Every time someone opens a Santorini game box, Tyra Banks starts singing the intro to America’s Next Top Model. This is because Santorini is the board game equivalent of a WWE ladder match, where wrestlers put up a series of ladders to grab something dangling from the ceiling. Meanwhile, their opponents try to do the same thing. So ladders are put up and pushed over with no disregard for the wrestlers on them.
Thankfully, Santorini uses a lot less physical strength and a lot more mental. But the point stands, both players are trying to be the first to create and sit on top of a tower made of three building blocks.
Each player starts with two pawns on a 5×5 grid. A turn sees you move one of your pawns in any direction, and then build with that same pawn. By building, you’ll be placing blocks onto this grid. It can be on the map itself, or on another block already built. Each square can hold up to four pieces, levels one through three, and a roof.
As the map gets more crowded, you can start moving your pawns up and down levels of these half-finished buildings. The first player to stand their pawn on a level three building wins the game.
Stopping you from doing this easily, is if the other player puts a roof on your level three building. This makes that building inaccessible to either player. Therefore, both players are creating their own path to victory, while dismantling the opponents.
A game played in the mind
Great games are often described as easy to learn and hard to master. Meaning the game allows new players to pick up and play quickly while still offering a lot of depth to veterans.
I could not think of a more fitting description of Santorini.
It has the same exciting logic battles you would find on a chessboard. A game of cat and mouse, except the roles of the cat and the mouse interchange frequently. It’s a thrilling competition, as with no hidden information it’s difficult to hide your plans. The only way you win is by outwitting your opponent.
The unique thing about Santorini though, is that these logic battles – raging as they are – are carried out peacefully. There’s no killing your opponent’s pieces, you’re simply building the town. There’s a beautiful simplicity and accessibility to the game.
Not to mention how gorgeous it looks on the table. By the time you’re done, the board looks like the town the game is named after. Getting to use your hands to build this town, and the satisfying way the building blocks combine together adds to the enjoyment you’re already having.
Based on the vanilla version of Santorini, this is already a glowing review. But there are two additional modes to keep you playing.
First, is the 30 god powers included, with each one breaking the different rules of the game, varying how you play. As such they really stretch your mind, creating new puzzles to solve. However, being as overpowered as they are, it changes the game from being a battle of wits to more light-hearted chaotic fun.
The second mode is a team battle when playing with four players. Though at the time of this review, I haven’t played it.
Santorini is something special
Santorini is a game with very little luck, when not playing with god powers. So like those traditional abstract games like Chess and Checkers, the better player will win most of the time.
For competitive gamers, this is fantastic news. But for everyone else, this can be a turn-off. Especially, if you just want to play for fun, and not to get better. Because if you don’t get better, you’re going to consistently lose.
Which is still fun after a couple of plays, but because it’s such a cerebral game. It can feel awful losing too many times in a row.
Fortunately, this is remedied by god powers. They allow you to create mismatches of power, so you can handicap yourself while giving your opponent super strength.
These powers also help keep Santorini fresh game after game. Even though I preferred playing the vanilla version for that tete-a-tete gameplay. I still brought out the God Powers every now and again to add some spice to my plays.
Santorini is something special, as a board game, it nails everything it does. The gameplay is unique, fascinating, addictive, quick, and most importantly intuitive. It reminds you of why you love board games.
Designer: Gordon Hamilton
See how Santorini compares to all of the other board games I’ve reviewed.