Santorini: Zeus lands lead in Greece Lightning

Santorini box art shows two gods building the Greek town of Santorini.

As trashy as Jersey Shore gets, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Greek gods. Zeus, for instance, slept with anyone and anything, and ended up having more babies than a kindergarten. Seriously, once you hit double digits, maybe it’s time to consider a vasectomy? I mean I’m six months into having my first child, and I’m already thinking about it. Anyway, believe it or not this is a review for Santorini, a 2-4 player abstract board game designed by Dr Gordon Hamilton, and published by Roxley and Spin Master.

For this review, it was only played with 2 players as recommended by the rule book.

How to Play

The game begins with each player placing their two pawns – builder figures – anywhere on the 5×5 grassy grid that is the game board. Players alternate taking turns throughout the game. On a player’s turn, they must both move one of their pawns, and then build with the same pawn.  If they can’t do these two actions with either pawn, then they lose.

The movement action consists of moving your pawn one space in any cardinal or ordinal direction. Or if you haven’t been sailing lately: any orthogonal or diagonal direction. Or if you don’t like words that end in ‘al’: you can move one square in any direction. The only limitation to movement is that you can only move up or down one level per turn.

To complete the build action, add a tower piece, or cap, to any of the surrounding squares – diagonals included. Unlike movement, the building action has no height limitations. Towers have three levels and a cap, these levels have unique shapes, and must be built in order. A tower is considered completed when it is capped, no one can move onto a capped tower.

The aim of the game is to move one of your pawns to the top of a level 3 tower, to do that you have to build towers around the board, and essentially create stairs to a level 3 tower before the other player caps it. Do this successfully, and you win the game.

In addition to this base game, there are god powers included. There’s a lot of them, so I won’t cover them here, but in general they either allow you to break the rules of the game or hinder your opponent.

End of a game of Santorini, bronze wins by standing on top of a tower, while blue is nowhere close!
Welcome to the bronze age baby!

The Good

Great games are often described as easy to learn, but hard to master. Meaning that the game should allow for new players to pick up and play, while offering depth to veterans. This is Santorini. It’s a board game that can be taught in 283 words, with room to make the odd joke, however, when you play it you realise what a rich experience it is. It’s a modern-day chess, in that although it doesn’t have the complications of unique unit movement, it is using the same underlying idea of pattern recognition. The game revolves around you establishing a winning pattern, while at the same time ensuring that you have an anti-pattern in place to thwart whatever your opponent is concocting.

This pattern creation and destruction, along with the ease of play not only makes it easy to plan but makes the game deterministic. This creates the same gotcha moments found on a chess board. What’s great about Santorini is that it does it in a peaceful, non-violent manner. You’re always building the town, and never taking your opponents pawns to the farm upstate where they get to run around in grassy fields and play fetch with other pawns. There will be times when you trap someone’s piece but that’s really tricky to do vindictively, as it takes time, planning and patience to do.

To mix it up, there are 30 god powers included, each of these vary how you play the game and provide different patterns of thought. Which is really the best thing about this game – how it exercises the mind. Playing with these powers changes the game from a serious battle of the wits, to more light-hearted fun.

There is a lot to like about this theme as well. While it’s not for everyone, it is charming to have the Greek gods drawn so cutely. Although, it’s more the implementation of this theme that impresses me. The gods – for the most part – have abilities that reflect their personalities from the old tales. For instance, the Minotaur can push players off their spot because, as you can imagine it, the minotaur runs and butts you off the square like bulls are known to do. Whereas Hermes, the God of Travel, can move as many times as he wants if he stays on the same level because he’s just that fleet footed.

The most surprising thing about this game is how alike the board looks to the town of Santorini after you’ve finished a game. This is helped a lot by the verticality of the board, which is a great mechanic in itself, as adding pieces to the board is fun and tactile, and getting to watch the town grow adds a touch of excitement to the game.

All of this is wrapped up in a ten to fifteen-minute game time, with very little set up and tear down. It makes this game addictive, whereby you’ll just want to play it over and over and over again.

Components in Santorini, 14 towers broken into 4 segments; 1st floor, 2nd floor, top floor, and roof. A deck of cards, and 6 player figurines.
All that you get when you buy Santorini

The Bad

I’m too good at it. How does that reflect on the game? Well, as with all multiplayer games, you need someone to play against. While I absolutely adore this game, constantly winning has made others weary of playing against me. Since the base game has no randomness what-so-ever, it means that if you’re able to beat someone once or twice, you’re probably going to beat them consistently, and if your opponent isn’t Beatrix Kiddo and doesn’t have that fire for revenge, then it’s a hard task to get this game to the table regularly. While this is somewhat remedied by god powers, those who like our Santorini vanilla flavoured are left without an ice-cream to lick.

Speaking of the gods, just be aware that some of them feel quite overpowered and using random gods against one another can cause mismatches in strength. Minor point, and shouldn’t stop you from playing with them, but something to keep in mind if you’re competitive.

Finally, something that I’ve gone back and forth on, and it finally ended up in both: the theme. It’s not that the theme isn’t great, as it makes the game accessible for the younger audiences. The problem is that I think it holds the game back a bit. Santorini plays like a classic abstract game and belongs in the next Assassin’s Creed along side Six Man Morris, however, it doesn’t look the part. I think that this game will have long lasting appeal and be one of the games we remember in the future, but it’s seriousness in gameplay contrasting with its lack thereof in theme, really undersells the game as one of the classics.

Corgi is hiding under a box of Santorini.
Corgi doesn’t want to let go of the game.

The Verdict


That’s all I wanted to write for this, because this game is something special. It nails everything that makes a game an abstract, and generates interesting gameplay in a new, unique, and fascinating way.  However, what sets it apart from other abstracts I’ve reviewed lately is its deterministic nature and the perfect information it provides. It makes the game mentally competitive without the meanness or randomness I’ve found in other games. All this praise means one thing: Santorini is a Critical Hit. Now to find someone who’ll play with me.

Before anyone asks, I think I like Santorini more than Azul as a two player game. It just appeals more to my nostalgia of playing checkers with my family as a kid. Although I’ve played a lot of Azul four player and will continue to do so, read into that as you will. Haha.

David Norris

Lover of dogs, books, comics, movies, anime, television, video games and most importantly board games. My site is all about the latter, and my journey through the glorious hobby.

9 thoughts on “Santorini: Zeus lands lead in Greece Lightning

  1. David, nice review. I agree with you — Santorini is actually quite a deep game, even without the god powers. It is simple to learn, but there are multiple interacting strategies, and you have to be constantly on your guard to watch what your opponent is doing. Against someone who has not played before, you’ll whup ’em good, but if two players have some experience, it can be a real challenge. I think people often greatly underestimate the play and value of this game. The god powers I really like because they change things up and add new strategies and new things to be worried about. There are other great abstract games like Yinsh or Tzaar etc. that are likewise easy to learn, but complex and deep to become good at.

    Santorini is on my “good list”!


      1. I suspected as much! Will have to check out Yinsh and Tzaar. I’ve heard of them before but never really had an inkling to check them out. I thought abstracts were going to be too abstracted for me… Turns out I was wrong!


Test your charisma

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s