One of my friend brought Santa Cruz last Sunday and we had the chance to try it with 4 players. The game was little known to us (except the owner) by that time and it was our first play of the game. What I did know are the game designer and artist, Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle and Michael Menzel. Yes it’s Menzel, the illustration of the game board is beautiful, depicting the bird’s eye view of Santa Cruz islands in Menzel’s realism painting style. I believe it’s a quick and simple game, putting the game right between family and light medium Euro game category. Information on the box shows 45 minutes game duration, which is pretty quick and nice for medium filler.
The components are in great quality, nice looking board with sturdy material, linen finished cards, colored wooden parts and tokens. After the quick setup, my friend started to explain the rules and how to play the game for about 15-20 minutes long. The game setup is quite a major random factor of the game, since most of the tiles are faced down in random. The game played in 2 rounds. In the end of the game, player with the highest VP wins the game, Judging by the look of the board, it’s definitely an exploring game with card driven mechanic to support networking and building aspect of the game.
So, each player will choose a deck of 7 cards to start with (signed with letters A to D). These decks have different combination of cards in amount based on each type. There are 4 types of cards, Coastal, River, Road and Double build. There are also scoring cards that will be given to each player before choosing the deck. Each player gets 2 scoring cards and decide which deck of cards that support his scoring cards the best. The last player will choose which deck he wants to take in the first round, clockwise until the first player take the last deck available. The game starts with each player, starting from the first player clockwise, plays a single card.
A player may either play a scoring card or a building card during his turn. The board depicted Santa Cruz islands with various spots all over the islands. Each spot contains a single tile based on it’s type. Either it’s a Coastal, a River or a Road. At the start of the game, the Coastal tiles are placed face up, known to players. Before the first round, players will get an initial placement on the board in one of the Coastal spaces. In this game, if a player built a building in a tile, the adjacent tiles by legal connection (whether it’s a river or road connection) are flipped face up. Now, the first turn and so on, players must play a card to build or score. Each tile has different value points and icons. There are 3 building types on the tiles, a Lighthouse, a Church and a House. Some of the House tiles have resource icons like Sheep, Fish Flour, Wood and Gold. And some of the buildings have bird token icons. To build on a tile, players must play a specific card from their hand with the same type of connection from one of their previous buildings (except Coastal cards, that can only be played in Coastal and may be played ignoring the connection restriction). The building restriction has minor confusion tendency. The fact that buildings with a road connection can only be build with Road cards and in adjacent position. While buildings with a river connection can be build with River cards as long as the player has at least a building in that river’s course. Some buildings can be build through more than 1 connection type (it has more than 1 network branching out from it).
The scoring cards are the most tricky of the game. These scoring cards have their own objectives and may be played during a player’s turn to score that objective. The tricky part is, the scoring takes place for all players that meet the objective, not only for the player who played the card. Because of this, players must carefully plan their building actions and perfectly timing when will he play the scoring card. The idea of the game is how to score your scoring card alone and manage to score from other players’ scoring cards. After all cards in players’ hand are played, the first round ends. All buildings on the board are returned to the owner. Then players are given another scoring card from the draw pile. Based on the newly drawn scoring card, players determine (starting from the last player on the scoring track) which deck he wants to choose. After each player has chosen his deck, he may discard one of his 3 scoring cards face down. The second round starts with the tiles condition like after the end of the first round (most of the tiles are likely opened and known by now). The second round played just like the first round. After the second round ends, the final scoring takes place, Each player also adds his bird token points.
The game was fun and simple. It has unique feeling of push your luck and timing. I would consider that the first round has high randomness factor. Players still blind guessing other players scoring cards and playing cards in not as effective as it would be since all the non coastal tiles are still faced down (except flipped tiles from initial placement result). The second round has higher challenging value and I agree with my friend, that the game has become more tactical than the previous round. Each player has several insights including tiles position on the board, others’ scoring cards and such. It’s a nice looking game and fun but the half of the game seemed just a warming up for the other half which ended prematurely (in other words, we started to play the game in the 2nd round but the game ends to fast). but overall I like the game and would gladly to try it again in the future. It’s perfect for family game and it’s Menzel’s!