On the one hand, just look at this game!


On the other hand, at its heart, it’s an abstract strategy game.  I don’t usually like abstract strategy games and I’ve been struggling to figure out why.  Santorini wooed me with its siren song of gobsmackingly gorgeous artwork and fully realized presentation.  Let’s see if it can break me of my abstract aversion.

Santorini is great!

Santorini is a highly praised and well-regarded game.

  • The presentation is out of this world!
  • The promise of replayability and variety in every game through THIRTY unique god powers on beautiful oversized cards with incredible artwork
  • The completely unnecessary but gorgeous raised island base
  • The wonderful 3-D stacking components
  • The adorable little plastic minis
  • The box cover artwork
  • It comes with a simple ruleset, a simple win condition, and offers leagues of tactical depth
  • You can teach this game in a handful of seconds!

Everything about this game is fantastic.  If you like Chess, Go, Othello, The Duke, Hive, or other games like those, you will likely enjoy this game.


The underlying game itself is a dry abstract.  On your turn you must move and then build.  The first player to move one of their minis onto level 3 of a tower wins the game immediately.

Carolyn and I played 10 times and in every single game, with and without god powers, we both felt the transparent, in your face, one of us is going to think better than the other and that person is going to win.  When you distill most games down far enough, you end at the same core truth — the person who thinks better wins — except perhaps where randomness is a factor.  In the case of Santorini, every single game came down to:

“I’m ahead of you by one step.  If you don’t block me, I win.  If I don’t consider all of your possible moves, I might lose my one-step advantage.”

Move, countermove, block, attack, react.  

Those gods tho

The promise of the god powers is great.  They provide a neat little puzzle to solve for each game you play.  How can I employ this new god power?  How do I counter my opponent’s god power?  During the actual gameplay, however, any and all theme fades to the background, revealing the dry, abstract core of this game.

Move, countermove, set up a fork, block, misdirect, use god power.

The god powers are like a delicious twist of lime over the gin & tonic you already don’t like the taste of.  😛

And how does that make you feel?

Both of us were unable to think very far ahead and were unable to see the patterns we were supposed to build.  It often felt that we were wandering around aimlessly, uncertain where to build to set ourselves up for success.

[Me] – // Maybe we’re overthinking this.  Maybe we’re looking for depth where there is none.  Maybe it’s just a take-that back and forth game and we’re pushing ourselves too hard and need to relax into it. //

[Carolyn] – “I don’t think so.  I think this is the kind of game that rewards the player who can see several moves ahead and who understands the patterns of buildings they need to set up in order to force a win condition.”

As frustrated as I get with these sorts of games, Carolyn gets even more so.

[Carolyn] – “I feel like I will almost always lose at this kind of game to you simply because you can think one or more steps farther ahead than I can.  Haven’t I lost every single game so far?”

[Me] – // No.  You won the last game, but neither of us realized it at the time.  I was certain I had won, and then we played the final moves and it turns out you won. //

[Carolyn] – “Exactly!  Even when I win, I have no idea I’m going to win or how I managed it, or how I’d do it again.  Also, 3 times during that game you pointed out where I was making a mistake.  Had I gone where I originally intended, the game would have been over and you would have won, but you were nice and pointed me in the other direction, which gave me more chances.”

We removed the god powers and tried the pure base game a couple more times to see if we were missing something.  Maybe by removing the glossy top coat we could learn more of the tactics.  Unfortunately, no.  Just more of the same.  We tried different god combinations we hadn’t tried before.  Yeah, it felt different, but the core remained.  It’s as if the god powers are the salt and pepper seasoning over the boneless-skinless chicken breast.  It’s better with the seasoning, but it’s still just chicken.

Try harder!

With enough practice, determination and focus, I’m sure we would get better at this game, but whenever we come to this conclusion we ask ourselves why bother?  We aren’t having fun now (after 10 attempts!) and there are so many games out there (and in our collection) that are fun on the first or second play.

We have a 4.5 year old and a 1 year old.  We’re tired!  When we have the energy and desire to sit down to play a board game together, it needs to entertain us.  It’s similar to Collin’s frustration with modern video game reviews focusing mainly on end-game content.  We just don’t have the time, energy or interest right now to grind and level up our skills in any game, hoping that it starts being more fun for us eventually.

At the end of the evening we both felt worse about ourselves, like we aren’t smart enough to enjoy this game, at least at this point in our lives.  We don’t feel closer because we played this game.  The act of playing it doesn’t result in either of us having a sense of satisfaction.  We often look for this feeling and typically find it in games where you build something during the game and have a sense of ownership over it, like your farm and family in Agricola, the collaboratively created map of Carcassonne, your village in Keyflower, or your huts, temples and towers in Taluva.  

Hey, wait a second! Taluva is an abstract!

Yup!  I enjoy Taluva a lot more than Santorini.  Perhaps what satisfies me about Taluva is having and placing buildings in my own color and getting the sense of ownership and accomplishment that it provides.  At the end of the game, whether I win or lose, I can look over my settlements and admire the beauty of the landscape we just created.  The city you build in Santorini is beautiful, but for some reason I don’t care as much about it. Maybe because many of the tile placements are forced actions.  I had to build there or I would lose the game.  It wasn’t a choice.  Also, none of the buildings in Santorini are obviously mine.

There are different ways to win in Taluva, so perhaps that adds some cushioning between players, allowing for multiple ways of solving the problem and providing many paths to victory.  Each time we play we discover a new strategy, a new tactic, a new way to block, a new way to level up.  How you place your volcano tile, where you place your hut, whether you expand an existing settlement or start a new one, how you prevent your opponent from encroaching on your territory, whether to race through your huts or focus on temples and towers — there seem to be so many more decisions in Taluva than in Santorini.  Maybe it’s all just smoke and mirrors, but that smoke hides the abstract core from us and we’re able to see the sandbox of possibilities instead.

We’ve played Taluva 10 times so far and I don’t see us slowing down anytime soon.  Just talking about it makes me want to play it again right now!

With a heavy heart

[Carolyn] – *Sigh* “I’m struggling with this decision, too.  Santorini is a beautiful, simple, elegant game.  It’s a good game!  But it’s not a game I care to play.  I don’t like the way it makes me feel.  I’m calling it.  This one’s not a keeper.”

Another point of view

If you’d like someone else’s take on Santorini, I recommend you check out the excellent post at Cardboard Quest.  Stuart’s conclusion sums it up nicely:

“With Santorini you’re getting the most gorgeous abstract production on the market with a wealth of variation in so many deity match ups and will be up there with Onitama with our favourite abstracts, but goes without saying that those who don’t love abstract games may not be swayed by all that glitters is gold. “