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Subject: It's all about the players rss

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Maarten D. de Jong
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1. Introduction

Santiago is a boardgame for 3 to 5 players by Claudia Hely and Roman Pelek. The objective of the game is to score as many points as possible from large plantations which you will plant in the rich, but dry soil of the isle of Santiago. The drought is a genuine problem, for without water the crops will wither and die. Therefore you not only have to invest in crops, but also in water management by constructing irrigation canals. However, the canal overseer is a corrupt bloke, easily tempted by that most ancient of lubricants, money, and therefore not likely to aid you unless your price is right.

The real island Santiago is part of Cape Verde, a country comprised of 10 islands off the coast of West-Africa. The climate is subtropical but arid, with little rain from april to july, despite the islands' location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, a lot of food has to be imported. The islands are an attractive tourist destination, and if you are interested in paying them a visit, you can find more information here or here.


2. Game Material

Inside the box we find a game board, a colourful rules booklet, wooden cubes representing yield markers in five different colours (white, natural, gray, black and purple), long wooden sticks representing irrigation channels in six different colours (the earlier five plus blue), plantation tiles, a few plastic palm trees, a cylinder representing the water source, paper money, and a canal overseer which you assemble from two pieces of cardboard to make him stand upright.

The box comes with a tray which holds all material perfectly. It is not a tight fit, but the game board seals off all compartiments pretty thoroughly once the box lid is in place. Turning the box upside down will not make a mess of all the components.



The game material itself is flawless German quality: the tiles are printed on thick cardboard and are easily removed from the frame which holds them, without any 'burrs' on their edges. The game board has a tendency to warp a little because it is made of a single sheet of cardboard and cannot be folded. Somewhat odd is the rather large amount of paper money, especially in the largest denominations of 20 and 50 escudos. Likely you'll need no more than 6 or 7 notes ever, yet the game provides 30 of each.

The rules booklet is a joy to read: plenty of detailed examples support an unambiguous, thorough and clear text. On the back of the booklet is a one-page game summary which does a wonderful job of summarising the preceding text. I've uncovered but a single flaw: there is no tie-braker rule.


3. Game Overview

Santiago revolves around the timely irrigation of plantation tiles. The tiles can be placed anywhere on the game board, but if they are not irrigated within up to three rounds after being placed---the exact number dependent on whether they are low- or high-yield tiles---they will become a desert. Deserts are worth nothing, and are obstacles in the placement of future tiles. Each round that a tile is lacking water, it will permanently lose one unit of yield, indicated by the removal of a wooden cube. Since a higher yield also means more points at the end of the game, it is vital that plantations are watered as soon as possible.

A tile is irrigated when it is laying alongside a blue canal. These canals are put down one at a time, and over the course of the game form an ever growing lattice with irrigated land within its boundaries. All canals must ultimately connect to the only water source available: gaps are not allowed and separate irrigation networks cannot be built.





Notice that in the picture above how the canals all connect to the water source: the blue cylinder in the middle. In the top picture, I silently assume that the water source is placed outside the camera's view :-).

Once a tile is irrigated, it stays irrigated, and remains as it is until the end of the game. A low-yield plantation tile does not suddenly turn into a high-yield tile, for example. It also means that any yield loss due to previous lack of irrigation is not reversed.

The tiles come in 5 different kinds, each representing a particular kind of crop: bananas, potatoes, beans, sugar canes and peppers. When acquiring new tiles by means of an auction, players will want to place them adjacent to tiles of the same crop, as it increases their point value: for every one of their own yield markers (the wooden cubes) in such an interconnected group, they get as many points as there are tiles in the group. Obviously, adding a new tile to an existing group also increases the value of the yield markers of other players, so indiscriminate extension may not always be the best idea.

 


In the above image, white has already secured an impressive 15 points: the group of light-green sugar cane is 3 tiles big, so every one of his cubes is worth 3 points too, and times 5 cubes makes for 15 points. The other players had best make sure that this group doesn't grow any further!

Canal building is supervised by a corrupt canal overseer. The role of the overseer is always taken up by one of the players, and shifts to different players in the course of the game. As only a single canal can be built per round, and the overseer gets to decide where, the players have to bribe him in order to secure timely irrigation of their land. The overseer can accept a bribe, but can also decide to pursue his own interests, although it will cost him money to do so. However, the players are not completely at his mercy: they each have one emergency irrigation channel, which can be put down right after the overseer has acted on his decision.

The game is won by the player whose sum of the value of his yield markers and remaining money is the highest.


4. Game Play

After setting up the game, Santiago takes place over a preset number of rounds, depending on the number of players. Each round is made up of 7 phases, save for the final round when the last two are skipped. Any plantations which are then without irrigation are removed from the game, and the final score is calculated.

First, a fixed number of plantation tiles is turned over from the face-down stock and auctioned off. Players get to bid for the right to choose one before anyone else only once, and may not bid an amount that was previously offered. (You do not bid for a particular tile.) They may bid lower or higher---just not the same. They may also pass, and since this is not counted as an effective offer, multiple players can pass.

Second, the role of overseer is awarded to whomever bid the lowest amount, which in case of a tie (multiple passes) goes to the player who passed first.

Third, in descending order of money offered players take a plantation tile and put it down on the game board. The money they bid goes to the bank. They can put it anywhere they like, but they have to keep in mind that it must be irrigated within the next few rounds in order to secure them points. They put a number of their own cubes on the tile equal to the yield indication: one cube for a low-yield tile, two cubes for high-yield one. Players who passed place one cube less than indicated as a sort of 'punishment' for not having bid.

Fourth, players bribe the overseer by placing down a coloured canal in a location of their choice, and backing up that suggestion with hard cash. Players get to bribe just once, so may not retract nor change their offer; they can, however, support another player's suggestion by adding money of their own to an outstanding offer. The overseer must then decide which offer he will take up; he is under no obligation to take the highest one. He can also decide to pay 1 escudo more than the highest bribe to the bank, and pursue his own goal. He places an irrigation canal as he decided. All players whose offer was rejected take back their money.

Fifth, every player is now polled in playing order if they want to place their emergency irrigation channel. As soon as a player indicates he wants to do this, the polling stops: the other players can no longer build theirs this round!

Sixth, every non-irrigated tile without a yield marker is turned over to form irreplacable desert; every non-irrigated tile with yield markers loses one.

Seventh, the players each get 3 escudos from the bank.

And repeat ad finitum.


5. Discussion & Opinion

Despite the somewhat lengthy preceedings, you are requested to take note of the fact that apart from setting up the game and the description of the variant (which involves the 3 palm trees not mentioned above), you would now be able to play the game nearly perfectly without consulting the rule book. With this I mean to say that Santiago is rule-wise a very simple game which is easily explained. However, you would be quite wrong to assume that this simplicity results in an average, forgettable title.

Granted, the idea of buying plantations and making sure they get water in time sounds kind-of dull. It is not situated in an exciting place on Earth. The artwork is functional but nothing special. Technically, there are but three obvious mechanics worthy of some study: the bidding with its don't-match-a-previous-amount rule, the bribing of the overseer, and the slow drying up of the plantation tiles. Santiago doesn't come with obvious multiple routes to victory, the all-important catch phrase which is guaranteed to turn a lot of heads. It wasn't designed by one of the Big Names. The game originally didn't even appear under a label renowed for its games with deep strategical content.

Yet when played, Santiago immediately comes across as a title far above average. The reason is something which cannot be gleaned from the rule book: namely that the game has a surprisingly fiendish and quite addictive amount of player interaction, enforced by a minimum of rules. The game simply does not get in the way of the players: it simply sets the boundaries, steps back, and allows the players to fight it out amongst themselves.

Take for example the general lack of funds. You start out the game with 10 escudos, and get 3 at the end of each round. But you are expected to bid competitively for the right to choose a tile first, as well as make interesting offers to the overseer so those tiles don't dry up. There is no way you can keep this up: you either have to lay low for a few rounds and probably lose out in creating a large adjacent group of plantation tiles, or become overseer yourself, as accepting a bribe allows you to keep the cash. As far as your finances go, being overseer is definitely the way to go---but since there is only one overseer, people find themselves competing not only at the high end of the bidding scale, but the low end as well. This is quite unusual.

Yet there are downsides to the job as well. For example, you always go last in the auction for first pick, meaning that all the low bids have already been announced. You usually have no choice but to bid a lot of money, or to pass. You may lose the overseership to someone else in the process, and must place the plantation tile of your choice with one yield marker less on it: not exactly advantages. In addition, the other players know full well that you get the money used to bribe you, so they will attempt to bid as low as possible which would still have you accepting rather than deciding to pay 1 escudo more to the bank and going your own way. Finally, adding insult to injury, they might not even be interested in bribing you at all! If a canal was placed in such a way that some plots of ground were already irrigated before a plantation tile could be put there, then people are quite likely to bid highly for the right to choose a tile first, and forego bribing the overseer. After all, what's the use when there is free water already available?

But don't forget that the players who are not overseer cannot afford to wait too long in making their interests known. It is a complete waste of already scarce money to purchase a good tile and then letting it go to waste, so while some reduction in the yield is acceptable, total reduction is an expensive tactical error. Despite dragging their feet as much as they can in bribing the overseer, the other players absolutely need him as well, and at times must give in to his whims. A good player is therefore overseer at the right time, and is not overseer also at the right time.

Despite the ever-shifting balance between overseer and the rest of the players, the players themselves can make life pretty difficult for each other too. Since the right to choose a plantation tile first is at times crucial for extending a large group of tiles, or muscling in on some unclaimed territory (for example irrigated at a time there are no yield markers on it), they must be very careful in preparing their bid. If they bid too high, they just waste precious money. If they bid too low without being the lowest, they give away points to the competition. Seating order relative to the overseer suddenly becomes important: you do not want to be the first to bid, nor do you want to be the before-last. On the other hand, if you are first in line after the overseer, then you are polled first for emergency canal placement, allowing some breathing space in deciding how to get water to your crops.

No matter what you do, at some point lose temporary player alliances start to form. Denying a desperate overseer cash can become the common cause at one time, at another time it is keeping someone out of some 'territory'. These alliances are as easily broken as they are formed, and are more than once cause for some grumbling and good-natured insults. It is important to note that these alliances are not the result of a rule of any sorts: the game doesn't care if you cooperate or not. This is in stark contrast to a game like for example Die Sieben Weisen, where such alliances are enforced by the rules. It still strikes me as remarkable that the game actually has this sort of side: you would not think so when you hold the box in your hands in a store.

I could go on for a while longer by for example pointing out that the character of the players---agressive or cooperative---will also have an influence, but I think I have made my point already. Let me remind you that the above has very little game rules in it. They are there, but only at a few precise moments. The remainder is solely the result of players having similar but competing interests. And this is exactly what makes Santiago an exciting and worthwhile game: it draws in a good deal of the players themselves and their ability to be creative within a simple framework, rather than their analytical skills and ability to operate complex game machinery. That said, some agility with numbers in order to calculate the net gain or loss in score with respect to another player when extending a plantation tile is recommended. Fortunately, the calculation is always the same, and not as extensive as the number crunching of Power Grid.

The above also means that Santiago gets better the more people play it. I have played with 4 and 5 players: 4 is good, but for ultimate fun, you need the full compliment of 5. I have not tried with 3, and am not likely to do so either in view of the way the game works. I have also somewhat sadly accepted the fact that it is highly unlikely---even impossible---that a good variant for 2 will appear, ever. The game is about players getting in each other's way, and this simply cannot happen when it's just the two of you.

In my experience of about 10 plays so far (without the variant, I should add---I honestly fail to spot its immediate appeal), the game can be taught quite easily, even to relative newcomers; and depending on how quickly people can make up their minds, takes from 60 to 90 minutes. It has not exactly become a staple yet, but I do know that the suggestion of Santiago will very nearly always meet with nods of enthusiastic approval. I admit that I have been a bit selective with the groups I suggest this game to: people who are by nature friendly and cooperative will probably find themselves stuck with an unplayable position quite a bit sooner than those who are more agressive and can take (as well as dish out) some rougher play. I cannot envisage myself getting tired of this game anytime soon: that would mean getting tired of the player relationships, and thus boardgaming in general.


6. Conclusion

Santiago is a remarkable game with easy rules and a surprising amount of player interaction where none is apparent or expected at first. The game rules do not get in your way, so how the game plays out is completely dependent on you and your fellow players. It is not a game for people who by nature eschew interaction or conflict, and does require a little agility with numbers. Otherwise, warmly recommended for 4 players and very highly recommended for 5.


7. Useful Extras

For those of you who would like to give the game a go without buying it, Spiel by Web offers an on-line version here (free registration required). Keep in mind that when playing you will miss out a good deal of the intensity which comes when playing face-to-face, so don't be too hasty in judging the game.




Thanks to EndersGame, dipdragon and De Buurman for their lovely pictures of this game.
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Maarten D. de Jong
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Ack. I was selecting the images with my desk light on, but now, in broad daylight, I see what you mean. Yes, that's a natural cube alright. White has 12 points, the 'natural' player 3.
 
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David Anderson
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I have been on the fence about buying this game, but after reading this review I think I will.
 
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Bob
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Ditto. Thanks for the review.

Bob
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Matt Thrower
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Nice review.

You don't talk much about the scoring. One of the big black marks I have against this game (I rate it a 7) is that to stay competitive you've got to recalculate the score after every move - the nature of scoring is such that you can't keep track of it on a score track. I find this massively irritating as it's not a trivial task.
 
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Maarten D. de Jong
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I find it interesting to hear that you try to re-evaluate the score after every move, because I generally don't. I guess I'm more of an intuitive player. I do a check every two rounds or so, perhaps a bit more once we approach the finish, or when someone begins to grow a very large stretch of land. For the rest I tend to use heuristics.

The reason is that unless your are truly very agile with numbers, you get bogged down in arguments as follows. I can derive that when I add a tile to a plot of land I'm not yet represented, all the other players get C more points, where C is the amount of their cubes already on it; and (in case of me adding a single cube) I'd get T points, where T is the amount of tiles now in the group. But to decide whether to make the move, even if T >> C, depends on my position relative to the other players. If I am in second place, and my main competitor is first, then it would seem that if T > C the move is advisable. If on the other hand the player in 3rd place now has an opportunity to surpass us both, then clearly my extension is suboptimal. If the 3rd player merely closes the gap to me to an uncomfortable degree, then I need to know what is still in the stock to assess the probability of him surpassing me.

And so forth, und so weiter. And this is without taking into account the problems of getting water to your crops, and fighting the shortage of money which inevitably sets in. Or, in light of my review, the way people behave: will they take a risk, or cooperate, or just be stubborn and put their foot down?

As a result, I don't play the game 'mathematically' as it is too difficult to predict the optimum move; in addition, it is not always clear what 'optimum' is. In other words, the decision tree I walk has some calculations in it but a good deal of heuristics too. Therefore there is no need to calculate the score after every move save for a reminder as to how well you are doing relative to the others. Obviously my heuristics are not bulletproof: sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Sometimes I'm able to improve them somewhat---it's like a neural network learning the ropes (if this means anything to you .) That is why I paid little attention to the score-recalculation. You have to do it from time to time, of course, but I have not found it to be a hindrance in practice.
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Guy Riessen
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There is complete consensus amongst our gaming group that this is hands-down, the BEST, and the deepest, under-an-hour, 5-player games out there. It should be noted that we've only played it with 5 players.

Without looking at my ratings, I believe this to be the only eurogame I've rated a perfect 10.
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Matt Thrower
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cymric wrote:
That is why I paid little attention to the score-recalculation. You have to do it from time to time, of course, but I have not found it to be a hindrance in practice.


Yep, it kind of lends credence to your title - the way this game is played is definitely group dependent. I'm not usually much of an analytical player but I've only played this game with analytical types, and it does help to recalculate every round.

With analytical gamers I've also found that all the fun interaction you describe tends to evaporate a bit in the face of min/maxing the various options possible in the bribe phase. I see this as a minor flaw in the game, but it does mean that it can kind of be all things to all people - an analysis game for those that want that, and an argumentative game for those that like that!

I'd love to try this with my usual AT-inclined group, but none of own a copy as yet, and I'm still not 100% convinced it's good enough to buy. Almost, but not quite
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Claudio
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Great review. I've been looking for easy games to learn with lots of player interaction. I find that these are the best gateway games for my non-gamer friends. I think that is a big part of what makes Settlers so popular. Your review sealed the deal on this one.

By the way: does anyone know why negotiation is a category and not a mechanic?
 
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Chris Shaffer
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claudio212 wrote:
By the way: does anyone know why negotiation is a category and not a mechanic?


Because the people who designed the controlled vocabulary system weren't information specialists.
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Andrew York
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I played it as a 3 player for the first time recently and it's still a pretty decent game. In fact there is a slight twist in that the highest bidder gets to place a second tile (with no cubes) after everyone has placed their first tile.

 
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Alester T
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Nice review! I played this game many times and it never fails to create different game play with different people. I have categorize the elements of the game into two:

Negotiation

Try playing Santiago without negotiation and you will be bored to death. This game truly requires interaction among players and that forms the main core of this game. There must always be at least a voice to instigate or advise other players in their decisions.

Nature of Players

I have tried playing with season board gamers and newbies. Both groups produce different game plays. The former made the game play more treacherous and scheming with 'every man for himself' mindset while the latter are more cooperative and peaceful with cooperative earning.

I personally think that Santiago is underrated. The lessons learnt from this game can be applied to daily living. I strongly advise you to give it a try if you have not played before.

Santiago is truly very interactive which is the highlight of the gameplay. Try playing it without negotiating, you will be bored to death.
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Martin G
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Fantastic review. I played for the first time last night, and you've captured exactly what I liked about it. One minor difference of opinion:

cymric wrote:
Yet there are downsides to the job as well. For example, you always go last in the auction for first pick, meaning that all the low bids have already been announced.


We actually thought this was one of the main benefits of being canal overseer. You know what all the other bids are, so you can always get first pick without wasting any money.
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Troy Westblade
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Played this game for the first time last night (4 players) and totally agree with your review. For a simple and cheap game, it is a blast to play. I'm a 'friendly and cooperative' style of player and yet I really liked it.

Keen to try it with 5 people now.
 
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