Sun, sea and surf awaits you on the golden beaches of Santa Monica. With its favourable Californian climate and close proximity to Los Angeles, it has been a famous resort town since the early 20th century. The magnificent beachfront is a magnet to many celebrities. When you stroll down the boulevard, you might bump into some VIPs, like the Beckhams, Tom Cruise, Christian Bale and Sandra Bullock. They are easy to spot, VIPs always wear green in Santa Monica! You may also wind up at the pier which was built in 1909 and is one of the city’s most popular destinations.
Well, at least you will virtually be there if you play the latest game from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG). The thought of sun, sea, sand and surf might cheer you up as you look out the window to the bleak British winter! Santa Monica is a 2-4 player game, where players will be competing to create the best Californian oceanfront promenade.
Let’s find out if there is more than a daydream of sunnier climes to enjoy when playing this card drafting, set collection game designed by Josh Wood.
The summer breeze of setting up
Set up is fairly straight forward. Each player randomly gets a starting feature tile and the corresponding meeples. Two rows of four cards are laid out face up to create the shared card drafting display. Beside this are two double-sided Sand Dollar tiles, picked at random from the four available. One of three end of game scoring objectives are also selected.
The first player receives the Seagull first player marker. The person who is last in turn order can place the ice cream truck beneath any column, the Foodie meeple is placed two spaces away from that.
A fairly quick set up and you are now good to play Santa Monica!
Dipping your toe in the water
The player with the most points wins Santa Monica. However, all scoring is done at the end of the game. You can therefore never be too sure who is likely to win until the very end. Nail-biting stuff huh?
On their turn players get to choose a card from the front row of the drafting display. The card in the back row then gets brought forward and its space replenished with another card. The chosen card is placed next to the player’s +starting feature or another card in front of them. It will either be a beach card or a boardwalk card. The player then resolves any instant bonuses like meeples or sand dollars. Play then moves around the table in turn order.
In Santa Monica, there is a whole host of different ways to score points. Placing meeples in meeting places, moving VIPs across the cards, set collecting certain types of building or attractions, or obtaining placement bonuses. This is in addition to the end of game scoring and any points for saved sand dollars.
The first person to place the 14th card ends the game, all players prior to the first player get one final go. After this, all players can move their meeples around the board to try and give them all a point-scoring home. Then, the scores are tallied!
Playing in the sand
So in the synopsis above this sounds like a breeze to play. Don’t be fooled, this is a very complex card game that takes a little bit of learning. I personally find it quite difficult to teach for some reason. I think I just make a meal of the point salad approach to scoring and bumble the iconography. It is one of the few games my wife can teach better than me.
There is a lot to think about, and plenty to consider on each move. The trouble is, when playing with three or four players the card you might want can be long gone by the time it is your turn. Unfortunately, this quite often prohibits you planning your next move. So play can be a little slow going around the table. Alternatively at two players, play is quick but you lose that nervous excitement of whether the card will be there on the next turn or not because chances are it will be. I think three player is my favourite count.
While you will be aware of your opponents approach you will be too engrossed in building your own beach to be able to nobble or hinder your opponents without handicapping yourself. This can be viewed as a positive or a negative restriction of the game. Either way, it makes play a little more insular and reduces interactions between players.
I think the age of 14+ is about right, it does very much depend on the board game experience of the teen though as my eldest son (12) can compete against me and my wife.
The end of game scoring can be a bit fiddly, the pad helps guide you and it isn’t complicated maths. Certainly shouldn’t put you off playing.
Hot summer air (in the box)
The box art is very pretty indeed. The light airy feel of the lid is reflected in the light airy feel inside. The contents could easily fit in something a quarter of the size. While AEG may be leaving room for an expansion, this feels a bit too optimistic! It’s like game publisher’s don’t know our shelves and cupboards are already bursting! Give me the density of Bargain Quest or Raiders of the North Sea over this any day of the week. A note to publisher’s: I am more likely to buy a game if it is in a box that fits the game! In an internet age I don’t need shelf presence!
The only reason I can see for the box to be this big and giving it ‘purpose’ is to house the ridiculously oversized rules. The content is good, although later editions have had them improved with further clarifications, that frankly are needed. I’m used to deciphering rules, but this one took some reading and understanding. In its defence, there is a lot to teach, particularly with iconography and interpretations thereof. If I hadn’t been so keen to play it first, a How to Play video would’ve been very useful indeed.
The reference cards could be better and have helpful hints as to what the iconography means in terms of scoring, rather than telling you some of the irrelevant information it has chosen to portray.
Once you’ve mastered the rules and found room for it on the shelf you can finally, really enjoy the beauty of the game. The pastel palette throughout is refreshing. The artwork by Jeremy Nguyen is brilliant and a little quirky. The sand dollar tokens are very pretty too. The meeples are great with their screen-printed cameras signifying tourists and sunglasses representing locals. The VIPs are arguably lacking in the screenprint department which makes them less special, which is a bit of an oxymoron.
Don’t let these gripes put you off, it is still a beautiful game and the components are great!
Final thoughts on Santa Monica
Cat Lady Deluxe is one of my favourite games. Seeing Josh Wood’s name on the attractive box, I preordered this without hesitation or knowing anything about it. I had unreasonably high expectations for it - based on nothing!
A few minor niggles in learning the game, a couple of numbers missing on the cards, and the orange final scoring card having a different score on the card than in the rules grated a bit more than it should’ve. This slightly tarnished the early plays for me personally. Once these had washed off on the seashore, I could really start to relax in the sunshine of the game. Now I have played it enough to know the iconography and understand the game more, I bask in the enjoyment of playing it. Later printings have got this all sorted too.
The multiple ways of procuring points make each game a different challenge. Add into the mixture the numerous cards, the different end game scoring, the varying sand dollar opportunities and the random starting tile and you have got oodles of replayability.
Overall, I have grown to like Santa Monica more and more with every play. As I relax on my figmental deckchair with each play, I get to enjoy the picturesque Californian view with fewer interruptions. As I recline the deckchair further, I get to really focus on the strategy that unfolds every game.
Santa Monica is a considerably crunchier set collection game than its visuals lead you to believe. You will probably need to give it a handful of plays before you can really get the most out of the game. However, once you do, Santa Monica will provide you with hours of beautiful cogitating entertainment.