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SANTA MARIA

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

SANTA MARIA (Aporta Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 45-90 minutes; $54.99)

 

Every now and then I am surprised by a game, finding myself really enjoying it after initially low expectations.  A few folks in our game group played Santa Maria shortly after last year’s Spiel in Essen and the reaction was, well, poor to mediocre.  After their subpar reaction, my enthusiasm to play the game waned considerably, and it languished on my shelf unplayed for many months.  When I finally brought it to the table, I wasn’t expecting much, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

Santa Maria, designed by Kristian A. Ostby, Elif Svesson and Gjermunc Bohne, is a mish mash of mechanisms, including dice selection and placement, tile laying, track progression, set collection and more.  For me, these mechanisms mesh together well, both thematically and logically, making for a fun game that is challenging to play. 

The game is set in the era of the founding and exploration of the New World.  Players found and expand settlements, search for gold, attempt to convert the native population and much more.  Achieving the greatest level of happiness (victory points) is the ultimate goal. 

Each player has their own 6×6 plot of land where they will build their settlements and add various other resource-producing terrain and features, supplementing the pre-printed features already present.  Tiles will be activated by claiming and placing dice in the appropriate rows or columns, or by placing money on individual tiles. 

Players record their progress in religion and exploration (conquistadors) on the central board, which also has various spaces where players can gain the favor of scholars, bishops and natives.  The harbor houses ships that are seeking certain goods and commodities to ship home, which when filled, yield benefits for the players. 

Before each round, including the first, a number of white dice are rolled (three per player) and sorted by value.  Each player receives three player markers, six monks, two wood tokens, a few coins and one blue die.  The blue die is rolled and placed alongside the corresponding row. 

A player has four options on his turn:

Expand Colony.  The player takes a tile from the available selection, paying wood and wheat depending upon whether it is a two or three-square tile.  Tiles will depict a variety of features and/or resources, including settlements, shipping, resources, etc.  The tile is immediately placed onto a player’s board, with no adjacency restrictions.  

Activate a Single Building.  The player places one or more coins on a vacant tile on his player board to reap its benefits. The first tile activated costs one coin, while each additional tile costs one additional coin for each tile previously activated.  Coins are removed from the tiles only at the end of the turn, being returned to the general supply.

Activate a Row or Column.  The player may take one of the available white dice (up to three per turn) and place it on the corresponding column.  He may even manipulate the value of the die by expending coins.  Each un-activated tile in that column is activated, providing the player with its resources or available action.  Tiles must be activated in order (top-to-bottom), after which the selected die is placed on the last tile in that column, thus making it unavailable to be activated again that turn. 

Alternatively, the player may choose to trigger his blue die, which activates that row.  A player may gain additional blue dice (up to two more) by progressing on the religion track.

It is important to know what benefits the tiles provide when activated.  Many provide resources (wood, grain, sugar or gems), while others allow advancement on the Conquistador or Religion tracks.  Some allow the player to fulfill the demands of a ship tile (there are four visible each round), while others allow the player to execute trades as depicted on the tile.  Placing and activating these tiles in the optimum order can prove extremely beneficial, but is also quite challenging.

Retire.  If the player cannot or does not wish to perform further actions, he may retire.  He moves his marker to one of the unoccupied “retire” spaces and immediately gains the benefit of that space.  Benefits include receiving coins, taking a Religious, Conquistador or Shipping action, or taking a single square tile, which can be quite useful in filling gaps on one’s board.  The player whose marker is the closest to the top of these spaces on the retirement track will go first the following turn, which can be a nice advantage

In addition to these four main actions, a player may perform as many “free” actions as he desires.  These actions are buying or purchasing resources.  Basic resources–wood and grain–can be purchased or sold, while advanced resources–sugar, gems and gold–can only be sold. The only way to acquire these advanced resources is by activating tiles that generate them or allow them to be acquired by trading resources. 

A word about the Religion and Conquistador tracks.  Progressing on the Religion track will unlock up to two new blue dice, which the player can use to activate rows of tiles on his player board.  The more dice, the more activations and options.  Further, the track also provides the player with up to six monks. When acquired, a monk is immediately placed beneath one of the scholar, bishop or missionary stations spaces on the board.  Scholars provide special abilities that the player may use for the remainder of the game, as well as happiness points.  Bishops provide end-game happiness points if the conditions listed are met, but at a cost of a few happiness points.  Missionary Stations provide instant benefits (resources, coins, etc.).  It is important to note that when placing a monk at one of these spaces, the player must pay coins to any monks already present.  It is best to be early!

Ships also require a bit more explanation.  There are four harbors on the main board and on each player board.  One ship tile is placed beside each harbor on the main board and is replaced when taken.  Ship tiles indicate the resourced needed to acquire it (fill its demand) and the happiness it will grant at game’s end.  When a player activates a tile that allows him to perform the shipping action, he may acquire a ship by expending the required resources.  That ship tile is then placed in the matching harbor on his player board.  In addition to earning happiness at game’s end, the player will also earn points for having full sets of ships, one in each harbor.  Ships can be a major source of happiness, so players should look to acquire land tiles that allow them to take the shipping action.  Of course, they will also need the resources in order to actually acquire the ship tiles, so there are multiple considerations.

Play continues until all players retire for the year (turn), after which victory points are earned.  The top three players earn points for their progress on the Conquistador track, after which their markers are reset to the beginning of that track.  Preparation for the next turn includes revealing new land tiles (five of each type), moving coins spend to activate tiles to the general supply, and re-rolling and sorting the white dice.  Play continues in this fashion for three full turns.

At the completion of three turns, final victory points (happiness) are tallied.  Players sell all of their remaining resources, converting them into coins and earning one victory point for every three coins.  Further points are earned for monks placed on scholar tiles, but points are lost for monks placed on bishop tiles.  Apparently one can gain the favor of the bishops, but there are eternal consequences!  Players also earn for their ships in the harbor.  For each complete set of ships (one in each of the four harbors), the player earns three points.  Ships also yield points as indicated on the tiles themselves, which is usually a major source of happiness.  The happiest player–the player with the most victory points–claims a happy, joyful victory!

Santa Maria is deceptive.  The artwork leans to the cutesy side, leading one to believe the game is going to be rather light. Even the rules add to this impression, as they are fairly brief and easy to grasp.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a lot to consider and ponder here.  One has to carefully plan which tiles to take and where to place them.  Placing and activating these tiles in the proper sequence can yield huge benefits, while failing to do so can cause major frustration.  One player fell victim to this frustration as he never seemed to fully grasp the importance of playing and activating tiles in the proper sequence.  Proper timing is critical.

One must attempt to reap the maximum rewards from as many tiles as possible.  If carefully planned, each tile can be activated up to three times per turn (once per row and column, and once with a single tile activation), thereby yielding maximum benefits.  Again, though, this takes proper planning and foresight.  It is easy to place a tile in an incorrect location and not yield optimum results when that row or column is activated.

One must not overlook the importance of the Religion and Conquistador tracks.  The Religion track will yield more blue dice, thereby giving the player additional opportunities to activate tiles.  Monks are quite handy in reaping the benefits of the scholars, bishops and missionary stations.  The Conquistador track yields not only gold (a “wild” resource), but also can provide a healthy dose of happiness–up to 27 points if the player is ahead on this track in each of the three turns.  One must keep these potential benefits in mind, making sure to take land tiles that trigger movement on these tracks.

Perhaps the area that can yield the greatest happiness is the ships.  As mentioned earlier, players need to acquire numerous tiles that allow them to take the shipping action, as well as tiles that will provide the resources needed to acquire the ship tiles.

With its variety of mechanisms and considerations, Santa Maria does require a careful balancing act, attempting to flourish in as many areas as possible.  It also allows for clever maneuvers and creativity, something I greatly appreciate in game design.  I do think, however, that getting one’s head wrapped around the various mechanisms and how to integrate them together properly doesn’t come naturally.  While some players with whom I’ve played have really enjoyed the game, and equal number have found it frustrating.  It does appear to be a game that rewards experience.  I am fine with that, as I believe there is much to explore in this world of exploration! – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser


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