Sagan Says: a Santa Monica review

Board Game Gumbo is pleased to present another new review from Sagan Ezell, fellow game group member. Sagan is an omni-gamer from Lafayette, Louisiana, and helps run the Southern Board Game Festival. Here are his thoughts on Santa Monica, from AEG. You can reach him on Twitter @SaganEzell

When it comes to summer vacation time, I feel like most people can be pretty broadly categorized into “beach people”, “mountain people”, or some hybrid of the two. Personally, I am just about as far away from a “beach person” as someone could be. I typically find the beach, too hot, too crowded, and too boring. I get lured in with the promise of fun activities like beach volleyball and soccer, refreshing dips in the ocean, and a day of sitting and reading a good book.

The reality of my experience, though, is much closer to halfway completed beach games where everyone bails because it’s too hot, avoiding strangers who have their music too loud, and slowly floating a mile away from your spot only to trudge back for an extra sandy sandwich at lunch time.

Now, I have to say to all the beach lovers out there, I know my experience has mostly been colored by the people in my family who I have spent the most disappointing beach time with, but still, I can confidently say that the beach is now my least favorite vacation spot. Maybe the worst thing about it, is that so many board games are just not playable on the beach! The beach is too sandy, too wet, and too windy to play a nice comfortable board game there (shout out to Hive, my go to beach game).

But this isn’t a review of board games on the beach, this is a review of the beach in a boardgame. Can Santa Monica change my jaded heart and make me have a bit more love for the beach and boardwalk?

What is Santa Monica?

Santa Monica is a 2-4 player drafting and tableau building game designed by Josh Wood, and published by AEG. In the game, you will be drafting feature cards from a common pool and adding them to your own tableau to score points and build up the best neighborhood in southern California. The game plays in about 45 minutes, and is on the lighter side of the spectrum, though there is a good amount of strategy to be had here.

The game has a slightly asymmetric start, as each player begins with a player board that can give them points based on where their “VIP” visits by the end of the game. These boards come with one or two VIP meeples and the types of features that these VIPs would like to visit. Additionally, setup will add one of a few bonus tiles, which provide global scoring objectives for each player. On each turn, a player will draft one of the available feature cards and add these features to either their beach, or their street, depending on the card selected. Cards can have many different symbols on them that allow the cards to trigger point scoring in various ways. Some cards will score points when placing other similar cards adjacent to them and chaining cards of the matching type, some will score for attracting certain types of people to the location, and some even provide points in a more global fashion.

Many of the cards have tags on them that indicate the type of feature that is on the card. These are broken down into Waves, Business, Sports, Nature, Tourist Spot, and Local Spot. In addition to these tags which drive scoring, cards can also provide immediate bonuses to players, which are resolved as soon as they add the card to their tableau. These bonuses can add new meeples to their area (either locals or tourists), move existing meeples to adjacent cards to get them into scoring position, and provide the player with sand dollars, a currency that can be spent in order to activate special actions in lieu of a regular draft turn.

Special actions could be just what you need in a tough spot

This brings us to where the puzzle of the game gets more interesting. A regular turn is simply to draft a new card and do what it says, but there are a few extra layers that add wrinkles to this simple structure. First, we have special actions. These are randomized from a small pool and two of them are added to the game during setup. By paying a few sand dollars a player can do things like drafting multiple cards, moving meeples in addition to the draft, and even swapping cards around within their tableau. Depending on the cards you have, sand dollars could translate to end game points, but a proper usage of a special draft can really swing the game in your favor if timed right. Likewise, if you have no sand dollars to spend, you can only take the basic draft action every turn.

The second interesting wrinkle comes in the form of the food truck and the foodie. These tokens move along the draft area, and by selecting the card directly above them, you can get a bonus in sand dollars or in meeple movement. A card that you might want just might become less enticing just because of the nice bonus that these other tokens could give you in the moment.

Naturally, the turn ends by refreshing the display of available cards for the next player, and play passes. After the first player has drafted their 14th feature card, the round will finish and the game ends. The game structure is very simple and the graphic design makes almost everything clear at a glance. It’s not a stretch to say the game could be taught to a full complement of new players and finished in under an hour.

What’s good about it?

Firstly, this game just oozes theme. From the graphic design and art, all the way to certain game mechanics, this strikes me as a very “theme first” design. There are just tons and tons of little touches here that make a lot of sense and add to the experience. First in mind for me here is the VIP system. As the VIP moves around the board, they leave behind “footprint tokens” at all the features that match the tags they are interested in. I think this is a very cool thematic touch to the game, and it really evokes the idea of a small local shop having a framed and signed photo of a celebrity on the wall who stopped by for an ice cream cone once in 1972.

Next is the idea of having meeples represent “locals” and “tourists.” There are some locations where everyone wants to be at, but many locations are spots only tourists would go, and some are spots you would only find locals at. This system just works so well for the vibe that this game wants to convey. Additionally, tiny things like how the locals get to move farther than tourists at the end of the game (because they know the way to their destination already) add to the feeling of really being there.

The locals know where all the best tags are.

The whole tag system itself is delightfully themed. Mechanically speaking, these tags are the primary driving force behind about half the game’s scoring chances. Chaining, adjacency bonuses, and VIP points are all solely informed by the tag system, but in Santa Monica, it’s easy to see the thematic logic behind the tags. Each piece of art in the game is unique (though there are a few cards that are just empty beaches), and I love the weird shops that are on cards with the “business” tag. (I love the idea that a lone seagull next to the mangled remains of a bike counts as a “nature spot”.)

These things really do remind me of things that I have seen and considered in my own beach trips, and it’s clear that a lot of love and attention was given to this part of the game. It’s fun and functional, if not exactly revolutionary among other tableau building games and set collecting games from a mechanism standpoint.

Nature.

Beyond that, the game is very strong when it comes to the new player experience. This one really hit the sweet spot for most of my groups in terms of teaching time, mastery, and replayability. The game structure is just as dead simple as they come, and yet there are a lot of good strategic choices to be made that keep the game interesting. Likewise, for each turn a player will do essentially the same exact thing, but there can still be a lot to consider once the action is back on you. It’s this blend of simplicity, speed, and nice strategy that makes Santa Monica so enticing. The game is not the most deep strategic experience you’ve ever had, but it doesn’t want to be. It’s fun to build your area, offers reasonably complex choices hidden in a basic shell, and doesn’t overstay its welcome at all. The variable setups also make it just different enough from play to play so it doesn’t seem too stale too fast.

What’s less good about it?

It’s probably pretty apparent right now, but if you want a game that’s very combative, or very complex, this isn’t the one. Player interaction is entirely limited to which cards you draft. Out of the nine bonus scoring goals seen in the game setup, one of them does score based on which player has the most unplaced meeples, but there’s hardly any reason to pay attention to what any other players are doing, aside from maybe trying to steal a card you think the person after you might want. It’s largely a “solo multiplayer” experience here, and I think that although the game doesn’t officially provide a solo mode, it could play solo almost the same as a 2 player game if you just roll a die and discard a card from the display between each of your turns.

Sometimes you just need some ice cream.

The cards are all technically different, but a lot of them “feel” the same, due to being essentially just empty beaches with maybe just a crab on the left side instead of the right side of the card. That said, the cards with actual buildings on them are all pretty unique and great, but I feel like for a game like this, having a few more memorable cards (there are 78 in the game) could go a long way. There is only one instance that I found of the graphic design being a bit confusing, as some cards score with a “threshold” type system (this card needs 3 nature tags to score 3 points, and will always be worth exactly 3 points, even if you grab 6 or 9 nature tags), while others with extremely similar looking symbols score with a “continuous” scoring system, so increasing the number of tags in the chain just keeps increasing the score for that chain. Still, these are nitpicks, and the rulebook addresses these questions very clearly. I never had to go to the forums to figure out a ruling.

The last thing I could pull as a negative here is that the box is just way too big for the components. The whole game is around 80 cards and some tokens. It could easily fit inside of one of their smaller boxes (think Smash Up expansion size). My shelf space is at a premium, and this game would definitely get carried around by me a lot more if it wasn’t in the full size box.

Final Thoughts/Conclusion

Overall, I had a great time with Santa Monica. It’s fast, fun, and super themey, with simple enough rules to teach anyone, yet interesting enough choices to keep it fun even after repeat plays. Most of my complaints were fairly minor, and I would recommend it to just about anybody, save for those that need more intense conflict or more extreme crunch. Even when you lose, looking back over your beach with all the tourists and locals running around, the awesome chain of great photo spots you managed to put together, and the time your VIP stopped by your pizza spot is really satisfying. The ultimate irony here though, is that this game would be TERRIBLE to play on a real beach.

Pros

  • Attractive table presence
  • Lots of subtle touches that enhance the theme
  • Very simple to teach
  • Plays quickly
  • Good strategy and decisions turn by turn
  • Very fast setup and teardown
  • If I could convince my family to just play this for a weekend instead of going to the real beach I would do it in a heartbeat.

Cons

  • Next to no player interaction
  • Probably too light for some
  • Some slightly confusing symbols
  • Too few cards overall
  • Box is just too big

— Sagan

Other Gumbo thoughts:

BJ says: My wife is a teacher, and when I can find a good one hour wonder (something that I can set up, teach and breakdown in less than an hour), those games are usually golden for my family. Santa Monica not only has beautiful artwork, with “chill California artwork”, but it also has a breezy style of play that my wife and I really enjoyed. I talked about it more on Gumbo Live! right here.

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