Dale Yu – Review of Santa Maria



Santa Maria

  • Designers: Eilif Svensson, Kristian Amundsen Østby
  • Publisher: Aporta Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 45-90 minutes
  • Times played: 3, with review copy provided by Aporta Games

In Santa Maria, players each are building their own colony, trying to end up with the most happiness (i.e. victory points) for their work.  As the rules will tell you better than I can: “At the dawn of the Sixteenth Century, colonists are flocking to the New World. Each player will lead a colony, producing resources needed to expand the colony, form shipping routes, send out conquistadors to acquire gold, and increase their religious power to recruit and train new monks. After 3 game rounds, each of which represents a year, the player whose colony is the happiest (whomever has scored the most happiness points) is declared the winner.”   

Some designers or companies often find that they end up with a signature theme or mechanic.  Think about Mac Gerdts, who has done all things rondel-based.  Marc-Andre is the king of microtransactional games (see Majesty or Splendor).  Another example that comes to mind are the games of Aporta Games – they have cornered the market on using a 6×6 grid to somehow select actions.  Their maiden release was Doodle City, and this used pairs of dice to locate a location on a grid to then act upon.  Avenue used cards instead, but still had the familiar 6×6 grid.  In Santa Maria, you get that same grid, but this time it represents your colony.  The grid starts pre-populated with a few buildings, and over the course of the game, you will add more pieces to it.   In a way it feels familiar (or at least looks familiar) – but at the same time, the way that it is used is different from its predecessors.

So what happens in the game.  To set up, each player gets his personal colony board and a blue die. This die is rolled and placed on the matching area on the left side of the colony  Some starting resources and coins based on starting player order is given to each player as well.  They can be stored on the right side of the board where there is an area for this. Note that there is a limit of 3 of any non-coin resource.


There is a central action board which has two different tracks: for conquistadors and for religion.  There are also spaces on the sides for cards/tiles to be placed.  Three scholar cards are randomly drawn and placed at the top – these cards given special actions that can be used in the game.  Three random Bishop cards are drawn – these cards give special end game scoring conditions.  Four ship tiles are placed in the docks.  The rest of the resources are set near the table, and then three white dice per player are rolled and organized at the bottom of the board.  There are two types of expansion tiles, and 5 are drawn at random for each size and placed face up next to the board.

The game, again, is played over three rounds.  Each round goes on for a number of turns – essentially until all players have passed because they no longer want to take actions this turn.


On your turn, choose one of the following 4 actions as well as using free actions at any point in your turn:


  1. A)     Expand your colony – you have two choices here, a 1×2 tile or a L shaped tile.  The cost for each tile is on the backside.  You must choose from the face up supply.  There are five of each side available each turn.  If the supply is empty, you cannot buy a tile.  Once you choose a tile, you must immediately place it on your colony board.  It must fit within the grid. You cannot cover any existing thing – whether a pre-printed building or a previously placed tile. Once it is placed, it is fixed there for the rest of the game

  1. B)      Activate a single building (coins) – You can pay 1 coin to activate your first unoccupied building in this manner for the round.  You place the payment on top of the building to remind you that you’ve used the building.  The next building that you activate in this way (on a later turn) will cost 2 coins. then 3 for the next, …   You may not activate a building that already has a coin or a die on it.  Buildings have one or two icons on them, when you activate a building you may take all the actions as shown by icons.


Now would be a good time to talk about the building icons –


Production – make the good shown on building – take the matching wood tokens and place them in your storage area on your player mat. There is a strict limit of 3 of any thing. If you take excess, you can always gain 1 or 2 coins for excess things using your free actions (which are described in a bit)


Trading – You may pay the resources shown on the top of the tile to get what is shown on the bottom. If there is a slash, you must choose one of the options.


Shipping – You use the four shipping tiles found at the side of the main board.  You can choose any of the shown tiles, and you must pay the cost on shipment tile. There are four harbors on the main board, and you place the ship tile face down to the matching area to the side of your player board.  These facedown ships will grant you actions at end of turn matching the icon of the harbor that they came from.  Some of the ships also have VP pictured on them; these points are tallied at game end.

Conquistador – move your marker one space forward on the Conquistador track. If you end on a space already occupied, place your marker on TOP of the stack there.  If you pass a gold bar icon on the track, gain a matching wooden gold bar token.  If you get to the end of the track, further movement is lost.


Religion  move your marker on the Religion track ahead one space. For each religion icon, you can spend a grain to move 1 extra space on the track.  If you pass a Monk icon on the track, you can place one of your 6 monk tiles on any of the appropriate spaces (resources, bishop card, Scholar card). When you place your monk, you must pay 2 coins to anyone else there at that particular space.  If you take resources, you get them immediately.  If you occupy a scholar card, you can now use the special ability printed on the card for the rest of the game.  If you occupy a Bishop card, you are now eligible for the end-game scoring bonus depicted on it.  If pass a blue die on the track, you get a new blue die from the supply.  You roll it immediately and place it on the left side of your player board, and you can use it later this round to activate buildings (see below).


  1. C)      Activate a Row/Column (use a die) – When you take this choice, you can use either an unselected blue die at the edge of your personal player board OR one of the white ones at the bottom of the main board.  Either way, you may pay a coin to change the number of the die by one.  There is no limit to the amount you can adjust the die. The die does not roll over, i.e. you cannot convert a 6 to a 1 in one step, you must pay for five…  If you choose a white die, once you settle on the number, you then trace down the matching numbered column and activate the non-occupied buildings from top to bottom.   You leave the white die on the bottom-most building in the column.  If you choose a blue die, you trace across the matching row activating empty buildings in left to right order.  The blue die is left on top of the rightmost building in that row.  You are limited to using 3 white dice per round.  


  1. D)     Retire (withdraw from Round) – put your Retirement marker on any empty retirement space in the bottom right of the main board, and take the action shown in that space.  Next, look at the shipping area of your board, and take one action per ship tile based on the icon shown in its harbor.   Once you pass, you no longer take any more actions in this round.  You are simply skipped when your turn comes up.

**) FREE Actions – You can always take free actions when it makes sense

1)     Sell a basic resource (wood, grain) for 1 coin, sell an advanced resource (gem, gold bar or money bag) for 2 coin

2)      Buy a basic resource (wood or grain) for 3 coins.  You may not buy advanced resources

The round continues until all players have retired and taken their extra Actions.  There is a bit of upkeep now.  


First, resolve the Conquistador track. Points are awarded for being furthest forward on the track. The amount varies based on the round of the game just completed and the number of players in your game.  There is chart on the board just below the track that shows that payoffs.  Award points per chart. Ties go to lowest marker in a stack (i.e. the first person to have arrived at that space). Reset all markers to the start of the track after scoring.


If this is the end of the third round, move to End Game scoring. If not, clean off your colony.  All coins on buildings are placed back into the supply.  White dice are removed and placed on the central board.  Blue dice are placed to the side.


Now, re-roll all white dice and reorganize them at the bottom of the central board.  All blue dice are rolled and placed on the appropriate area to the left of the colony.  New expansion tiles are drawn, 5 of each type – placed face up next to the main  board


The first player in the next round is the player who took the retirement space closest to the top of the column of retirement spaces.


Endgame scoring – At the end of the game, there are five different ways to score.


1)     Resources/coins: Sell off all your resources to the bank at the usual rate (1 per basic, 2 per advanced), then score 1 point per every 3 coins

2)      Colonists – for each fully occupied row and column on your board, score 1 pt per colonist on road spaces in that row or column.  If you have a colonist at the intersection of a finished row and finished column, it will score twice.

3)      Monks – score points for each Scholar tile if you have a Monk tile on it.  Then, for each Bishop tile you occupy, first lose 2 points and then score the Bishop bonus as depicted on the card.

4)     Harbors – score 3 points per full set of ships – i.e. one in each of the four harbors is a set.

5) Shipment Tiles – Finally, flip over all your ship tiles and count up the VPs in the grey boxes and add them to your total.


The player with the most points wins.  If tied, the player who retired in the last round closest to the top of the retirement column wins.


My thoughts on the game


To start – this is the sort of game that I generally love – sandbox games are kinda my thing.  I like having my own area to fuss around with; with minimal chance for other people to mess with my particular area.  The interaction here is mostly indirect – you are fighting, temporally, for dice choice, ship choice, monk placement locations, etc.  There are definitely advantages to doing things first – i.e. you might have to spend more coins to get a desired number if someone has already taken the last matching white die – but you have a bunch of options on each turn, so you have to figure out which thing you value the most when it’s your turn to choose what to do.


I was curious to know how the game developed, so I asked the designer whether all of their ideas were started together – given their common use of the grid – or if one followed the other.  From one of the designers, Kristian Amundsen Østby:


The grid in Santa Maria was – believe it or not – not inspired by Doodle City.


In fact, the game began as a dice drafting game where you could improve the payout of the different dice. Each player had a player board with 6 areas, one for each die value, and you bought improvements that increased the production for each die.


About one year into the development, we changed the theme to colony building. This opened up the design, and the player boards were changed to a landscape. Now it didn’t make sense to have separate areas for each die value. Instead you placed polymino-shaped tiles that could stretch over several columns (and be activated by several dice values). ..and at this point it suddenly made sense to introduce the personal workers (i.e. the blue dice) which activated rows. ..and then we developed the game for another year. “


So. Now that’s been explained – what do I think of it?  I like these puzzle games where my job is to build up my own little area as best I can from the multitude of different options.  Well, multitude might be too strong a word, but there are enough choices on most turns that it’s never quite obvious what your best play is going to be.  As I mentioned earlier, there is not direct interaction here between players, but the indirect competition for dice and tiles does make the order in which you choose to do things quite important.   If I go for a tile now to get a particular building onto my colony – will I be able to afford to actually activate it later in the round if the matching die is gone?  Or, maybe I end up putting the tile in a different place on my board than I wanted to due to the distribution of dice at that time…


There is also a nice puzzle in how/when to activate your buildings.  Each time you activate buildings, you will lose the ability to use one of them for the rest of the round.  If you are paying for activation, whichever building you use is covered with coins and becomes inactive.  When you do a row or column, you’ll lose the distal one for the rest of the turn – and figuring out how to get the most out of your buildings is key.  You might like to wait for later in the round to use the dice so that you have time to place more tiles and get more buildings onto your board – but if you wait too long, the die number that you want may be gone!


There are many different ways to score points, and this is one of the reasons why you have so many options as to what to do.  What I have seen so far in my games is that: 1) a LOT of points can come from the ships at the end of the game – some of the ships have 6 or 7 VPs on them – so you can’t ignore that aspect.  2) though not as much as the ships, the scoring for the conquistador track does add up over three rounds.  That being said – I did see someone in the last game completely ignore the track, and he managed to do well by concentrating on the ships.  3) The bonus points from the Bishop cards can be key.  Even with the minus 2 penalty off the bat, you can still often get double digit scores from the tiles.  Our games have had winning scores in the 75-100 range, so anything that gets you 10 or more points is a huge contributor to winning the game overall.

Bishop cards and scholar cards

Speaking of the Bishop cards and the Scholar cards – they are a nice way to inject enough change in the setup for repeat games to feel fresh.  You only get 3 of 10 Scholar cards in any game and 3 of 6 Bishop cards – and the composition/combination of these will likely cause you to change your strategy depending on what rule breaking actions you might get or what particular situations score well in the endgame.


There is also an advanced version of the game where players start with an identical starting colony (found on the backside of the board) and get a town hall piece (1×2 expansion) as well as a scholar tile that they start the game with.  These are drafted at the start of the game, and this definitely starts each player off in a different direction each game.


Overall, the components are fairly well done.  I do have one quibble with the bits – the scoring pieces.  They are all small, round and pink with differing values on the back side: 1, 3, 10, 30, and 100.  I know that the scores are supposed to be somewhat opaque but they are trackable, so it’s not really secret.  These small chips can easily be mistaken and if an incorrect chit is picked up, it can really screw up the endgame.  I have taken these and quarantined them in a baggie in the box, and I will use poker chips from now on (with different colors and the numbers printed on them) instead.  The majority of scoring comes at the end of the game anyways, so I really don’t see much use in hiding a trackable piece of information when it shouldn’t overly affect to outcome – whereas picking up a “30” by accident instead of a “1” would completely upset the game. The art is generally well done, the icons are easy to see and understand.   It’s not something you’d frame, but it’s functional and clean – and I’m happy enough when a game does that.

they look alike to me from afar

Thus far, I really have enjoyed this game, and I am looking forward to playing it more – though at this point, it will probably take a backseat until I get some of the other new Essen games played.  So far, this is the best Aporta “grid game” yet, though I suppose I should already be expecting the next arrival in this line come October 2018.  This also now sets up a perfect game night for Mon 10/8/2018.  We’ll start with Nina and Pinta from Ragnar Bros and finish up with Santa Maria from Aporta on Columbus Day!


Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers


Alan H: only one game in and scores were 73-78 in a four player game. The winner did not concentrate on ships but the additional points for colonists were high as he had a full 6×6 grid. I agree with Dale that the bishop and scholar tiles provide sufficient variety and once more Essen 17 games are explored the game will resurface. Good not great for me.


Joe Huber (1 play): Whereas Dale saw something very different from Doodle City, I saw – a continuation of Doodle City.  And nearly every other game I’ve tried from Østby.  Not bad games – but the concept wore out quickly for me, and Santa Maria felt long for what it accomplishes.  I suppose it’s on the high end of “not for me”, really, but I’m more likely to play Avenue again for one of these games, and more likely to play Destination X than any of the dice grid games.


Dan Blum (1 play): I agree more with Dale than with Joe on this one; it didn’t feel that much like Doodle City (or Avenue) to me, and in any case I liked it more. My main complaint is with the graphic design; in addition to the easily-confused scoring markers Dale mentions, I found some types of buildings hard to make out on the boards and also hard to match to icons on scholar and bishop tiles.


Tery Noseworthy (1 play). I liked it. I felt like I had interesting choices on most of my turns and there were different strategies to victory. There are some balancing mechanisms in the game that force you to make choices and cause some interaction with the other players. I also like the way the dice are used on the grid.


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y
  • I like it. Nathan B, Alan H., Tery
  • Neutral. Jonathan F
  • Not for me… Joe H

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.
This entry was posted in Essen 2017, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Dale Yu – Review of Santa Maria

  1. trucs says:

    the “Not for me” section seems to exist just for Joe Huber

    • Joe Huber says:

      Does seem that way sometimes, doesn’t it? Though in practice nearly all of the Opinionated Gamers use that rating now and again. My hope is that I can explain _why_ a game isn’t for me well enough to help convince someone who will love the game that it _is_ a game for them.

  2. Satheesh says:

    Based on Joe’s 189 top games, I chose lowenherz after reading about it. :)

  3. jambapg says:

    I have high hopes for this game, but I can’t locate a copy of it. Patience..Thanks for reviewing it.

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