Home > review > Santiago: a game that deserves more love

Santiago: a game that deserves more love

September 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

The teaser.

Tastes differ, of course, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why Santiago isn’t a more popular game. It’s relatively quick, there are plenty of difficult decisions, and there’s a fantastic balance between cooperation and competition.

If I were to guess why it hasn’t gotten more attention, I’d say some people might not like the auction, the bribery, or the frequent opportunities for betrayal and backstabbing.

So it takes the right group to shine, but that’s true of any game.

The basics.

Santiago is a tile-laying game by Claudia Hely and Roman Pelek for 3-5 players.  It came out in 2003, was published by Amigo, and plays in about 75 minutes (it says 60 minutes on the box, but BGG says 75 and that’s closer to my experience).  AFAIK, it wasn’t even nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, and that’s a real shame.  Maybe it was considered to be a little too heavy (its weight is listed as 2.5 at BGG, compared to 2.4 for Settlers of Catan).

What’s the big idea?

Players are trying to have more points than anyone else at the end of the game.  Points are awarded both for money in hand (1 point per escudo) and for having placed workers in valuable plantations (1 point for every worker in a plantation multiplied by the number of tiles in that plantation).  Since these “plantation points” tend to dwarf the points for money in hand, players are really trying to get as many of their workers as possible into the biggest plantations. It’s easier said than done.

There are five types of plantations (five colors of tiles), and these plantations grow throughout the game as players add tiles to the board.  Workers can only be added to a tile when the tile is first played, however, and the number of workers that can be added is specified on the tile itself — some tiles allow just one worker to be placed, while others allow two.

Tiles are auctioned at the beginning of each round, thus reducing the “luck of the draw.”

Additionally, tiles and workers need water in order to survive.  If a given tile doesn’t get water one turn, then one of the workers on that tile is removed; if there are no more workers to remove, then the tile is flipped upside-down and turned to desert.  Tiles that have been flipped to desert don’t count in any plantation.

So what do you do?

In a four-player game, there are 11 rounds.  And in each round, players do 7 things:

  1. auction 4 tiles.  Each player ends up with one new tile.  The trick is that every player has to bid something different, so there’s a natural order established — highest bidder gets first choice, second highest bidder gets second choice, &c.
  2. determine who will be the canal overseer for that round (lowest bidder in the auction).  Move the figure in front of that player.
  3. place and populate the tiles that were won in the auction, trying to either add a tile to a plantation you’ve already invested in or place workers in a large plantation.  The thing is, of course, that you can only rarely help yourself without also helping other players — even when you’re just trying to horn in on their plantation, you’re also making it bigger.  If you’re not careful, you’ll end up giving more points than you get.
  4. bribe the canal overseer to make the water go in a direction that helps you.  You want all the tiles with workers of your color to have water.  The thing is, the canal overseer isn’t required to take your bribe — he can choose to send the water somewhere else, paying the bank 1 more escudo than you offered.  Bribing the canal overseer is therefore never a sure thing, though it does allow you to put a bit of pressure on.
  5. optionally supply additional water (if a tile that’s important to you would otherwise go without).  You can only do this once per game.
  6. dry out any tiles that are not next to an active canal.
  7. get 3 escudos (we just call them dollars) from the bank.

It’s a testament to the intuitiveness of the game that I was able to remember all 7 steps without having to look at the rules.  Once you get the general “flow” of the game, each step follows logically from the last and the game proceeds smoothly.

The rules are simple, but the gameplay is quite complex — my favorite kind of game.

There’s a lot to think about.

In both of the two main phases of a given turn (first (a) auctioning and placing tiles and then (b) bribing the overseer and allowing him to determine where the water will go), there are plenty of tough choices to make.  In the first phase, you want to bid appropriately to try to get the tile (or one of the tiles) you want.  Or, if none of the tiles particularly appeal to you (or if the timing isn’t right, or if you don’t have much money, &c.), you can lowball the bid and hope to become the canal overseer — a great way to make money in certain situations.

Then you need to choose a tile, and often that choice isn’t obvious — in order to choose well, you need to think not only about what you want, but also about what the other players at the table want, too.  And where they would likely want to put the tile they end up with.  And how much they might want to bribe the overseer to supply it with water.

Then players actually place the tile they’ve chosen, and again, there are difficult choices to make.  Do you play in a location that already has water, or do you count on being able to team up with another player to bribe the overseer successfully?  Misjudging what other players will likely do often proves costly.

Players can talk all they want throughout this process, making offers, counter-offers, and sometimes deals.  But the deals aren’t binding, so when it’s your turn to place your tile or offer your bribe, you can do whatever you think is in your best interest.  It can get a little nasty.

Phase two (bribing the overseer) also offers a number of interesting choices.  First, you have to decide where you might want the water to flow, and second, you have to decide how much it’s worth to you.  Or rather, how much it’s likely worth to the overseer.

You’re also trying to figure out how best to encourage other players to go in on the bribe with you.  Sure, you can go it alone, but it’s better and more powerful if you can team up with another player on a larger bribe.  This puts more pressure on the overseer to accept your deal.

It’s all well and good to talk about going in on a combined bribe, but how do you divide the bribe?  You both want the water to head in a certain direction, but how much is it really worth to you?  How much is it really worth to your “partner”?  You might agree that the combined bribe should be, say, 6 escudos, but you have to play first.  Do you offer 2 escudos, hoping she’ll pony up for the other 4, or do you split the burden 50/50?  What if she decides it’s not in her interest to contribute after all?

What I love.

This is what I love about Santiago:  you’re simultaneously competing against and cooperating with everyone at the table, both in the growth of plantations and in the offering of bribes.  You want other players to want what you want, but you want them to get just a little bit less out of the deal.  You want their best play to help you more than it helps anyone else.

Potential drawbacks.

In addition to the potential difficulties mentioned above (the auction, the bribing, the backstabbing and betraying, &c.), I suppose the game could also cause a bit of analysis paralysis in some players.  Players who typically want to explore every conceivable option and their likely consequences might find the sheer number of choices overwhelming.

You can always help them out with this problem by offering them some juicy deal, by giving them an offer that’s too good to pass up.  And then, of course, you can fail to carry through with it.

Hey, it’ll work once.  :-)

The verdict.

It’s tight, it’s fun, and there’s a lot of gameplay packed into a small ruleset.  Available for as little as $17.99 online, it’s worth every penny.

  1. October 9, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    I don’t know. I personally haven’t heard much about it. Auction games don’t interest me a whole lot, perhaps that’s why.

  2. October 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    If auction games aren’t your thing, it’s probably not one you’d be interested in. I tend to enjoy the auction mechanic, especially when it’s done as well as it is here.

  3. Deathstroke
    December 4, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I’m glad you made a post about Santiago. This is a great, tense game with lots to think about and do.

    This is best with 5 (and the only time I’ve played was with 5) but I’m sure it’s still great with less players.

    • December 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm

      I’ve played it and liked it with 3, 4, and 5 players. Bidding is a bit more intense with 3 and 5 (top bidder gets two tiles in the 3-player version), but the 4-player game is fun, too. 5 is probably my favorite, then 3, then 4.

      With 4, maybe it takes the right kind of group. I mean, if everyone is playing nice, then it’ll be a bit more laid-back, a bit more relaxed. But if players go out of their way to screw one another (as we usually do in my group), then it stays fun and tense. YMMV.

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