SANTA MONICA

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

SANTA MONICA (AEG, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up; 45-60 minutes; $39.99)

 

While I have traveled to California several times, I have not visited the famous Santa Monica beach area.  That is not terribly surprising, as I much prefer the mountains versus the beach.  Indeed, about the only thing I know about Santa Monica is the brief chorus from Sheryl Crow’s “All I Want to Do” song:  “All I wanna do is have some fun until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard!”  That song runs through my head just about the entire time when playing the board game Santa Monica by Josh Wood.

Santa Monica is a tile collection and placement game published by AEG.  The idea is to optimally choose and place tiles in one’s section of Santa Monica, hoping to attract tourists, locals and VIPs and provide just what they are seeking.  There is a strong puzzle-like element to the game as players attempt to establish scoring combinations that will yield copious amounts of points.  Care must be exercised, however, as all visitors — be they tourists or locals — will need to ultimately find a place to settle down lest they cost the player points.  While tourism is important, who wants to visit an overcrowded beach?

Each player begins with one establishment, which has a height of two cards.  Players will collect cards from a central display and place them into their city, forming two rows of buildings and/or features.  Beach cards will go along the top row (on either side of the central establishment), while businesses and other attractions will be placed in the bottom row along the road.  Once placed, a card cannot be moved, only with a few rare exceptions. 

The cards are at the heart of the game.  They depict a variety of icons, some of which are a bit confusing.  Some cards come with people — tourists, locals or VIPS — while others allow the player to move one or more of these visitors.  One goal is to move these visitors to locations (cards) that can accommodate them, which may earn the player points and/or prevent them from losing points at game’s end. 

Cards also provide incentives that can earn a player points.  For example, some cards earn points if certain cards are placed adjacent to it or in a contiguous line (a “chain”).  Others will earn points for having certain visitors located there at game’s end. 

Most cards will also have one or more icons denoting if it is a business, local or tourist spot, sports or nature location or subject to large waves.  These can be important for adjacency or contiguous line scoring, but also can be important as points are scored when one’s VIPs visit certain preferred locations. 

The central display from which players will collect cards is formed by placing eight cards in two rows, four in each row.  Players can normally only take cards from the bottom row, but can see which cards will slide down and become available on future turns.  Below these cards are placed the food truck and the “foodie” token.  When players take a card located above one of these tokens they will receive a bonus: a sand dollar token for the food truck, or moving one visitor one space.  Each time a card is taken from above one of these markers, that marker is moved one step to the right.

Two large sand dollar tokens are selected randomly from the four provided.  These tokens are double-sided and  list special abilities that are available to the players throughout the game, provided the proper number of sand dollar tokens are spent.  These abilities can be quite useful, so collecting sand dollars is usually a wise choice.

One of the three Scoring Objective Tiles is randomly selected and placed in full view.  These tiles list three objectives that, if achieved, will earn the players points at game’s end.  Astute players should keep a careful eye on these objectives when selecting and placing their cards.

A player’s turn is quite simple:  select one card from the bottom row and place it into one’s city.  The player then executes any abilities the card may grant them (taking and/or moving people, taking sand dollars, etc.).  The central display is then refreshed by sliding the card from the top row into the recently vacated slot, then replacing the top row vacancy with a new card from the deck.

As an alternative to taking and placing a card as described above, the player may use one of the two special powers that are pictured on the large sand dollar tokens.  These powers require the expenditure of the specified number of sand dollar tokens (usually ranging from 2 – 4) and grant the player a special ability that turn.  These can be taking a card depicting the specified icon from either the top or bottom row, taking two cards, moving visitors or even swapping two cards in one’s city display (which can be extremely beneficial).

As mentioned earlier, when placing cards into one’s city, the player is trying to form scoring situations and/or opportunities.  This is the puzzle-like feature of the game, as points can be scored for having cards with certain symbols aligned properly, usually adjacent or in a contiguous line.  These formations can often be chained to score even more points.  Cards depicting activity rings also need to be placed wisely so all those visitors can be moved there to either score points or prevent the loss of points for not having found a suitable location by game’s end.  Another consideration is the moving of one’s VIPs, as they will have locations they desire to visit.  Each time they move to or through one of these spaces, a footprint token is placed there, which will earn the player points at game’s end.

The game concludes at the end of the round in which at least one player has placed their 14th card, which generally takes about an hour or so to accomplish.  Since some players may use a power to collect and place multiple cards on a turn, not everyone will have the same number of cards in their display.  Points are then tallied, with players earning points as specified on their cards (chains, adjacencies, activity rings, footprints) as well as the objective cards. Some objective cards will penalize players for having unplaced visitors.  Of course, the player with the most points will attract the attention of tourists everywhere and become the pride of the California coast.

While there are important collection and placement decisions to be made, Santa Monica is not very taxing and certainly falls on the lighter end of the complexity scale.  I enjoy the puzzle-like aspects of the game and find the placement decisions to be challenging.  I am always seeking to optimize the placement of the cards so as to form those valuable scoring chains, and am always on the look-out for cards that will enhance those points.  There is also a balance between having enough visitors to earn points versus having too many and not having enough activity rings to house them all.  This is certainly problematic as one does not want to lose points for being too overrun.

I will say that the movement aspect of the game can easily be skewed as it is dependent upon the order in which the cards allowing people movement surface.  I have played games where the movement cards surface early and before players have many people in their city.  Later, when movement is desperately needed, cards allowing this are mostly depleted.  I have also seen games when the cards granting people don’t surface until very late, at which point there is very little opportunity to move them to the desired locations.  One needs to be aware that the vagaries of the cards can certainly affect the manner in which the game plays.

Santa Monica is an entertaining, reasonably light game that will be pleasing to most families and gamers.  While it does take some care in deciphering the often tiny icons, the game does play rather smoothly and quickly.  Plus, you can visit the famed beach without being overrun by tourists, getting stuck in traffic, or getting sand in those personal and unwanted places! – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser


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