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Subject: Santiago: Cool, Clear Water rss

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[This review originally appeared on the Gamers Alliance website]

SANTIAGO (Amigo, 3-5 players, 90 minutes; $30)

Santiago, a tasty treat from the latest Essen crop, is the brainchild of a pair of relatively unknown designers named Claudia Hely and Roman Pelek. The duo’s recipe for creating this little morsel? Take one part New England, one part El Grande, with a pinch of Puerto Rico—then, just add water!

That's because water (or the lack thereof) is the crucial resource in this game. The players are plantation owners on a small island and without the precious water that trickles down the island's canals, those plantations will die. Players will need a good tactical sense and a few negotiating skills to ensure that their plantations will thrive.

The Santiago game board consists of a 3 x 4 grid. Canals can be placed between and around the squares of the grid. Each grid area is further subdivided into four plots arranged in a 2 x 2 array. The game begins with the placement of a spring on one of the intersections of the grid. This will be the source of all the water that flows in the game.

Each round begins with plantation tiles equal to the number of players being revealed. There are five types of plantations in the game (this is really the only thing Santiago shares with Puerto Rico, but I do like to drop names!) and each has one or two planters on it. The players then bid in clockwise order for the right to choose and place these tiles. Each player gets one bid. They can either pass (essentially a bid of zero) or bid a positive amount, but in the latter instance they cannot bid the same amount as a player who bid earlier in the round. Then, in the order of their bid amounts, each player chooses one of the plantations, places it on the unoccupied plot of their choice, and puts one cube of their color on the tile for each planter it contains. Players who passed still get to pick and place plantations, but they put one fewer cube than normal on the tile.

The player with the lowest bid in the auction now becomes this round’s Canal Builder (the first player to pass is certain to get this role, but a low positive bid can win this if no one passes). Beginning with the player to the Canal Builder’s left and continuing in clockwise order, each player now suggests a potential spot for the next canal to be placed. On the first turn, the canal has to be adjacent to the spring; in subsequent turns, new canals have to be placed either next to the spring or a canal placed in a previous turn. Players can rely on their good looks, but we've found they usually do better to offer a bribe. The first player in the rotation suggests a canal location and states what he's willing to pay if the canal builder goes along; each subsequent player can either go with a new location and an independent bribe, or they can support a previous suggestion and add their cash to the total payment. After every player has done this, the Canal Builder can choose to place the canal at one of the suggested locations (in which case she takes all the money offered by that location's supporters) or she can place it at a location that no one suggested (in which case she pays the bank one more than the largest total bribe).

Each player begins the game with one extra canal. Once a game, they can place it in any legal location after the Canal Builder has made her placement. Usually this is to keep one of their critical plantations supplied with watery goodness. No more than one can be placed a round, so players going earlier in the round can wreak havoc with those going later; however, the extra canal is an important safety blanket, so this decision shouldn't be taken lightly.

After the new canal has been built, it's time to see if any of the plantations suffer from dehydration. Any tile which isn't adjacent to a canal loses one of its cubes. If the tile has no cubes, it's turned over to show the land is now desert (and therefore no longer belongs to any of the five plantation types).

After checking for drought, the players get some cash from the bank and the round ends. The next round begins with the auction of a new set of plantation tiles, beginning with the player to the left of the Canal Builder.

The game ends when the plantation tiles are exhausted, which works out to an 11 turn game with three or four players and a 9 turn game with five. To determine each player's final score, look at each group of orthogonally adjacent tiles of the same crop type (not desert). Each player with cubes in that area gets a score equal to their number of cubes multiplied by the number of tiles in that area. A player's score is the sum of all these scores, plus the money he has at the end of the game. Whoever has the highest score wins.

Santiago is one of those happy games where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. None of the mechanics seem terribly impressive individually, but Hely and Pelek have combined them to make a tightly designed, challenging, and enjoyable game.

If you ignore the addition and implications of passing, the auction mechanic is identical to the one used in New England (and the games have appeared close enough together that it's more likely a case of parallel development than borrowed rules). I'm a big fan of New England, but I think the mechanic definitely works better in Santiago. In the Moon/Weissblum game, there's usually something useful that can be purchased wherever you pick. Many auctions proceed $1-$2-$3-$4; at the very least, it's unusual for bids to go above $4 until the end of the game. The auctions in Santiago, however, are tense affairs and require a good deal of thought. Every turn there will either be tiles of considerable value or ones you have little use for (and often both). Your position in the turn order definitely matters. Obviously, double planter tiles are better than single ones and plantation types that extend a large area (or which have the potential to be part of a large area) are always popular. Deciding whether to go for the juicy tiles or to conserve your money is a big part of the game's strategy.

When you place a tile is just as important as which tile you place, so auctions are often as much about turn order as they are about choosing order. Sometimes there are open positions next to the canal that was built in the previous turn, so early players have a chance at an automatic irrigation, giving them peace of mind and probably saving them some bribe money. Additionally, players very often can try to set up some temporary alliances during this phase. Say the available tiles include two Banana plantations, each with two planters. The first player can choose one and place it in such a way that a new canal could irrigate that tile and at least one other. She's hoping that another player will choose the other Banana tile and place it next to hers. She now has a partner who hopefully will support her proposed canal placement. Another tactic is to place your tile in an area where you think the Canal Builder would like to build. This increases the likelihood of your tile getting the watering can treatment and you might even be able to get it done with a relatively small bribe. These are just two examples of the kinds of tacit agreements that emerge over the course of a typical game.

Proper money management also plays a big part. Money is pretty tight and outside of the relatively low income, the only way to obtain it is through bribes. Correctly timing when to be the Canal Builder definitely helps your chances. You also don't want to overspend on either auctions or bribes. After all, money is victory points, so prudent spending is essential.

There is a bit of a luck factor in the way the tiles come out, but it tends to affect the players as a whole, rather than favoring or hurting any one participant. Another small problem can occur if the players play very defensively--the board can then fragment and there will be little opportunity for much expansion. Actually, even these games can be fun, but my experience is that a more dynamic game is better, particularly since more strategies are viable. At any rate, I've only played one game where anything like this occurred, so I wouldn't consider it a major concern.

I've played both four and five player games of Santiago. The four player game is good, but the game with five is considerably better. The ratio of tiles to canals is higher, so the increased struggle to keep your plantations irrigated raises the importance of the bribery phase. It's a much tighter and more tense game with five. I'll play the game with four, but I'd try to scare up a fifth and there's plenty of other four-players I'd switch to if given the chance. But I'll happily play Santiago with five whenever it's suggested.

The game should also appeal to a pretty wide audience. Casual players should enjoy the design's solid theming and straightforward rules; it can also be played with relatively little nastiness, if that is desired. But even though the game isn't one I would describe as "heavy", there's plenty of meat and conflict for more serious gamers; it's a good game to play after a more draining affair, but when you still want to exercise the brain.

So what we have is a well designed middleweight game with plenty of interaction and basically no down time. It plays particularly well with five, although it can also accommodate three or four. Santiago is one of the highlights of the recent Essen fair for me and easily makes my Top Ten list for best games of the year. It's a cooling drink from newcomers Hely and Pelek and I look forward to their next design.
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