Dale Yu: Preview of Santa Monica



Santa Monica

  • Designer: Josh Wood
  • Publisher: AEG
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: ~45 minutes

I have visited the Santa Monica pier on a few occasions; from what I remember, there is a ferris wheel, an arcade, a super neat aquarium, lots of street performers, and everyone stops and takes a picture at the iconic Route 66 sign.   It was a pleasant enough way to spend a day enjoying the Californian sunshine.  I honestly don’t remember much else other than the pier, but I’ve been told the rest of the city is beautiful as well.   In this tableau building game, players work to create their own section of the Santa Monica beach trying to score the most points.


Each player starts with a double height starting feature; this card serves as the starting point for the two rows in your tableau, an ocean row at the top and a street row at the bottom.  This card also starts with 1 or 2 green VIP meeples on it.  In general, cards can be played to either side of this starting feature as you wish.  Additionally, each starting feature has a unique scoring criteria printed on it. 

The deck of 78 cards is shuffled, and a 4 wide, 2 tall array of cards is created.  The bottom row of cards will actually be in play; the cards above them show what will fill the slots as the bottom cards are used. A Food Truck and a Foodie token below this bottom row, spaced 2 cards apart from each other.  An objective card is randomly chosen and placed next to the tableau.  Finally, two random sand dollar tiles are placed next to the board; they will remain there for the entire game and provide special action options.

The game is played over no more than 14 rounds (the game ends at the end of a round when at least one player has placed their 14th card, but there are ways to place more than one a turn…).  On a player turn, players must first place at least one feature card, then take any actions derived from placing those cards, and then they refresh the display.  Again, recall that only the bottom row of cards in the display are usually available to be chosen.


There are two ways to choose a card.  The most common method is to simply choose any of the cards from the bottom row of the display.  There are bonuses that will be applied if you choose the card that is directly above the Food Truck or the Foodie token.  The other way to choose a card is to use one of the two sand-dollar actions.  In order to do this, you must spend previously acquired Sand Dollars equal to the cost printed on the tile.  The sand dollar actions will not change during the entirety of the game, but they will likely be different in each successive play of the game, as you randomly choose two of the four double-sided tiles in setup.

Then, the selected card or cards are placed into your city.  Ocean tiles are always placed in the top row of your tableau and the street tiles are always placed in the bottom row.  Additionally, all cards must be orthogonally adjacent to at least one other previously played card.  If you have more than one card to be placed in this phase, you can place them in any order you like so long as you adhere to the placement rules above.  If you have taken a sand dollar action that allows you to swap the position of cards in your tableau, you must place the card first and then execute the swap.

Each card is dominated by an interesting illustration showing you what is going on in that part of the beach or town.  Some cards have activity rings in this area; if these rings are filled with the appropriate number of meeples at the end of the game, they will score the VP value shown on the card.  At the top (for ocean) or bottom (for road), there is an area on the left to show the immediate bonuses obtained for placing the card, and then to the right of this, an end-game scoring criteria.  Near this you will see one or more location tags – these color coded rectangles are important for scoring.  The types include

  •         Orange (tourist spots)
  •         Blue (Local spots)
  •         Yellow (sports)
  •         Purple (Businesses)
  •         Green (Nature)
  •         White (waves)

So, when you place a new card into your tableau, you immediately take the bonus shown in the left corner.  It might be to collect sand dollar tokens from the supply, or it might place one or more meeples onto that card.  The action may also give you the ability to move meeples around your tableau.  Meeples only move orthogonally, and each step uses up a movement point.  If you move your VIP meeple(s) around, check your special scoring criteria on your starting card; if you visit a card which matches your unique condition, place a Footprint token on that visited card.


Then, see if you get a bonus from the food truck or the foodie.  If you chose a card directly above the Food Truck, gain a bonus sand dollar; then move the Food Truck one space to the right, wrapping around if necessary.  If you took the card directly above the foodie, you can move any meeple one space on your tableau; then move the foodie one space to the right, wrapping around if necessary.  If the foodie and Food Truck are on the same spot, and you take the card above them, you get two take two bonus actions; 2 sand dollars, 2 movements or one of each.   IN this special case, move only the Food Truck two spaces to the right to restore their starting distance from each other.


Finally, refresh the display.  If there are any holes in the bottom row, slide the card directly above the hole into the bottom row.  Then, refill any remaining holes in the display from the deck.  Check to see if you have placed your 14th card, if so, the game will end at the end of this round when all players have had an equal number of turns – though, as it turns out, they will often not have the same number of cards played.


At the end of the game, there are a number of things to be scored

  •         Each feature card in your tableau – these generally score points for being adjacent to certain tags or bonuses, for being contained within a chain of orthogonally adjacent cards with a particular tag, or for having sand dollars left over at the end of the game
  •         Activity Rings – many cards have activity rings on them.  If you have the correct number and color of meeples specified, you will score for the ring
  •         Footprints – over the course of the game, you have placed Footprint tokens down for moving your VIP meeple onto a card which matches your scoring criteria; you now score each token per the rule on your starting card
  •         Objective card – there are three different scoring criteria here, and they apply to all people. The top one generally deals with the wave location tags, the middle is a variable thing, and the bottom relates to the number of meeples that you have outside of a ring at the end of the game.

The player with the most points wins.  Ties are broken in favor of the player with the longest chain of a tag.


Overall, this looks to be a neat tableau placement game.  There appear to be a lot of things to consider. First, and foremost, is how the different cards are going to work in your tableau.  There are a number of different ways to score points, and you’ll have to come up with a workable strategy that allows you to place cards into your area that score you points and give you flexibility for future turns.   Your initial strategy might be defined by your starting tile and the footprint bonus, but if your first few cards work together well, you might end up pivoting to a different strategy. 


You also need to watch how your choices will affect the next player.  First, your card choice will determine which new card(s) come into the bottom row of the common display.  Also, you’ll probably not want to set up your opponents for a nice double bonus if the Food Truck and the Foodie end up on the same spot after your action.   You may want to keep a close eye on the chains that your opponents are working on; if left between two equal options, you might want to take the card that your opponent dearly wants to have.


The artwork is a nice clean line drawing style with watercolorish fill with bright colors – it is a very attractive game to look at, and it is pleasing to the eye to watch each player’s cityscape develop in front of them.  Surprisingly enough, the actual Santa Monica pier only shows up on one card.  It gives a lot of stuff, but it also limits the growth of your area as no cards can be played to the left of the pier.  There are a number of enjoyable puns on the road cards including the Joan of Arcade, Sandy’s Dollar Tacos and the Blue ox found on Bunyan’s Outdoors.

Overall, Santa Monica looks to be a nice middleweight game where players mostly work in their own sandbox (pun intended).  There is indirect interaction with thru the denial of cards in the supply area as well as with the placement of the Food Truck and the Foodie token – a style which is typical of these family friendly Euro-style games.  I can’t wait for my group to be able to get back together so we can play this.


ADDENDUM – Since initially writing this, I have now had a chance to play it a few times 2-players, and my thoughts above are pretty true.  There is a lot of indirect interaction, I was surprised by how many times I had a difficult choice between cards on the tableau because I didn’t want to leave a particular card behind or a setup of the foodie/food truck.  It is a simple game to learn, but figuring out how the different cards interact with each other will take a game or two.  Nothing too complicated – and this gives the nice a good family weight.  I will reserve any rating until I have a chance to play it at more player counts, but thus far it’s been a nice way to spend an evening during our continued Coronavirus containment.  Make sure that you have a nice sized table as the player’s area can get stretched out, especially if you try to concentrate on just street cards or just beach cards.  For now, this is one of my surprise finds for 2020.


Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Brandon K: I have had a chance to play Santa Monica a couple times at two players so I thought I would jump in with a couple thoughts. This feels like a far more accessible and quite honestly a prettier tableau builder than Wingspan. Santa Monica also isn’t going to be a game that plays out the same way each time. The different goals can give each play a different feel right from the beginning and they can help direct your play a bit so you don’t feel so lost. Our first game, and even part of the second game we had difficulty getting cards that would move our visitors through the city. The offering of cards can possibly get a bit stale with a lack of a way to wipe cards from the offering, but you have to learn to use your sand dollar actions a lot more efficiently, and that’s what we did. There is no interactivity, at least directly, here, and that was a  bit disappointing, but I know that a lot of folks will enjoy that about the game. I’d like to play Santa Monica at three and four players just to see how it plays out, I have a feeling at four, planning is going to be a bit more difficult as that offering of cards is going to change rather quickly. As it is, I am quite happy that I picked up Santa Monica. It’s a legitimately fun and accessible game, that has a lot of variability and enough depth that it should keep you entertained and keep your interest piqued throughout play. 



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 Preview. Bookmark the permalink.