It’s great when a game seemingly drops out of nowhere and simply blows you away. Santa Maria from Aporta Games is one of those special boxes.
Despite receiving little attention upon initial release, I managed to come across some gameplay footage and promptly set about securing myself a copy. Since then, it has been left set-up on my table, seeing daily play for the better half of a week. So lets get stuck in to why Santa Maria looks set to become one of my favourite games of the year!
So, What’s it About?
At first glances you may be forgiven for dismissing Santa Maria as another typical Euro game based in the ever-popular but occasionally ethically problematic theme of 16th Century colonialism and trade. And whilst that categorisation wouldn’t be wrong, dismissing this gem certainly would be.
Santa Maria gives one to four players an opportunity to establish and maintain their own colonies in the New World. Comprised of monks, civilians, bishops, and conquistadors, your colonies of Spanish migrants will compete for the most happiness by producing goods ready to ship, training scholars, acquiring gold, and expanding across the lands.
The Right Approach to Theme
Many games deal with themes of colonialism and ruthless migrant expansion, but often gloss over the historic elements of native subjugation and other associated horrific acts. Whilst these are important moments in Western history, their inclusion in modern games should strive to offer greater accuracy and insight.
Santa Maria comes with a decent sized section of text detailing the history of 16th century conquistadors, acknowledging the acts of inhumanity against Native Americans, but also highlighting the charitable work of Spanish monks. Initially employed to spread the word of Christianity, these men of faith later sought to protect the natives, to the dismay of the conquistadors hell-bent on further expansion.
Including this short essay is a small gesture but provides the valuable historical context needed to elevate the game’s immersion whilst educating the players.
That’s Great, But How Does it Play?
Santa Maria is a tableau building game with a focus on dice drafting and tile laying. Each player will have their own six by six grid representing their colony which will become populated with buildings over time. Particular spaces on these boards will allow players to perform actions when activated, either by placing coins on them or by using migrant workers represented by dice.
Once activated, the action spaces will provide things such as resources, shipping opportunities, trading, increasing religion, or advancing on the conquistador track. These actions will be on one of four types of terrain; city, farm, mountain, and forest, with other spaces comprising of roads and a single town hall.
Activate a Single Building
To activate single action spaces on their colonies, players must pay in coins. Your first action costs one coin and every subsequent action will continue to increase by one. Coins are placed on the action spaces, blocking them from being activated again during a round.
Activate a Row or Column
The more efficient way of taking actions is through the use of dice. Depending on the number of players, an amount of dice will be rolled at the beginning of each round. Each player will have access to three white dice and one personal blue dice with more becoming available throughout the game.
Drafting a white die will activate a column on your colony depending on the corresponding number of pips. The die will begin at the top of the column and work its way down to the last available action, activating each space’s ability as it goes. Blue dice work similarly but trigger the action spaces across the corresponding rows. Like the coins, the final resting place of the die will block that action for the rest of the round.
Expand Your Colony
To make the most of your dice though, players must invest in expanding their colonies. At the start of each round, 10 colony tiles are placed to the side of the main board. These tiles depict action spaces to use throughout the game, and sometimes colonists, used for end game scoring.
Five of these are double expansion tiles covering two grid spaces, and five are triple expansion tiles covering three. Buying a double expansion will cost two wood, whilst a triple expansion costs two wood and a grain. When purchased, these tiles must be immediately placed on empty spaces of your colony board, opening up more actions to you throughout the game.
Once players have reached the end of three rounds happiness points will be awarded based on a variety of things, including goods sold and complete sets of ships in your harbours. The majority of player's points though will be scored through the fulfilment of the three bishop tiles randomly assigned at the beginning of the game.
These will grant different levels of happiness based on things like the amount of colonists attached to your town hall by uninterrupted roads, largest areas of types of terrain, or filling square areas of your colony. Any colonists present in completed rows or columns will also score a point each. Whoever achieved the greatest amount of happiness is the winner!
Why Should I Play it?
Whilst Santa Maria doesn't come across as greatly thematic, and certainly leans towards the more abstract side of modern Euro games, its intuitive and engrossing mechanics help to elevate it above much of its competition.
The artwork isn't outstanding and the colouring perhaps feels a little anaemic, but it has its own unique charm. The wooden resource tokens on the other hand, are lovely and help boost the game's theme of colonial development.
Arguably the most interesting graphic design choice is the victory point tokens. These scores of fleshy coloured faces with unnerving, beaming smiles represent your colony's happiness. They're pretty funny but maybe a tad out of place considering the theme's underlying context of violence.
Dice Rolling Mechanics to Die For
With that said, Santa Maria is stunning. I adore the use of dice in this game. Whilst largely steered clear of in early Euro games, the use of dice has become increasingly popular in the genre. Placed in the right designer’s hands, dice rolling can add excitement and possibilities, without compromising strategy. Even Uwe Rosenberg has succumbed to the allure of dice, with them making a brief but nonetheless interesting appearance in A Feast For Odin.
If Santa Maria had been a game of perfect information, readable from beginning to end, then the challenge would have been too great. The uncertainty of the dice keeps things manageable, essentially giving players smaller challenges to contend with each round.
This also results in Santa Maria having an excellent flow to its gameplay. Whilst it’s certainly not immune to cases of analysis paralysis, turns are usually fairly quick. Players will always be eager to get to that next step of their newly devised plan, biting their nails as they eye up that die they so desperately need.
The Perfect Puzzle
Santa Maria has somehow provided the exact puzzle I’ve been unknowingly looking for in a modern Euro game. Each turn thrusts choices in your direction and new decisions to make, with each round presenting fresh opportunities to turn your colony into a well oiled machine.
Should I try to boost ahead on the religion track, granting myself those extra blue dice and access to special abilities and end game scoring? Or should I build up my colony more first to broaden my options? Is it wise to invest so heavily in shipping actions? Do I pay to modify a die roll making sure I lead on the conquistador track for those five points, or leave it and activate a particularly resource rich column? It’s difficult, but oh so enticing!
It helps that figuring out this puzzle is immensely satisfying and never feels uncomfortably complex. Santa Maria doesn’t necessarily require you to calculate the optimum route to your endgame, as each round brings new possibilities dependant on the dice. This keeps players flexible, and introduces even more satisfying puzzles to solve.
Of course, you could rigidly stick to a particular goal as there are ways to mitigate unfavourable dice rolls, but Santa Maria works best when players balance their overall plans with unexpected solutions to new problems, perhaps even to the point of developing new plans.
Final Thoughts on Santa Maria
Easily sneaking in to my top 10 games, Santa Maria is a welcome addition to any Euro fan’s collection. If you’ve not made the leap in to Euro type games yet then Santa Maria could be a good first choice. It may not have the years of recognition awarded to games like Agricola and Puerto Rico, or the graphical bombast of Scythe, but its refined and addictive mechanics are sure to cement it as a future classic.
This design from Kristian Ostby and Eilif Svensson is just simply phenomenal. The rules are incredibly simple but the decisions presented throughout create a beautifully deep strategic experience. I'll no doubt keep coming back to this surprise hit, and I urge you to try it too!