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Thinking Out Loud

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Santiago >> Nuts n' Bolts Review

First things first... Santiago has been one of the most pleasant gaming surprises I've come across in the last year.

At first, I wasn't that impressed simply reading about the game, based on the theme and my expectations of how the gameplay might pan out. Once I got it to the table, though, and played a few games, I was hooked. The components are very nice (clear, easy to distinguish, language independent), and my only beef is that there is no 3 Escudo denomination, especially since that's the set income every round. But that's a minor quibble for such a solid game.

One of the big challenges, though, is how to evaluate a game that plays/feels so incredibly different with a different number of players? I adore Santiago with 5, it's still fairly robust with 4, but it seems almost too "friendly" and a different game altogether (in terms of decisions, interaction and gameplay experience) with only 3 players.

Can you assign a single composite score for such a game, or do you really need to rate the game based on number of players?

For greater weight and depth of decisions on bribing and bidding, play with more players. For a softer, gentler game where few things dry out and more people can be "happy" with the results of a given turn, play with fewer players. Thankfully the game mechanically scales well to play with 3-5, even though the gameplay experiece is quite different.

Several reviewers have brought up an excellent point about the game's mathematical structure -- game turns are perfectly calculable, making some plays less about strategy and planning and more about accounting. As much as I love the beginning and mid-game experience, the last turn or two can sometimes feel more like an equation than a game.

In fact, in at least two games I've played, the player assigning the water on the last turn had become a de facto kingmaker merely by having to choose a location for the water supply -- choosing Bribe A would give the game to Player Y, while Bribe B would give the game to Player Z... An awkward position for someone to find himself in.

I generally try to guesstimate things as I go, rather than take an actual tally during the game, but I do game with several folks who whip out pencil and paper for games like Power Grid to calculate everything to the Nth degree. Tile and water placement moves in Santiago certainly can be "solved" in that regard. But with the right crowd, who leverages the personal interaction with bribing/bidding more than the mathematics, this game really shines and will probably go over very well.

The Bottom Line: X/10 (see below) With about 8-10 plays of Santiago, I still look forward to getting this to the table more often. I haven't experienced another game with this sort of bidding and bribery to get what you want in such a tightly designed and quick-playing experience. There are several subtle decisions lurking beneath the simple surface -- when to pass/bid low to be the one to accept bribes, when to use your only guaranteed stream, whether to piggyback on another field or strike out on your own. With 5 players, I rate this 9.5/10 -- close to perfection for that number of players, the niche it fills and the amount of time it takes. With 4 players, it dips slightly to about 8.5/10 and with 3 players drops even further to about 6.5 or 7/10...

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