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The flow of money determines the path of the canals!
The climate is hot and each drop of water is precious on the Cape Verdian island Santiago. The players must not only buy at auction the largest connected plantations, but also water them as well. Here you have to hurry, because land which is not watered dries up and turns to desert. Then, if you've still got a little money in reserve, you can give it to the canal overseer discretely to ensure he builds the "right" channels...
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Santiago, with five players (3-5 players), presents one of the best interaction game I have witnessed. Perhaps, it was the players; I think it was the game design as well.
You have four even stacks of tiles. You are asked to match up two colors or place another farm tile. Two farm tiles are already placed on the board at the beginning of the game. The game mechanics looked so easy in the beginning. The four stacks of tiles are revealed with four tiles to bid on.
You start by bidding on who will draw and place the first tile. Ten Escudos or dollars are given to each player at the beginning. You may conserve your Escudos or bid wildly for those first tile placements. At the end of each round, the player is given three dollars to refresh the resources on hand.
The name of the game is irrigation. Each player has four irrigation sticks or canals. The one in your color represents the one placement you can use to keep your farms going. The blue stick represents a freebie that you can place to head off someone else not keeping your farms irrigated. You need to keep your colored canal stick for a time when farms will be lost without irrigation. Sticks placed between farm or crop tiles do not necessarily water the crops you want watered.
As individuals are deciding on their bids, one player may stay out of the bidding. He or she automatically becomes the ditchdigger for the lowest bid or staying out of the bidding. The Canal Builder or ditchdigger becomes a powerful person who decides which additional bid will be accepted and where the life-giving water stick will be laid.
The last step in the turn involves laying one of your blue tiles to keep that farm going. If no water stick is located near your farm tile, your farm tile is turned and the farm is lost. The farm becomes a desert.
At the beginning, two of the players placed tiles that gave them two farms or crop little blocks. On the farm tiles it shows how many little blocks of your color can be placed. Two tiles were immediately lost without irrigation, and the game begin to look like a stalement.
Then, the players got smart. They started holding back bids to become the Canal Builder and accept bids. They, then, built more carefully to conserve their water resources. It became a contest to guess who would become the Canal Builder. I ended up building only one farm for many turns, but the farms were at least receiving water from the other players.
Deals continued to be made in the game to save precious water irrigation sticks and team with other players' farms. That made the game highly interactive. Some players started new farms away from other people's tiles. The middle of the board became filled with one- and two-farm tiles. The players vied for conserving their water sticks. The Canal Builder was making a killing.
Money is earned at the end of the game by the number of crop stones on a farm tile times the size of the area involved. Money on hand is also counted. The final scores were unbelievably rich: 86, 67, two 52s, and 43. All in all, players commented they liked the game and would play it again.
From the furor generated by trying to convince the Canal Builder with bids and the spirited bidding for initial placement of tiles, this game is a winner. It has all the elements of stabbing your neighbor in the back and acquiring more water.
Water, the source of all life. Water gives life and points through the ever expanding canal in Santiago, and what grows by the water and where the water flows is determined by an intriguing three-part game mechanic that sees temporary partnerships emerge and dissolve. The result is one of the better new Essen releases and one that is particularly strong with five players.
The board is a simple three by four grid, with each cell further divided into four areas. The water source begins on one of the intersections, and in each round of the game a section of canal is constructed which links back to its source. Through the game, players plant five types of crops on the land, and each crop tile fills in one-quarter of the primary canal grid cell. Crop tiles hold one or two workers. Crops that border the canal stay irrigated and sustain life, while those that don't dry out and eventually perish. Each canal piece covers one side of the primary grid, so most placements will irrigate four crop tile spaces. A canal piece placed along the border grid sides will only irrigate two spaces.
The first main mechanic of the game is the crop auction. Crop tiles equal to the number of players are revealed, and an auction ensues for the right to choose a tile. This works as in New England, where a player can bid any number except those bid by other players. After everyone has bid, the high bidder chooses the tile of their choice, populates it with their worker stones, and places it anywhere on the board. This is the second major mechanic in the game, as placement of the crop tiles is quite strategic and creates the basis for temporary partnerships. The low bidder chooses last, but also becomes the Canal Builder for this round. The Canal Builder earns money and can direct the flow of the canal.
The Canal Builder is the third main mechanic in the game. After the tiles are chosen and placed, players suggest where the canal could be extended and bribe the Canal Builder to accept their choice. The Canal Builder can accept any of the suggestions and collect all money placed in support of it, or can place where they'd like by besting the highest bid by one. Being the Canal Builder can thus be quite powerful but also unusually entails receiving weaker crop tiles and substandard placement options as a result.
After the canal piece is placed for the round, any crop tiles not bordering the canal will lose one worker. If the tile begins the round with no workers and ends still without irrigation, it is flipped to show a wasted land instead of the crop. At the game end, players score for the workers on the irrigated crop tiles as a function of the number of connected tiles times the number of workers. For example, if I have four workers on a set of six connected banana tiles, I will earn 24 escudos (the currency) for those workers. Obviously, crop tiles which have dehydrated can break the connectivity of a crop area. The game finishes when all of the tiles have been auctioned and placed, and the player with the most money wins.
This structure creates a dynamic set of interactions. The initial tile auction sets up the turn order for placement and establishes the first battle for tile selection. Players can pass during this auction, and the first player to pass will automatically become the Canal Builder since by definition they will have made the lowest bid. But while passing saves your escudos and may put you into a control position, it also requires that you place one less worker than normal on your crop tile. Since some of the tiles only allow a single worker stone, it is likely that by passing to become the Canal Builder you will not place a worker in that turn. Since workers are what score, this must be carefully considered.
The placement of the tiles sets up the Canal Builder bribing partnerships. By placing in a non-irrigated space in such a way that a single canal will water both my tile and another player's tile, a natural alliance occurs to encourage the Canal Builder in the shared direction. Conversely, placing in an area that, if irrigated, will clearly leave another tile destitute creates an even livelier bribing round. Once the canal piece is placed, everyone must regroup and if certain tile spaces are unoccupied but now irrigated, this will come into play in the next tile auction phase.
Since scoring is a function of crop size, tile placement must also consider the relative value of all placements. If I can join my two-worker pepper tile to an existing large set of pepper tiles, I not only boost the value of my own investment but also add value to everyone else already vested in those peppers. This fact can create some downtime with the kind of players that insist on calculating the constantly changing board situation. And since escudos win the game and all tile bids and Canal Builder bribes are paid in escudos, it is possible to calculate the absolute return on each investment.
Santiago has been well playtested, based on a few other nice rule touches. Each player begins with one canal piece that can be placed in a phase after the Canal Builder places the main piece for the round. Once used, this is not available any longer, but played at the right time it can provide a critical link in your strategic effort. Once any one player plays their extra piece, though, the others will need to wait for further rounds before theirs can be placed. At the end of each round, each player is given three more escudos and this helps to ensure a more dynamic auction. With good players, it will be very hard for any one player to run away with the game.
While playable with three, four, or five players, Santiago is best with five. This is because the canal piece size is fixed and more rounds must be played with fewer players. In three and four player games, eleven canal pieces are placed against 44 crop tiles, while in the five player game only nine pieces are placed against 45 tiles. The latter clearly means that more tiles are being isolated, and thus every auction and every bribing situation becomes that much more critical.
Santiago is an interesting game. It employs a tight set of mechanics that fit together quite well, it often results in very close and tension-filled matches, and while some ideas are derivative it clearly doesn't feel exactly like any other game. Yet despite this deserved praise, something makes me believe that I'll enjoy this game for a few more months and then it will be forgotten. So enjoy Santiago while it lasts and let's see if it comes up in Joe Casadonte's ``re-reviews'' any time in the next few years.