So Santorini is ridiculously cute. The little stairways on the towers and the cartoon gods make this box of plastic really fun to toy with.
My worry is that the game would be a good toy, but might not be a good game.
It seemed so simple. Move a worker, place a building piece. Rinse. Repeat. Get to the third level and win. How hard could that be.
Hard. Very hard.
The game, designed by Gordon Hamilton, Ph.D., of Math Pickle, is published by Roxley Games. It's got adorable art from David Forest and Lina Cossette. (There's a children's book with said art included, which my 5-year-old immediately claimed.)
Santorini made a huge splash on Kickstarter, raising more than CA$700,000. It's set to hit stores in January at well below the suggested price, which means you can get the base game and its Golden Fleece expansion for about the regular price of the game.
And if you're looking for a good two-player abstract or a game you can play with kids or just a great puzzle of a game (I could keep going), you should think about buying this one.
It's good. Very, very good. I don't really have enough superlatives to describe how good it is.
How it works
Santorini has two ways to play, and the expansion adds a few more.
In the basic game, each player has two workers (you play in teams if you’re playing with four). On your turn, you choose one worker to move exactly one space in any direction, including up one level or down any number of levels. Then you put down a building tile in a space adjacent to that worker, though it could be on any level. There are three different levels, plus a dome, and they have to be built in order.
Workers can’t move onto domes, and to win the game, a worker has to reach the third level.
Once you’ve got the basics down, each player gets a card with a god on it. And that card gives the player a special power or a different way to win. For example, Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, can build a second block on the one he just built. And Pan, the god of the wild, can win by moving a worker down two levels.
If you buy the Golden Fleece Expansion, you get more cards. Some of the included gods use hidden movement, moving their workers on a small board behind a screen. They also place traps and other things. There are lots of tokens that move the wind direction (into which no one can move), add whirlpools that act as portals to each other and more. Some gods give you extra workers, and those are included, too. The Golden Fleece statue gives yet another way to play the game, where a worker must be touching the statue in order to use a god power that both players share.
Why you might like Santorini
This is an amazing puzzle of a game. It’s got lots of push and pull, and once you get the base game down, it has an incredible number of matchups, with even more ways to play when you add the expansion.
For such simple rules, the game isn’t easy. You have to pay attention to where your opponents are, and you have to stick close so you can put a dome on a tower when you need to. But sticking too close means you can be blocked in between tall buildings with no way out, effectively leaving you with only one worker. (Yes, that happened to me.)
When I started playing, I worried that some god powers would overpower others, but it didn’t happen.
In the Golden Fleece expansion, some matchups are simply not allowed because they wouldn’t be balanced.
This game is perfect for families. With four people, you can play in teams. Without the expansion, there is no hidden information, so you can talk about your moves easily. The rules are simple for kids to learn. (My 4- and 5-year-olds had no trouble picking it up, even though the game is rated for ages 8 and up.) And the god power cards have very good icons so they’re easy to memorize.
The rulebook shows how much thought was put into family play, from the way powers are distributed and workers are first placed to the cute cartoons and children’s book.
The expansion also makes it possible to play a hero, who only gets to use a power once, against a god, who can use a power whenever. You can give a child a god card and an adult a hero. You could do the same with an experienced player vs. a new one. This allows for balance without making the adult bored or the child feel like the adult is letting her win.
All of the powers in the game actually relate to the god or character on the card. This sweetens the gameplay. It’s an added bonus if you’re a fan or student of Greek mythology.
Despite being set in ancient Greece, the artists used lots of different skin colors, and there are many women portrayed. It’s nice to see such diversity in a game that could easily have made excuses for not including it.
The little plastic buildings with their tiny staircases and windows and the bright blue domes that top them are fun to play with. When I pulled them out of the box, my kiddos immediately started stacking buildings together.
Why you might like the expansion
The Golden Fleece expansion adds a lot of variety to the game, plus the hero cards that help balance it out with players of differing abilities.
Working behind the screen is particularly challenging, and adding tokens to the board that make all kinds of interesting things happen makes the game infinitely replayable.
Why you might not like Santorini
It was hard to come up with something to say here, but I tried. Because maybe Santorini isn't for you. I don't know you.
Santorini plays best with two. The rulebook is up front about this, but it is worth noting. Four players have to work in teams, which isn’t bad but isn’t quite as engaging. It works with three players, but there are some cards you won’t be able to use.
It’s a little bit expensive, but the box is full of plastic pieces and cards. The sale price is very reasonable for the quality of the game, but the suggested price may be a turnoff.
Why you might not like the expansion
Santorini has lots of replay value without the expansion, so it’s definitely not necessary. The suggested price seems a bit steep for the small box.
Santorini is one of the best two-player games I’ve ever played. It seems so simple, but every card you play with changes the game just enough to make it feel completely new. You still know how the game works, but you no longer know how to optimize your moves.
It’s very tight, and it will make your brain hurt. In a good way.
The toy-like quality of this game is hard to articulate. The pieces just look and feel really good, and you will want to play with them.
I love games that I can play with my kids without getting bored. The beauty of Santorini is that — though it’s not recommended — my 4-year-old can play this game by the rules. And it will grow with him all the way into adulthood. The better he gets, the more challenging god powers he can play with.
I don’t usually like expansions, but Golden Fleece adds a lot to an already great game, and at the sale price it seems like an obvious purchase.
Other reviewers' opinions
Edo Baraf said, "This is a game you should wake up and play and go to bed and play," and "It's fantastic." He complained about the setup of the game. I didn't have a problem with it personally. In fact, I was surprised that everything fit in the box so well, including the expansion.
Zee Garcia of The Dice Tower praised the appearance of the game and its components. "This is a very solid package," he said, "one of the better games I've played this year." He was particularly impressed with all of the variants to the game so that it will last a long while.
Joel Eddy of Drive Thru Reviews said, "I absolutely love this game," he said. "... I cannot recommend this game enough." He praised the variety in the game and the production quality, too.
Man Vs. Meeple said Santorini is "probably one of the best games of the year."
If it offends you to play a Greek god, I get that. You should skip this one.
There are a couple of gods with iffy pictures — like Eros sitting in a hot tub surrounded by rose petals and some general creepiness. But those are few, and they're easy enough to weed out.
One of the more amusing things about playing Santorini with kids who are too young for it is that they don't understand the strategy. We played with our two littles, an adult and a kiddo on each team. The kids kept unintentionally messing up the adults' strategy. We let them. It made it fun for the kids and more challenging for the adults.
What my husband wants to do to the game
Andrew wants to assign a different god to each worker, males to males and females to females.
I think this is needlessly complicated and Dr. Hamilton knew what he was doing when he redesigned this game.
That said, after several plays, Andrew declared the game a 10. He doesn't do that.
What I got wrong the first time i played
I pretty much always get a rule wrong, and I did with Santorini, too. We had players alternate placing their workers on the board instead of having one player place all of their workers, followed by the other. This is significant, since the person who chooses god powers first might have a bit of an advantage that the proper placement rules mitigates.
Full disclosure: I got a review copy of Santorini and The Golden Fleece Expansion from Roxley Games. That doesn't affect my ability to give an objective review. If it did, I wouldn't have taken the game.
Note: Much of this review also appears at News for Shoppers, where I wrote it.