In 2012, Santa Cruz was released for the European market, and was recommended for the Spiel des Jahres. Unfortunately, this hidden gem is pretty hidden if you’re an English-speaking gamer, as it’s never had an English-language release*. I hadn’t heard anything about this game before sitting down to play it, and when it was all out in front of me, I discovered it was designed by Marcel-André Casasola Merkle (creator of another one of my favourites, Attika) with art by the amazing illustrator and designer Michael Menzel (you’ve likely seen his art in Legends of Andor, Bruges, Pillars of the Earth & many many more). This combo made me very glad that I’d sat down to play, and the game did not disappoint!
Santa Cruz mixes exploration and hand management with a dash of hidden scoring goals over two independent rounds. The hidden scoring cards will drive your choice of deck, and your building/exploring strategies – the mix of these will change up the feel of every game, and not all are used every game, so it will keep you guessing when you’re seeing your opponents making certain moves! Is someone after those fish spots? Looking for gold and sheep areas? Or perhaps dancing with danger to claim spots along the edge of a volcano area? There’s a lot of different strategies that will guide your play in each round of the game.
Given the scoring cards you’ve got for your first round, you’ll try to choose a building/travel deck that suits your needs (hopefully!). Choose from 4 decks – balanced (with a nice bit of everything), road (mostly roads, a little other stuff), ship (mostly ships, a little other stuff) and rivers (mostly rivers, a little other stuff). Bearing your travel abilities in mind, you’ll then pick a coastal spot to start from – all of these are visible, so you can decide what type of building you’d like to establish in any given position, as well as the bonus that you will receive for building there. Then it’s time to play out the first round!
Thanks to the random setup of the building/bonus tiles around the islands, each game is a little bit different – so as you are building, and exploring further into the interior of each island (one larger, two smaller), you won’t know what to expect as far as the building types and bonuses. As each player establishes buildings, adjacent tiles will be flipped, and the islands will become fully uncovered as the first round’s play continues. Your choice each turn will be to either use a travel/building card to play from your hand to establish yourself further on the island, or if you’ve reached a scoring card goal and want to get that out before any of your opponents could score it too, play that! It’s a delicate balance of strategy and watching your opponents’ moves to see what they might be aiming towards, scoring-wise. On top of that, managing your hand and the buildings you have is key to ensure you don’t get pinned in by your travel options, building availability – and don’t forget, the way that other players are exploring around you!
Once every player has gone through their building/travel deck and played scoring cards, the first round is over. Players retrieve buildings and all uncovered island tiles remain flipped. Heading into the second round, players will (in reverse score order) then choose a new building/travel deck and the scoring cards that go with it. You’ll then also have a chance to take & keep a new scoring card, ditching one of the original ones that you may not want anymore. So, while you’ll be playing out the second round in the same way as the first, you’ll be looking to maximize your scoring options and be wondering if other players have swapped out theirs or kept the two original score cards. In that case, could you also aim for those scoring options effectively on top of yours?
This is really the part of Santa Cruz that I love! The first round is easing everyone in, getting familiar with the island – then the second round seems to fly by as everyone is peppering their buildings out to time things to maximize bonuses without letting others score. You know exactly what’s out there on the board and can strategize a little better, but you are working against opponents doing exactly the same thing! Santa Cruz offers straightforward play options (hand management and basic scoring) with a surprising depth of strategy, all bundled up in a play time that will appeal to casual and heavier gamers alike. A sweet spot between gateway and strategy games, Santa Cruz will always be a game I’ll return to and explore again and again.
* However, BoardGameGeek to the rescue with English rules translations, in case you want to grab a copy & play. The game itself has no text on cards, etc – so no paste-ups or anything necessary.