Santorini Is a Perfect Game For Two

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<i>Santorini</i> Is a Perfect Game For Two

Santorini is primarily a two-player game, first developed by mathematician Dr. Gordon Hamilton back in 2004, that was just released by Roxley Games after a successful Kickstarter campaign that takes this very simple pure strategy game and gives it the art and packaging of a Euro title. At heart, however, it feels like a classic game, a little bit like chess and a lot like last year’s Tak, games for two players that involve a few pieces on a square board and eschew all randomness.

In the basic game of Santorini, each player starts with two Worker tokens on the 5×5 board, and the first player to get one of his/her tokens to the top of a 3-level building on the board is the winner. On a turn, a player moves one token, then places a new building level on a space adjacent (orthogonally or diagonally) to that token. If the space is empty, the player places a bottom piece; if not, the player places a second- or third-level piece, or, if the space has a building with three levels on it already, a dome piece that prevents anyone from standing on top of it. You don’t own the buildings you construct, so one player can add to a building the other player started. Your tokens can move up one level when going from one space to another, but can jump down any number of levels. The goal thus becomes setting up a situation where your opponent can’t stop you from moving a Worker from a two-level building up to the third level on an adjacent space—and to ensure your opponent isn’t doing the same, setting up a three-level building to which s/he can move on the next turn. (It’s also possible to lose if you can’t move a Worker and then build on your turn, but we haven’t had that happen in a game yet.)

The basic game is entertaining enough on its own that I could see it becoming a classic of abstract two-player games without embellishment or packaging, but it also would be tough to market—it’s a game you could easily replicate on your own using different coins as the various building levels. So Santorini comes with additional variations in the box, using cards that grant players additional abilities for their moves, as well as a third variant that reserves one space on the board for these abilities.

santorini pieces.jpg

The game comes with two decks of cards that give players God Powers or Hero Powers; God Powers apply to the entire game, while Hero Powers apply just once per game and are then discarded. The Gods themselves are divided into categories of simple, advanced and Golden Fleece gods (for the third variant mentioned above), and can grant powers like allowing a player to build two levels on one turn, allowing the player to win just by moving down two or more levels, preventing an opponent from building on spaces next to your tokens, or giving you the win if there are five complete (domed) towers on the board. Hero cards amount to giving you one extra move on your turn, or let you sabotage an opponent once (like removing a block from underneath a worker token or moving your opponent’s Workers to corner spaces). The game even suggests using these in concert to redress an imbalance between players, giving the more experienced player a Hero card and the rookie a God card.

The Golden Fleece variant places a special token, called the Ram, on one space on the board, and then has one God card available to both players during the game. The God power is available to any player whose Worker token is in a space next to the Ram figure.

Santorini is a two-player game at heart, but the rules include options for playing with three or four players, both requiring the use of God Power cards. The three-player game is crowded, while the four-player game has the players divided into two teams of two, with each player getting his/her own God Power card. I think it’s all a bit forced—imagine trying to shoehorn additional players into chess or Othello—and unnecessary, as the boardgame world needs more pure two-player options.

Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.