Santorini is a good-looking game. It is the hotness now due to how lovely the components and artwork are. Strictly speaking it is not a new game. It was first published in 2004 as an abstract game. The latest version comes with a Greek mythology setting.
The game can be played with 2, 3 or 4 players, but I believe it started as a 2-player game. 3P and 4P are variants. When playing with four, you play in teams of two. So far I have only played the 2-player game.
You have two pawns (workers). On your turn, you must move a worker and then use him to build. The houses all have the same design - three floors and a blue dome roof. See rightmost house in the photo - that's a completed house. The play area is a 5x5 grid. When you move, your worker moves one step orthogonally or diagonally. Your current location and your destination can be of different heights. There is no restriction when moving horizontally or to a lower elevation. However if you are moving up, you may move at most one floor up. So you may move from the ground onto a one-storey house, but not from the ground onto a two-storey house.
When you build, you also build in any of the eight spaces orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to your worker. You build exactly one floor (or a roof), and you must follow the blueprint. E.g. you can't build a roof on top of a single-storey house. When a house is completed, you can't perform the build action on that space anymore. That space also becomes inaccessible to workers.
There are four completed houses in this photo. They are effectively obstacles now.
There are two ways to win. The first one is to get a worker onto a three-storey house, i.e. what the white worker has achieved in the photo above. This is not as easy as it sounds, because when you build the third storey of a house, it is often easy for your opponent to quickly build the roof, thus preventing you from using that house to win. Also you need to watch out not to create a winning opportunity for your opponent when you build the third storey.
The second way to win is to force your opponent to be unable to move and build on his turn. If he can't pick one of his workers to move then build, he loses immediately.
The play area is small. Even though your worker only moves one step, he can cover a big area. Most of the time a worker is able to build on a space two steps away from where he is, because he moves first then builds. The positioning of your workers is important. You need to block your opponent's workers. In this photo, the white workers use the completed houses and themselves to block the blue workers. The white player has built a third storey at the bottom left, and the blue player is unable to stop the white player from winning because his workers are blocked off.
What I have described above is the basic game. Once you are familiar with it, you can add the gods and heroes. The game comes with many such god and hero cards. Before a game starts, one player picks a number of cards equal to the player count, then the other players each select a card, leaving the last one for him. These cards give you special abilities, some of which break the basic rules. The difference between god and hero is god powers are permanent while hero powers are single-use. The designer recommends that when an experienced player plays with a newbie, or when an adult plays with a child, the former uses a hero while the latter uses a god, to level the playing field. When I played with Chen Rui (10), we took this approach.
Prometheus on the left is a god. He lets you build both before and after moving, but when you use this power, your worker may not move upwards. Odysseus on the right is a hero, so his power can only be used once. You may banish opponent workers next to your workers to the corners of the play area.
In this game I made good use of Odysseus' power. I was blue. I had built a third storey at the left corner. When I did that, I triggered Odysseus to send Chen Rui's workers to the right corner and the bottom corner. Having banished them far away from the three-storey building, they could not stop my worker from climbing to the top of the building to win the game.
The Siren on the left is a god. Before the game starts, you set a direction for the siren song. During play, you may forfeit a turn to move all opponent workers in the direction of the siren song. This can be very disruptive to your opponent. Theseus on the right is a hero. You can use him to kill an opponent worker. If your worker is next to an opponent worker, and he is exactly two levels lower, you may trigger Theseus to kill the opponent worker.
The basic rules are very simple and are easy to teach. There are many gods and heroes so it's hard to remember them all, even though most powers are straightforward. You will need to refer to the rules. Gods and heroes can greatly affect your strategy, both offensively and defensively. Different combinations will create different situations and tactics. Some combinations are discouraged because they unbalance the game. Some gods and heroes are even disallowed for three and/or four players. The basic game can stand on its own. However it may start to feel repetitive after 4 or 5 matches. This is a short 15-minute game. You can certainly play 4 matches in an hour. The gods and heroes add much variety and colour to the game.
Allen lent me Santorini, suggesting that it may be fun to play with my children. When Chen Rui saw it, she immediately fell for the cute artwork and beautiful components. The game even comes with a fully illustrated story book. In this photo you can see that the green play area is elevated by a plastic piece above a board which rests on the table. The board is the sea, the plastic piece the cliffs, and the play area the grassland above the cliffs. These are all aesthetics and don't affect gameplay in any way. They are just marketing, but how beautiful they are!
Santorini is an open information abstract game, which means adults will tend to have an advantage over children. There is little luck. Only when playing with some of the gods and heroes there is some hidden information, which lead to some luck due to players having to make guesses sometimes. I won most of the matches against Chen Rui, since I was able to look ahead and plan for the many possibilities better than her.
This was one of our games. On the left, White looks like it's about to win, but it is actually not the case. Blue can easily build a roof to stop him. On the right, Blue is building the Great Wall of China. In Santorini, you can move up at most by one floor, so to a worker on the ground, a two-storey house is effectively a wall blocking movement. He would need to build a one-storey house and then use it as a stepping stone to make his way up to the two-storey house.
Artemis' god power is simple but strong - you may move your worker two steps. Adonis' hero power let you charm an opponent worker. On your opponent's turn, he must ensure the charmed worker ends the turn next to one of your workers. Chen Rui and I played 8 games, and this was the combination we used in the one game where she defeated me. Artemis' power was straightforward and very handy. I struggled to make good use of Adonis' power. I couldn't quite figure out how to create a situation where it would be useful.
When playing with Chen Rui, I did not try to let her win. I did not play in a vicious manner, but I did do my best to win. Chen Rui was a little dejected when she lost game after game. When she finally won a game fair and square, she was overjoyed. I made a mistake and she made good use of the opening I left for her.
Chen Rui played white and I played blue. On the left, I had isolated one of her workers, almost completely locking him down. She had Artemis, which meant she had much higher mobility. My plan was to create more completed buildings, forming obstacles to neutralise her mobility. A few turns before this photo was taken, I built the third storey at the rightmost building. My worker was at Level 1 and would not be able to directly step up to the third storey, but my intention was to complete the building. I was not trying to win immediately. At the time Chen Rui's worker was quite far away, and I knew I would be able to build the roof before she could reach the building. There would be no risk. I was wrong. She moved toward the building, and then built a third storey at another building right next to it. I hadn't considered that. My workers were all at Level 1 and could not step up to Level 3. I had only one turn and could not build roofs at both the three-storied buildings to stop her. I only managed to build one, and she went on to win the game.
In all eight games we played, we did not encounter the other winning condition - forcing your opponent to be unable to move and build. I suspect this winning condition will happen mostly to players who know the game well and are also evenly matched. They would be good at preventing each other from grabbing a three storied house, and eventually the board would fill up. It becomes a matter of who is able to survive longer.
Playing Santorini is like playing any other open-information, luck-free, abstract game, e.g. Ingenious, chess, checkers, Nine Men's Morris. Since all information is open, when you play, you tend to think a few steps ahead, simply because you can. You will think: if I do this, he will do that, and then I will respond by doing this, and so on. This game can be played in quite a serious manner, since all possibilities can be calculated, and it is only a question of how far ahead you want to look. Sometimes you can play by instinct, but when it comes to crunch time, you will pause and carefully think through your options and their repercussions. There is very little randomness, luck or hidden information, the exception being some god and hero powers. Due to the thinky nature of abstract games, some may find this game tiring. However, it's a 15-minute game, so there is no pressure of sitting down for a long, exhausting battle of wits like in playing chess. The gods and heroes certainly help to make the game feel less serious. They create much variability, because some of them change fundamental parts of the game. At its core it is still an open information abstract game, but it's closer to checkers than to chess.