustrious Hive, and, of course, Santorini – the game we will be talking about today.

Set in the middle of the Aegean Sea, the Greek island of Santorini is a truly beautiful site to behold. Genuinely, if you haven’t looked it up, I recommend you do. It has amazing architecture. What is more, I don’t think a game has ever captured its theme quite so completely or physically as Santorini. It really is something truly unique.

Santorini Review

The end of a game of Santorini, won by the blue player.

What is Santorini and how is it played?

Santorini is a two player game that was originally released in 2004 by designed Gordon Hamilton. It was republished via Kickstarter in 2016. In Santorini players act as a variable Greek god or goddess, looking to help their workers complete the most impressive structures in Santorini as quickly as possible.

Santorini is an incredibly tactile game. It is a game set on a 3D base that represents the island. The players must build the civilisation of Santorini, one piece at a time.

As a game, Santorini is actually incredibly simple to play. The board is made of a 5×5 grid, and players control two separate workers. Each turn the players must move a worker one space and they must build one level. Levels can be built in one of four parts – level 1, level 2, level 3, and the dome.

There are a couple of other nuances. You can move up one level at a time if you decide to move onto a building, but you can move down as many levels as you want to in one jump. Finally, you can build on any space neighbouring the one you end your turn on. You must always perform the actions in that order – move one space, and build one space. Simple.

Workers can be moved in any order (you don’t need to alternate), and that is more or less the base rules. The first player to reach the height of level 3, and stand a worker on top, wins the game. This is where the strategy comes in – since you can only move one space at a time or go up one level at a time, you need to create your route to the third level (or three blocks high). Likewise, you always need to keep an eye on your opponent and see where they are. If they look like they can move to level 3 you can build a dome on it to stop them – assuming you are positioned in the right place.

Now, those are the base rules, but it does get more complex.

Santorini Atlas

Atlas as a god card.

There are 30 god cards in the game, depicting different gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece. At the start of the game two get chosen, and each player chooses one. These are separated into Basic Gods and Advanced Gods.

That god gives the player a special ability throughout the game, to use however they see fit. This adds more variety to the game and makes the game asymmetrical. Examples of this may be Atlas, who can build a dome at any level, or Athena, who stops opponents moving up on their turn if you did.

And that is basically it. Santorini is an incredibly simple game with a very basic premise. That being said, it is also a game with a lot of variety and replayability; however, as close to perfect as it may be, it does have a few aspects that need a closer look. Let’s take a look at what it is like playing Santorini and pick the game apart a little bit more.

Santorini Review - Mid Santorini

Mid-Santorini

What’s it like playing Santorini?

You know, we’ve talked about two player strategy games quite a lot on this blog, especially with games like Onitama and Hive; however, Santorini can’t really be put in the same category, and that is for a few reasons.

Firstly, I’m not sure how abstract we can call Santorini when it has such a thick theme that it uses incredibly well. Santorini is such a fantastically aesthetic game. It really has a brilliantly tactile aspect that makes it kind of addictive to play. It taps into that part of your brain that just likes to build things and make things, combing it with the strategic thinking of the game play.

Secondly, if we want to be technical (which we kind of do) Santorini isn’t technically a two player game. It can, in theory, go up to 4 players. For all intents and purposes however, Santorini is an enjoyable two player game whilst I don’t know anyone who has played it with four. That is, I have to admit, including us as we don’t know anyone who has said good words about Santorini with more than 2 players.

That being said – what a two player game Santorini is!

You see – games like Santorini have a kind of magic to them. Where large multiplayer games have one feel to them, and solo games become a sort of puzzle, two player games can become this amazing battle of wits. Two player games like Santorini, like Onitama, like Hive, have the ability to become an incredibly tense and intensive experience. Santorini is absolutely no different, and after several games we found that we were often holding our head in our hands between turns and trying to figure our opponent out.

Santorini Review - Competition

Trying to figure out what our opponent was going to do next…

Santorini holds those tense moments proud, and as such it can be a fantastic game. Its simplicity is its strength, and that is amazing. The game is so incredibly simple as it only really has two or three rules (gods aside). It is so easy to learn and you can easily find yourself playing a few games in a row.

However, it is not a perfect game. Where the base concept is amazing, the complexity the gods add is somewhat…well…inconsistent.

Okay, that may be a bit of a sweeping statement. The majority of the gods are great; however, they are not all even and this is a potential problem with the game. The gods are designed to add variety and spice the game up, and they do a fantastic job of that, yet there are a few gods that will tip your hand.

The easiest way to explain this is to use both Chess and Onitama as examples. In Chess, there is a four move checkmate. If you know that, but your opponent doesn’t, then you can have an incredibly quick game where the result is almost a foregone conclusion. In Onitama there is the tiger card, that allows for a three turn win. Part of the game is now, once you’ve played 20+ times, figuring out how best to defend against that tiger.

In Santorini there are gods that change the game in favour of one player over another, and although not all that common, there is one god in the game that does grind on me as a player – in fact, without this card Santorini would be a much better game – Pan.

Santorini - Pan

Pan – great art – horrible ability.

Pan has the rule that in order to win the game, what you need to do is get a builder to Level 2 and have them jump off. It is a brutal card, removing the equivalent of 1/3 of the victory conditions for one player, forcing the style of the other player to be almost entirely defensive. Against new players it is a foregone conclusion who would win, to the point where we keep removing him from the game.

What this does is cast a critical eye over Santorini. I haven’t played all the gods in the game, however, if my maths are correct there are 435 combinations. We’ve played a few games where the god power of one player has been more useful than another, and sometimes combos don’t work well together. What this means is that, on the rare occasion the gods aren’t matched, the game can be weighted towards one player, and this is an irritation in a two player game.

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Another mid-game shot.

THAT BEING SAID – is this enough of an irritation to not enjoy the game? Well…no…actually Santorini is really very good, and I really enjoy it. Leaving aside Pan, it can feel like the odds are occasionally tipped, but never so much the rest of the game is a foregone conclusion.

Generally speaking, Santorini is an incredibly enjoyable game. It is a true battle of the wits, and that is always fun. What makes Santorini special though is that it so perfectly replicates the place. It is so tactile and brilliant to look at and fun to build that I am happy every time we play.

Santorini is a great game, I imagine, for all ages. Although I have only played it with people in their late 20s and early 30s, Santorini is easy enough to pick up that it is suitable for all ages. I really enjoy it, and bar the big bad Pan, I do recommend it as a two player game.

TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and the Third Level

Like all games we can break Santorini down into good, neutral and bad points.

The Good

  • Santorini is a fantastic two player puzzle. It has a strange similarity to Chess where you are in a constant battle of wits with your opponent.
  • Santorini is simply stunning to look at. The whole game, the way you are building the civilisation on the island of Santorini, is superb.
  • The gods, generally speaking, add variety to the game. They add an extra dimension.
  • The artwork in Santorini is really nice.
  • Santorini is an easy game to teach and an easy game to learn. It is incredibly simple, and that simplicity is its strength.

The Neutral

  • The box and how everything fits in the box is not great. It’s not terrible, but there could be a lot of improvement done. There isn’t an insert, and the box needs to be shaken quite a bit to get enough pieces flat to actually close the lid.

The Bad

  • The god cards always balanced. There is one card in particular, Pan, that is a foregone conclusion against new players. We haven’t managed to test all the cards, but some god powers are easier to use or more useful than others.
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My girlfriend wasn’t happy the first time she lost the game…

Conclusion: Santorini Review

You know what? There is a kind of magic about Santorini.

Santorini is a game that has very few rules, is incredibly easy to pick up, it is accessible, it is challenging, and it is fun. All in all, Santorini is simply fantastic. Yes, it may not be perfect, but although there are small areas that could be tweaked, since it is a really fun game those issues are minuscule and easy to avoid. I would personally recommend Santorini.

So, there you have it – one beautiful game. What are your thoughts on Santorini? Do you enjoy the game? If you haven’t played, would you like to? Let me know in the comments below.

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