Nineteenth century Irish novelist Margaret Hungerford is credited with saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” In the world of tabletop board games, the sentiment certainly holds true, as opinions often run wild among friends. We all play the same game, but at the end of the day we reach different conclusions.
These differences aren’t arguments per se. It’s not like we throw meeples and dice at each other, though a well-thrown card can cause the slightest of injuries. In reality, there is only so much empty space on the game shelf. Decisions must be made.
I had been itching to bring Santa Monica to the table, so I jumped at the chance to write on this title. Justin Bell mentioned that he might like to put a few thoughts together as well once I was ready to write the review. As it turns out, we’ve fallen on opposite sides of the “keep it/sell it” spectrum, and we thought it might be fun to let both opinions fly.
All I wanna do is have some fun
In Santa Monica, players are building a panoramic tableau of the famed California boardwalk by drafting cards from a pool of eight cards. Four of the cards are readily available, while the other four serve most often as a vision of the future. Cards either depict the street/boardwalk level or the beach level and must be placed accordingly, branching out from a unique starting tile. Along the way, cards in the tableau link up to create sets, scoring opportunities, and bonuses.
Boosting the powers of the game are two sand dollar tiles granting special abilities. Sand dollars are the currency of the beach, and can be acquired either from cards or from the food truck—a clever token which moves along the bottom of the draft pool bestowing sand dollars when a player’s choice matches the truck’s location. And because no food truck is complete without a stalking foodie, such a human also walks the bottom line of the draft pool, conferring the ability to move a host of meeples hanging out on the beach. Occasionally, the two meet for a double bonus.
Among the meeples are locals, tourists, and VIPs. Through the powers of the cards, these tokens appear and are able to walk along the beach attempting to find appropriate hot spots, designated by dashed rings, to score points. Proper management of the humans is essential to an efficient score.
When one player reaches a tableau of fourteen cards, the end is triggered. Players complete the round before enjoying one final opportunity to move their meeples into their ultimate destinations as if the beach were frantically preparing for a posed drone photo op. Objectives are evaluated, beaches are scored, and a victor is declared.
I got a feelin’ I’m not the only one?
Bob Pazehoski, Jr.: Hello Justin! Welcome to the world’s first great conference on West Coast real estate in board games.
Justin Bell: Hey there Bob! Excited to talk shop about Santa Monica, especially because I want to know why you liked it so much. Santa Monica and I were a hot item for about a month, then I began to meet other games, and then we…well, let’s just say it didn’t work out.
BP: I’m sorry to hear that for two reasons. First, because the game is pretty fantastic. Second, though, is because I’ve been playing it for about a month now! If I’m going to avoid a bitter breakup, I need to hear more about your struggles. It’s just so beautiful on the table. Maybe I’m missing something under the surface?
JB: I love the look of the game. I really do. The artwork just shines for me, especially after living in California for years and spending a decent amount of time visiting friends in the LA area and doing the boardwalk in places like the real Santa Monica or playing (failing at?) beach volleyball with friends in Hermosa. And that wooden food truck piece? Come on, so good! No complaints there; Santa Monica has great table presence.
BP: I had no idea you lived in California. That’s so cool! I was a volleyball player in college, but I never lived close enough to the beach to dig my heels in the sand. All that personal history, and still this one couldn’t hold your heart? I’ve played my way through most of the sand dollar abilities, starting tiles, and I even picked up the Long Weekend expansion to press that variability to its limits and boost the scoring a bit. Are you saying there’s not enough game here?
JB: Santa Monica correctly claims to have some variability in the set-up; I just never got into the different sand dollar tiles in terms of their actions being wholly different from game to game. It was always like “ooh, this time paying four sand dollars gets me ____” but by the third or fourth play, none of it was crazy unique or awe-inspiring. It was just a way to spend all of the money I was collecting to correct any mistakes I made while drafting cards or moving one more VIP to a place that might score end-game points if I didn’t trigger that through a card play. And those six starting double-high tiles do nudge you in a certain direction for scoring, but I’ve seen players win without following that nudge to the letter.
BP: Interesting. Let’s get back to those pretty cards. You and I have hinted at our mutual interest in iconography in the past. All the cards feature “tags” that are used for set collection and scoring connections, plus a bevy of symbols used during and in the endgame. Do you feel they work in this case?
JB: Oh, this iconography! I was surprised that a game this light required me to look in the rulebook for some of the descriptions of how to score the adjacency and chain cards. And it was strange to see how often I would teach the game and still get the chain cards wrong in limited cases. The icons themselves and figuring out which cards score points? Got it, I’m looking for that sand castle icon. But I thought for sure I would have this down by the end of my first game, and instead, it took three or four plays to have it fully down (and to be thinking, “I can’t draft that certain card because I can’t possibly put it in a scoring chain with only two cards left to draft in the game” or something like that).
BP: You know, I really can’t argue with you there. The first print of the game was plagued by some misprints, and the cryptic relationship between rules and icons certainly doesn’t help! Thankfully, I’m far enough along now that I speak semi-fluent Santa Monican. After all, relationships depend on good communication! If I could change one thing, though, it would be to add an equal sign to the icon repertoire; they relied so heavily on the colon, which is employed with such little consistency, it is really misleading in trying to figure out how to score the various chains and connections.
BP: Maybe you’ve just not played with the right people? Have you tried playing with the family?
JB: I really wanted to play this with my seven-year-old daughter. But after just one play, my wife and I realized there was no way she would pick up on the strategy elements, particularly around which card to draft and how to maximize scoring with the adjacency/chain cards. Turn-taking would come easily, but nothing else, and no one feels good when they blow their kids away at a board game. (Well, almost no one.)
BP: Are you kidding? I love walloping my kids at games! Unfortunately, it happens less and less these days. They’re quite the capable bunch. I will say, though, our eight-year-old sat in on a game with us, and he loved it. I can’t say he had any kind of strategy, but he managed a respectable score when the sand settled. Some games cause the kiddos to grimace, but Santa Monica has been nearly all smiles to this point!
JB: Santa Monica, for the month that we played it before filing it away, is a perfect wine-and-cheese game with my wife. A breezy 20-to-30-minute affair, we can talk about the day at work, turns are quick, no one is offended when they lose, it’s completely non-confrontational, it’s super quick to set up and tear down. But we never really loved it. It was always fine.
Me to my wife: “Hey, you wanna do ___ or Santa Monica tonight?”
Wife: “I don’t know; maybe Santa Monica?” [note: she never went with “ooh, let’s do Santa Monica again, I loved it the last time we played!”]
Me, to my wife (after playing): “What did you think?”
Wife: “Yeah, you know, yeah, it was good!” [wifespeak for “I don’t want to offend you, but if I’m being honest, I would play most of our other two-player faves over Santa Monica”]
BP: I think the chill atmosphere over the game has been one of the best features! We’ve also enjoyed Santa Monica dates with a bit of cabernet, and even shared it with another couple for a double date. We’ve found it lends itself to chatter over the table.
JB: Look at you, with the game night double dates! I need to do more of that. While I mostly played Santa Monica with my wife, I did play a single time with three other gamers; all three said they would prefer other fillers over Santa Monica. That doesn’t mean they thought it was bad, it just didn’t feature interesting decisions. Pull a card from the market, add it somewhere legal in your tableau, score points after placing the 14th card.
It just wasn’t thrilling in any way.
BP: Ah! But it is that same simplicity that draws me in. Well, let’s move onward. I think we have full agreement on one issue. That box.
JB: I can’t stress this enough: Santa Monica wastes the most box space of any game I own, in terms of its box-to-components ratio. Like, by a mile. It’s a deck of cards and meeples. The rulebook has a beautiful glossy feel to it and it is laid out quite nicely, but why is the box the size of Quacks of Quedlinburg when everything could fit inside of Welcome To…??? You could have easily made the starting tiles two separate pieces, each the size of one card, and make them puzzle pieces that interlock…that makes Santa Monica a $20 MSRP instead of a $40 MSRP, easy. Help me save money for other AEG games, AEG!!
Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard
BP: Let’s put in a final word here. I hear your struggles, but I’m still hopeful that my bond with Santa Monica will stand the test of time. I love the comic-style charm of the artwork, the simplicity of the gameplay, and the delightful tension of walking those meeples all over the place in preparation for a scoring sweep at the end. I’m willing to overlook the iconography hiccups, even though I know they present a barrier to teaching the game.
We’ve not really discussed the Long Weekend, but it adds a set of double-wide Event cards that beef up the scoring combos and add slick walking paths for those beloved locals and tourists. It is a seamless fit that adds tension to the drafting pool as all the players spy the entrance of the Event cards. Claimed Events also force a blessing out on all the other players, adding a nice touch of interaction that was missing from the original. Don’t get me wrong, I love the base game, but this mini-expansion just seals the deal, even if the box rudely takes up the space of 13 small-box games.
JB: Only 13? Ha, I digress. Sounds like I need to give the expansion a spin before I pass judgment on the total package. We need to get together to make that happen, but based purely on the core game, I was a little less impressed than you are!
BP: Let’s call this battle a draw. If I ever find myself in Chicago, I’ll be sure to pack an extra carry-on for that massive box so we can play together. Oh, and as if you need fuel to your fire on the way out, how much does it irk you that the game’s second tiebreaker is the first person to write their name in sand!?