Santa Maria: A four-sided game review

Santa Maria is a dice drafting, tile-laying and action selection euro game that plays in one to two hours, depending on the number of players (it usually plays two to four, but also has a solo variant).

This is definitely a gamer’s game, despite what the cartoon style box art might suggest. The age suggestion of 12+ seems about right, as poor play here can see you get a pretty savage thrashing in terms of scores.

The game sees each player setting up and expanding their own colony in the new world at the start of the 16th century. You’ll be producing goods and shipping them off for profit, conquering the locals for gold, or increasing your religious influence – all in the name of making your colony happy (happiness points equals victory points). It’s a well trodden path and Santa Maria makes no attempt to pretend the theme is anything more than pasted on, so don’t expect to immerse yourself in some deep history.

While this may not be its first rodeo, Aporta Games is still relatively new to board game publishing – and it shows a little in the component quality here: the dice feel cheap (the colour ran on the blue ones), some of the tokens are small and fiddly, and some of the graphic design looks cheap and poorly thought out (the victory point tokens are particularly annoying, being very small and in strange denominations). But despite these relatively minor niggles the game feels worth its £35 price point.

Teaching

While there’s quite a lot going on in Santa Maria, seasoned gamers will recognise all the mechanisms and be able to quickly get up to speed. There’s no hidden information that will impede you helping players out as you go along.

Player turns are short, involving just a single action choice (although this can trigger multiple small actions), so games move at a satisfying pace. Most of your game is played on your own player board, while the central game board is used to track information (more on which later). Your board consists of a 6×6 grid of spaces for tiles and an area for resources.

On a turn, a player either adds a tile to their board from a limited central supply by spending resources (each double tile has a road and a building, plus one more of either on three-space tile); use a building (using money) or row of buildings (using a dice); or pass out of the round – called years (there are three in the game). So far, so simple.

The bulk of the game is spent activating the buildings – but the real trick is in solving the puzzle of getting the right tiles and – more importantly – putting them in the right places/combinations. Building allow you to variously gather resources (which you have very limited storage space for); ship these goods off for points and bonuses; trade them for similar; or move along one of the two central game board’s advancement tracks: monk and conquistador.

The conquistador track resets after each year and is pretty boring, yet tantalising: you get the occasional wild resource (very handy) and those furthest along it gain nice points at the end of each year. The monk track has more going on and doesn’t reset. It gives access to extra dice plus the chance to grab bonuses (both ongoing and points for end-game) or resources.

But where the game shines is in what you can’t do, rather than in what you can. If you use a dice to activate a row or column you have to leave the dice on the final building it activates – meaning you won’t be able to activate it again for the rest of the year. You can do the same by paying a coin (then two for the next building, three for the next etc) to activate a single building, but that blocks it in the same way a dice does.

So of course what you want to do is make a row or column as juicy as possible before you activate it – but here you’re faced with two problems. You can activate a maximum of six dice in a year – three of your own (blue), and three from the communal set (white). You only start with one blue (the others you earn from the monk track) and the communal pile of white dice are rolled at the start of the year – so if you snooze, you lose. It costs money to change dice faces and that is often in short supply.

Take into consideration that there is a very limited number of tiles available in each round too, which are also first come first served. So from the get-go each year you have dilemma after dilemma: how much do you want to risk missing those dice and tiles in the hunt for that perfect dice activation? There’s an almost Feldian array of ways to score points, with some being way more ignore-able than others. And there is also a reasonable amount of variety in bonus tiles and combinations to keep those ravenous for replayability from moaning too much.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: If you come to Santa Maria in search of theme or originality, you’re going to be sadly disappointed: even more so if you want high quality components and art/design. But if you want AP-inducing and brain-achingly tricky decisions, fill your boots. The constant dilemma of row activation versus row improvement makes the game stand out in the fast-growing dice activation crowd, putting it well ahead of many older titles – especially the rather ponderous Dice City. It has a slight feel of Cuba to it, but I prefer this one as it is slightly less punishing if you make mistakes – and all rounds a little more satisfying to play.
  • The thinker: While the game has a solid design and I can see it becoming popular, it isn’t for me. Personally I don’t think the mix of tactics and strategy is quite right for the more serious gamer, which can leave a bitter taste in the mouth.  While there are several ways to mitigate dice rolls, they often simply aren’t available: either because the right monk abilities aren’t in play, or you can’t efficiently generate cash income. You can spend year one building strong rows and columns you simply can’t activate effectively later due to duff rolls. This annoyed me – but will tactically titillate others!
  • The trasher: While Santa Maria can look like a heads-down euro with no player interaction, this is a very tactical game – but only with more players. While the number of dice available scales with the number of players (so everyone can always get three white dice from the pool in a year), the available building tiles doesn’t – making each year quite the scramble for them. Also, you have the same number of monk bonus spaces available at all player counts – but going in later sees you paying a coin to each other player who already chose it. This isn’t much of an issue two-player, but with four its a big deal – at least earlier in the game. But overall, not really for me (but i’ll play it).
  • The dabbler: While there is a little too much going on here compared to my usual tastes, once you have the rules down you can largely concentrate in one major direction and do pretty well – even win. Some strategies are much simpler than others in their execution but still give big pay-offs, which does make me doubt things a little: but not enough to stop me enjoying myself. I found this puzzle surprisingly enjoyable – despite neither the theme nor look of the game doing much to win me over. And yes, it’s a little slow with four – but it just means more chatting time lol.

Key observations (including solo play)

In terms of harsh comments from other gamers, ‘clumsy’, ‘ugly’ and ‘under developed’ are all criticisms I have some sympathy with: more should have come out to make it a more streamlined experience. There are lots of things to do in the game, but many don’t feel different enough to warrant inclusion.

AP and downtime are also important side notes, especially when adding more players. Even with two you notice the very different length in how long a year takes (year three can easily take longer than the first two combined) – and with four players it can be hard to keep everyone focused, as you’re less worried about what other players are doing by then as well.

Finally, there is the issue of the perception of imbalance, especially on the first-play experience. Things you’d expect to be significant scorers (such as end-game bonus point tiles) barely impact your score, while the innocuous looking conquistador track is almost impossible to ignore. I expect the game is actually well balanced, and feels well tested, but there have simply been some odd decisions made. All these are more small nods to underdevelopment, I guess. But that said Santa Maria still manages to be an engaging and fun experience – just imagine what it could have been!

If you like this kind of euro game, the solo variant is very solid. The mechanics lend themselves well to it in a similar way to Agricola (rather than Caverna): what you lose in competition for tiles you gain back in trying to beat your previous solo scores by using different strategies, with the randomness in tiles and dice rolls throughout making each game feel a little different. It also throws in a few goal-style scenarios to beat, so while I’m not sure it will have huge staying power purely solo it’s engaging enough to make me return to it for further plays.

Conclusion

I’m struggling to come to a conclusion about my feelings for Santa Maria. It really doesn’t look good, doesn’t appeal to me with four and the way the scoring flows feels counter intuitive – but especially with two players, I really enjoy myself.

The mechanisms work well together and are well integrated, if largely unoriginal: and you do get that satisfaction of solving a tricky puzzle each play. And while it does have a Feldian ‘point salad’ feel, it can also have some quite big point swings and a well executed turn can feel wholly satisfying.

For these reasons it will be staying in my collection, at least for a few more plays – and because my better half likes it too (despite being quite new to gaming). So I’d recommend at least trying it if you’re a fan of euro games at all – and definitely if you love dice drafting and/or point salad style games in particular.

* I would like to thank Aporta Games for providing a discounted copy for review.

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