DESIGNERS: Dr. Gordon Hamilton
ARTWORK: Mr. Cuddington (i.e. David Forest & Lina Cossette)
PUBLISHER: Roxley Game Laboratory
Picture this, but without proper footwear.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been mired in a landscaping project. When I’m not at work, most of my waking life seems to revolve around digging out sod to expand our planting beds. 20 hours of digging one weekend, 11 hours the next. A few hours of digging each night when I get home. Dozens and dozens of trips with the wheelbarrow ferrying sod and topsoil to their respective destinations. What initially began as an ache-filled experience has settled-in and become routinized. Nonetheless, this sort of project is taxing, so when I’ve proposed playing a game in our precious downtime, I’ve been met with the incredulous eyes of my wife.

“Ugh…how do you have energy for playing a game after all that?”

Anything but that game, please.

Admittedly, the prospect of a two-hour gaming extravaganza can sometimes be daunting. The games we often like to play require focus on developing long-term strategies, careful balancing of logistics, and assessments of risk and reward. The heaping piles of mulch and topsoil in our driveway attest to the fact that our skill in manipulating gaming logistics may not translate to the real world. Perhaps we have been a bit optimistic or overeager. Physical exertion does not necessarily leave one yearning for calisthenics of the mental variety.

Blue domes, while attractive, are not suitable for walking around on.

And so tonight, when we came in from our evening bout of shovel-wielding, I scored a surprise victory when I suggested a game of Santorini. At least, that’s how I imagine it going–after three hours of non-stop digging, I’m not sure even I have energy for a game, no matter its length. But in this fantasyland where I did, this would be the game we play. It doesn’t require too much investment of time and rewards players with a compelling duel of wits.

Aside from being an island (I know, this is beginning to be a running theme in Indoor Archipelago reviews), Santorini is also a strategy game from Roxley Game Laboratory. In it, two players take on the roles of opposing Greek deities trying to build hilltop homes in that iconic Santorinian style and hop their builder up to roof-level before the other player.

There is no need to get carried away–despite what this video shows, a bicycle is not a recommended means of rooftop conveyance.

Why omniscient beings looking down from above would care about rooftop views is beyond me, but who are we to question the gods? From the way I’ve described it, and given standard eurogame fare, you might be picturing a lumbering system of resource harvesting and worker placement, but Santorini is not that type of game. Instead, each game is a breezy affair–15-20 minutes of abstract strategy bliss facilitated by a simple, single-paragraph ruleset.

Hopefully, one of those surprises is not the fact that it is explosive.

But just as the island is actually the caldera of an active volcano, Santorini has some unexpected surprises in store. The basic rules are enough of a game in their own right (after all, Draughts/Checkers has managed to stand the test of time), but the addition of god/goddess cards is what really gives Santorini staying power for the modern gamer. These cards are chosen or randomly assigned to players and provide a single rule alteration. “Aha–now I can move more than one space at a time. Surely, I shall be victorious!”

But seemingly unbeatable powers show their weaknesses soon enough. At least in my dozens of plays, no one god or goddess seems to be vastly overpowered. Through clever manipulation, they can all be beat. Just find their Achilles heel (oooh, talk about a perfect opportunity to use that metaphor).

A paper-based pantheon.

Along with the well-balanced and fast-moving gameplay, Roxley’s superior production quality makes Santorini a joy to behold. The art by Mr. Cuddington is well-crafted–lighthearted and cartoony. The components are top-notch–everything feels like it was ergonomically honed for ease of use and facility of play. The game, as a result, is the opposite of fiddly. Roxley have really set a high standard since appearing on the scene and their attention to detail bodes well for future releases.

A little vinegar and baking soda would make this a more accurate volcanic simulation.

All of this makes Santorini one of those games that a person can return to time and again, always finding a new strategy to test against an opponent. Some games speed-by in ten minutes, with one player quickly getting the upper-hand through clever play (or the inattention of their competitor). Others, can be more drawn-out, 20-minute slug-fests: a series of move and response, counters and counter-counters. And though its length would suggest “filler” classification, I think that undersells the depth of Santorini. I’ve seldom encountered a short-length game with so much to explore.

As much as I love Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce, it looks like this variant should have stayed a secret.

Before I conclude, I should say that there is another reason it would have been surprising to get Santorini to the table after a day of digging. When we first started playing, my wife dominated me–twelve victories to my two. Then, she revealed her secret strategy. Always climb up a level if you can and prevent your opponent from doing so. Using this mantra, I have managed to turn the tables on her and our victory count has now drawn even. My wife is chagrined. But I know that next time we sit down, she’ll have figured out a way to thwart my temporary success. The fact that it could be anybody’s game each time we start anew is a good feeling and the mark of a great game. There is no silver-bullet strategy, no secret sauce here, just the constant give and take of a classic duel that will always have a place at our table.