Review of Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz
Designer: Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle
Publisher: Hans im Glück
Time: 45 min
Ages: 8+
Players: 2-4

Reviewed by Dale Yu

Times played: 8 with review copy provided by Hans im Glück

Santa Cruz is the new Spring 2012 release from Hans im Glück, and it has been a pleasant surprise.  I didn’t know what to expect from the game after reading the short description:

Santa Cruz is played in two independent rounds in which players build homes, churches and lighthouses on the island while also developing valuable resources.
Players each start with a hand of cards, comprising traveling cards and scoring cards. They then explore a board showing three islands, which have tiles laid face-down representing buildings and places, such as churches and lighthouses. On a turn, players must play either a traveling card to explore and place buildings in their color or play a scoring card to score a particular type of building, resource, or other game condition for all players. Spaces near the central volcano are more valuable, but are vulnerable to a negative eruption scoring card.
If that volcano does erupt, the magma might clear away the buildings already constructed. Bad luck? Well, use your experience from the first round to build better in the second. You won’t make the same mistakes a second time, will you? Concentrate on the further colonization of Santa Cruz and score while you can!

In the game, players are exploring the islands of Santa Cruz.  At the start of each of the two rounds, players are given a set of exploration cards which determine which pathways that player can use to explore.  There are four different sets of exploration cards which are each slightly different from the others.  Additionally, players get a set of scoring cards (out of a total of 16).  Players are given a matching set of wooden pieces which represent the different types of buildings that they can construct on the island.

Different building pieces

If you look at the board, you’ll notice that there are three islands, covered with roads and rivers.  The main island as well as the small island in the lower left each have volcanos on them.  There are four different types of spaces on the board – the coastal spots (blue ovals), river spaces (those on the three rivers on the main island), land spots (connected by roads), and volcano spots (the orange hexagons).

Board

During game setup, each of these spaces has a matching tile placed on the board space.  The coastal spaces are placed face up while all the tiles in the interior are face down.  The tiles have four types of information on them.  First, the large number on the tiles tells you how many points you will score if you place one of your pieces on that space.  Second, the building pictured on the tile tells you what wooden piece must be placed on that space.  Third, there may be a icon depicting sheep, gold, etc., which you will score for if and when the matching scoring card is played. Finally, the bottom of the tile may show you a bonus – either a bird token (which is collected from the supply) or a fish bonus (which is scored each time you score for fish).

When the game starts, in clockwise order, each player starts by selecting a coastal space and playing the appropriate building piece on that space.  In addition, players score the number of points printed on the tile at that space, and they take a bird tile if there is one depicted on the tile.  Finally, any spaces on the board that are directly connected to this newly explored space (via river or road) have their tiles flipped over.  This same pattern of scoring, taking bonuses if available and then revealing adjacent tiles is repeated each time a piece is played throughout the game.

After this initial round of placement, the game begins in earnest.  At this point, players have a full hand consisting of their exploration cards and the scoring cards dealt at the start of the game.  On your turn, you choose one of the cards from your hand and play it face up to the table.  If it is an exploration card, you explore the island and likely get to place one of your wooden pieces to the board.  You immediately score points based on the number on the tile where you played and take any allotted bonuses as well.  If it is a scoring card, you immediately check the board position of all players, and anyone who meets the scoring criteria takes the appropriate number of victory points.

There are four different movement cards, each with their own rules with how you explore the island.

  •  The road card allows you to explore any space which is directly adjacent by road to one of your previously placed pieces
  • The ship card allows you to explore any coastal (blue oval) space on any of the three islands.  You do not need to be adjacent to the new spot because you ship can sail anywhere it wants!
  • The river card
  • The 2x card

Cards for the “ship guy”

As I mentioned earlier, each player has a slightly different set of movement cards.  This causes one player to want to specialize in movement via river, one via roads, one via ship on the ocean and one to have a balanced set of cards.

There is a little bit of a race element to the game because, generally speaking, each space can only have one wooden piece on it.  If someone moves adjacent to a site you want (or even on the same river as that spot), you might have to move onto your desired space soon or you could be beaten to it!  There is one exception to this rule – whichever player goes last in turn order in each half of the game is allowed a one-time exception to play one of their pieces on an previously occupied spot.  It is a little fiddly, and there is no marker to remind the player that he has this ability, but it is a decent make-up power in return for the poorer selection of sites that this player has.

So, again, on your turn, you play one of the cards from your hand – either movement or scoring, and this continues until all players have played all their cards.  At this point, the first round is over.  There is a little bit of setup though between rounds.  The board is left just how it is. If there are some tiles which are not yet flipped over, they remain unknown.  The hands of cards are all left face up on the table where they were played.  Each player then gets one new scoring card from the deck which they keep private.  Then going in reverse order of score (player with the least points chooses first), players choose one set of face up cards from the table. They are allowed to keep the cards they had in the first round if they want.  To this group of cards, they add the extra scoring card just drawn.  Once all players have chosen a set of cards, then each player discards one of the (three) scoring cards that they have currently.  The discarded card could be the one just drawn.

Some scoring cards

The end result of this is that players now probably have a different set of movement cards, and there has been some unknown amount of turnover in the scoring cards.   At least 4 of the scoring cards used in the first round will still be in play, but you don’t know which ones until they are played!  Of course, you can probably infer which ones might be available based on where your opponents play – and being able to figure out which goals are in play often decides the winner of the game.

The second round is played pretty much like the first – players choose a starting place anywhere on the coast and then play a card each round.  The start player for the second round is the player with the lowest score from the first, and play goes clockwise.  There is a little bit of endgame scoring after the second round is complete – as players reveal their bird tokens at the end of the game and take points equal to the number printed on those tiles.

In general, I like tactical games, and this one is right in my sweet spot.  You’re constantly assessing your position on the board to maximize your scoring potential for both your goals as well as those of your opponents (or at least what you think your opponents have).  Early in the game, if I see my opponents landing on a commodity, I will try to land on one of those as well as I’m guessing that he has a scoring tile which rewards that commodity.  I find the game interesting and replayable because of this.  Even though I can see the possibility for some AP in this game due to this high level of tactical decision making, it really does move along swiftly with most 4p games coming in under an hour.

The components are the usual high quality that you’d expect from HiG, and I do like the way the 50+ scoring markers nest with each other.  The only component I’m not a fan of is the player aid card which gives you teeny-tiny pictograms of the sixteen goals – though it’s still better than nothing.  I can certainly understand that they may have wanted to keep the player aid to the smallest size possible.  I would have preferred it to be a bit larger, but I’ll admit that it is certainly functional-ish in the small size.

The one negative thing that I’ve noticed about the game is that some of the goal cards are worth much more than others – and this can cause some skewed scores if the distribution is bad.  For example, one of the gold cards scores 6 pts for being on gold while there is a goal which gives 3pts for each location you occupy on the coast.  I have seen someone get 24 points for this card.  Admittedly, it’s harder to keep your opponents from also scoring the coastline card while you could be the only person to score 6 pts from the gold card – but that’s still a huge discrepancy in points available.

Of course, you can try to plan a bit better in the second round because you at least have an idea that such a high scoring card might be in play – but it can still be a brutal amount of scoring to try to overcome when you are blindsided by it.

The whole process of switching cards is confusing the first time that you do it, but becomes easier with each repeated play.  It is a clever way of balancing out the game to some degree.  Since the board setup doesn’t change, players that had cards that didn’t work well in the first round (and thus scored fewer points) are able to trade-in for “better” cards for the second round.  Also, it is easier to take advantage of the new scoring card dealt to you when you have full choice of the card sets.

This has become one of my new favorite “super-fillers”, and I foresee this one and Walnut Grove as the two games in this weight class that will probably earn a spot in my permanent collection and hit the table frequently in the future.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers

Brian Leet: I have played Santa Cruz a handful of times courtesy of Brettspielwelt. So, I can’t comment on the component quality, but I will say it is a quick and rather clever game. I like the general concept of two rounds of play, the first where you discover and the second where you attempt to maximize your score. Working against this however, in my opinion, is the luck of the draw in the first round and the varied scoring impact Dale mentioned. In particular, there is also a volcano card that has a huge impact and during the first round you have only a guess as to whether it might be in play.

My experience was that you really need to have an understanding of the available scoring cards to play the game relatively intelligently. Then, in the second round you need to recall which cards were out, in what groupings so you can watch particular players and begin to guess as to whether they are pursuing certain points. When it all comes together it can be quite interesting, but if everyone doesn’t have the same understanding of impacts it can give a third player the advantage.

Dan Blum: I’ve played the game a few times. I like it well enough, but I don’t think it will have much staying power for me, or most people (and I haven’t bought a copy). One issue is the scoring card disparity that Dale notes. However, I think a bigger problem is simply that one game feels much like another. The game tries to have variability, as each time you start with a random tile setup and random scoring cards, plus one of four card sets. However, I don’t think it has the desired effect, in part because of the lack of information about the scoring cards.

Mark Jackson: While I enjoyed my first play enough to happily dive into a second play, neither of those inspired any deep need to acquire Santa Cruz for my collection. It’s a perfectly pleasant game with some nice opportunities for tactical play – but it just didn’t rise to that “gotta have it” level.

As others have noted, the imbalance in the goal cards is troubling. I don’t think it’s an insurmountable problem, but it is there.

Larry Levy:  I’ve played Santa Cruz once and my feelings are pretty similar to Brian, Dan, and Mark.  It’s a solid game that I find reasonably enjoyable, but I’m not all that enthused about it.  Clearly, as Brian points out, knowledge of the scoring cards will increase the players’ skill levels, so I can see my opinion improving with more play.  But I’m not sure it will grab me enough to warrant too much of that additional experience.

One thing I will request in future games is that the players be allowed to make note of who winds up with which scoring cards in the second round.  I realize that not all of those may still be in play, but there’s enough going on that I’d rather not have to keep remembering who chose what (I really am quite memory-challenged).  This would allow me to expend effort on playing the game, which I enjoy, and not on struggling to recall who might own what, which is drudgery.

Luke Hedgren: The tactical exploring bits of Santa Cruz are great. Placing your scoring markers on the islands, grabbing scores, with asymmetric opportunities, is a lot of fun. But, the scoring cards really bother me. When someone grabs a coast spot, right before you planned on scoring coasts, they simply lucked into some points. In the second round, you could say that they planned this, but even then, its not for sure that all cards get played. In general, games that have player triggered scoring, where all players have a chance at benefiting, are not inherently disagreeable. Think El Grande, where you see the possibility of all the “5” regions scoring before it actually happens. But here, the scoring method is hidden until it happens. This just strikes me as a luckfest on top of an interesting tactical game.

Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!  Dale Yu,
I like it. Brian Leet, Dan Blum (for now), Mark Jackson, Larry Levy
Neutral. Luke Hedgren
Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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