Santorini Review22 Jul 2019 0
Released 13 Jul 2019
Santorini is an incredible abstract strategy game. Yes, it rehashes the old truism ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ as its tagline, and its artstyle is rife with chibi-style Greco-Roman mythical figures, but trust me, every part of this syncretic approach works. Abstracts have a habit of punching well above their weight, and this one will twist your brain in knots. On a 5x5 grid, players take turns moving figures and placing buildings, step by step, the iconic ivory-and-azur builds of the island Santorini. It is a skillful game with a rich, cutesy presentation.
The core ruleset is wicked simple, but also stays true to abstraction as a genre by offering a robust challenge. Santorini’s masterstroke is to offer an additional layer that gives each player a unique power which breaks the normal scheme of things. Gaia has extra pieces for example, and Artemis can move twice. The game is satisfying even in its powerless, vanilla form, so mixing in these variations makes for a truly infinite challenge. In this, it reminds me of Cosmic Encounter as much as Chess. Both are helter-skelter in its variety, regimental in core procedure. Each turn a piece must move (either adjacently or orthogonally) and then build nearby. A piece can move at most one step up but can ‘jump’ any steps down. The game ends when one player advances their piece to the third level from a lower level. It can also, more rarely, end because the other player cannot make a legal move with either of their pieces. That’s the gist of it, barring certain edge-cases and power interactions.
I had forgotten how rusty I’d become and upon firing up the app for the first time I proceeded to lose to the temptingly-named ‘novice’ AI. A few times. This game has teeth, folks, and its bots will trounce the unwary. Re-learning good play was like revisiting Chess, or perhaps Cinco Paus. Certain patterns and rules of thumb emerge. The center is vitally important, one generally seeks the upper ground to gain the upper hand, and initial placements are almost never around the periphery of the board. It’s difficult to generalize beyond this, but after just a few thoughtful short play sessions, Santorini creates something like a flow state: pure challenge, effortless concentration. Can’t say I’m a grandmaster or that these bouts of time spent were filled with earth-shattering insights, but I can vouch that the flow means it’s an inviting game to lose yourself in.
It’s also an inviting game to learn. The system and rules are so simple as to appear plain, indeed many people bounce off abstracts because they seem ‘dull’, but Santorini has plenty of spirit and style. It’s a good game for kids to pick up, because it has a low barrier to entry and some whimsy to its presentation. Said whimsy belies an absolutely ironclad, zero-variance mental slugfest. ‘For kids’ means the highest praise, cool enough to attract fickle attention but clever enough to hold up over ages. There’s a metagame and deeper level of nuance behind power matchups, but the standard ruleset is extremely refined and punishing. The game has opted for a series of short videos to illustrate bite-sized examples of the game. There’s a mother-lode one for how to play, and a bunch of spin-offs which each explain a specific character’s power. The game also has really clean-cut iconography, with suggestive visual icons for a power above the ruletext and an eminently readable board. The color saturation and architecturally distinct levels make parsing the field at a glance a breeze. So, yeah, it’s polished.
It also has a decent online multiplayer, though here some features are lacking. You find matches either through random pair-ups, or by invitation only with a code. There is an ELO-based ranking system but no official ranked mode. Last but not least, all online multiplayer uses a 45 second turn timer. Usually that’s enough to speed things along without undue pressure, but one would hope that exceptions for particularly vexing turns were possible.
The single player ‘Odyssey’ mode is very fun, structured as a series of God-specific challenges with optional trophies to unlock. Your playstyle and strategic headspace probably has favorite gods and least favorite foes, so if nothing else, Odyssey is a nice way to sample the field. It’s kinda like Splendor’s challenge mode, creating artificial constraints the player has to solve creatively. The game isn’t drowning in content but it is dripping with replayability. Do note that more than a few of the gods are premium DLC, and that their respective parts of ‘Odyssey’ are also locked.
Here at Pocket Tactics, we’re deeply fond of our board game adaptations. Usually they’re a long time coming, and when they arrive they breathe new life into an older, august title. Well, even among these, Santorini is special. For one, its history stretches back a little further than most. It had pretty much become an obscure collector’s item, praised but unknown, from its 2004 self-published version until its 2016 Kickstarter gave it a new art style and high production values, along with widespread, cost-efficient distribution. The game has always been very good, only lately to have been given the just distinction of becoming well-known. It’s even better than most other adaptations, partially because the game is simple, so plenty of attention has been given to bells-and-whistles. There are sophisticated animations, unique effects for each god power, and a full-throated soundtrack.
Santorini is a picturesque dream of an island, and the game with its namesake is as good as it gets. It marries perfectly two distinct brands of appeal, the wildly imaginative to the coldly analytical. Enough beauty and wit are in this one to keep Santorini on a gamer’s homepage and daily rotation for a good while. Great for abstract die-hards, excellent for those just getting their toes wet. The DLC pricing is a smidge high, and the lack of asynchronous multiplayer a little disheartening, but these are trifling drawbacks to a paragon of what abstract board games can be.