(Hans Im Gluck 2012)
What if a game gave you a second chance? A point at which you could start over and rework your strategy based off of earlier experiences and what had already been played out? It’s not a mechanic commonly found, though Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle, (most notably known for his tile-placing Taluva and building themed Attika) has designed Santa Cruz in such a way. Winner of the 2012 Austrian Game of the Year (Spiel der Spiele) as well as a Spiel de Jahres recommendation, Santa Cruz embarks players as early 17th Century Spanish colonists who will first explore, then settle the titled island. But it’s what is learned during the exploration and discovery of Santa Cruz that will ultimately determine a player’s best laid plains for settlement. Before we begin though, let’s take a look at the components.
– Santa Cruz game board
– 4 decks of building cards (River, Road, Ship, All-round)
– Deck of Bonus Scoring cards
– Building Tiles (Coastal, Inland, and Volcano)
– Bird Tokens
– Player Buildings for each player color (Huts, Churches, and Lighthouses)
– Scoring Markers for each player color
– 50-point Step Markers
– Bonus Scoring card summary sheets
As discussed before, players will have a chance to explore the island before needing to settle it. This is because Santa Cruz is broken up into two independent rounds. While both, for the most part are similar, there are a few differences in the setup for each. So I’ll go over them separately as I walk through how the game plays.
To set up the board, building tiles will be randomly placed face down in their respective areas. The game board is nicely color-coordinated so that its easy to see where the different tiles should be placed (orange building tiles will go near and around the volcanoes, while the yellow inland building tiles will go on main inner-sections of the island). The only tiles that are not placed face down are the coastal tiles (blue), which are randomly placed face-up around the outer areas of the island.
Each building tile has three distinctions. The type of building that can be built on it (hut, church, or lighthouse), the number of Victory Points that are scored by building on it, and a resource or bonus that is produced while having a building there. Each player is provided with 2 lighthouses, 3 churches, and 8 huts that can be placed in each of the two rounds. So for instance, once a player has built both of their lighthouses, they can not build a 3rd.
In order to construct these buildings onto a tile, players must play Action cards from their hand. These cards are broken up into 4 different actions:
– River (when played, a player may build onto any tile along a river in which they have another building on)
– Road (when played, a player may build onto a tile directly connected by a road to another building they own)
– Ship (when played, a player may build on any of the coastal tiles)
– Double-move (when played, a player can build two times in a row, but must take the same type of action)
These Action Cards are broken up into 4 types of decks:
So for instance, if Player A plays the Bonus card that provides 6 Victory Points to any player that is producing wood, if Player B and C have a building on a tile that produces wood, they would score the 6 Victory Points as well. Bonus Cards can reward Victory Points from various goals such as 6 points for owning 4 huts, to rewarding 3 points for every building on a coastal tile. There are 16 different types of bonuses and each can be found on the Summary Bonus sheets.
Before the first round begins, players will be dealt 4 cards from the Bonus Scoring card deck. They will also, in turn order choose an Action card deck (meaning the last person gets the deck that is left over). The Action card deck (7 cards) and the Bonus Scoring cards (4 cards) will make up the player’s total Actions (11) for that round.
(This is the set-up for a 2-player game. In a 3 player game, each player will only receive 3 Bonus Scoring cards. In a 4-player game, each will only receive 2. The Action card deck is still the same size, however.)
Round 1: Explore
Now it is time to explore the island of Santa Cruz. The player that went last in choosing their Action card deck will go first this round (and turn order will continue opposite of how Action cards were chosen). During the very first turn of Round 1, players do not have to play an Action or Bonus card, and will instead place a building on any of the Coastal tiles. If you want to think about it in a thematic sense, players are landing on the island.
(Before a building is placed onto a tile)
When a building is placed onto a tile, it immediately uncovers any tile adjacently connected to it by road or river. The more buildings are constructed in a certain area of the island, the more that section is being “explored”. This gives players a chance to see what options they have on their next turn, and where they want to build. Since the River Action card lets you build on any tile along a river as long as you have a previous building on that river, it is possible to build onto a tile that has not been flipped. In this case however, you are taking a chance by possibly not being able to build there if you have run out of a certain type of building. If you decide to build there, and then realize you can’t after flipping the tile, you basically just forfeit that turn. So it is a risk, but one you may need to take a certain points in the game.
(After a building is placed on a tile, all adjacent tiles are flipped up)
After the initial turn, players can do one of two things on their turn. They can either play an Action card or play a Bonus card from their hand in front of them. They can only play one per turn, and must play all of them before Round 1 can end.
– If an Action card is played (River, Road, Ship, or Double-move) the player will place a building on a tile. Victory points are scored for that tile and a bird token is collected, if applicable (I will explain bird tokens in just a minute). Adjacent uncovered tiles are then flipped.
Bonus Scoring Card:
– If a Bonus Scoring card is played, every player that meets the requirements on the card will score the Bonus Victory Points. The player that played the card will first score, then in player order the other players will score, if applicable.
This will continue until all players have played through their Action and Bonus Scoring card deck. Once everyone has played all of their cards, the Explore Round will end. Before we get to Round 2 (Settle), there are a few special tiles and bonuses I want to cover.
Santa Cruz has two volcanoes. One in the middle of the main island, and another on the small, adjacent island to the bottom-right on the game board. The tiles around the base of the volcano are orange, and for the most part, include the best tiles in the game (maximum victory points and resources). However, the volcano can erupt during the game, represented by one of the Special Bonus cards seen here:
If this card is played by an opponent, the volcano erupts and all buildings on an orange tile will be demolished. Players will also lose 2 points for each building that was located on a volcano tile. So as you can see, building on and around the volcano is risky. It can score you a lot of points (there is also a Special Bonus card that will give you 3 Victory Points per building on a volcano), but it’s possible that it can lose you points. So you have to weigh your options.
While most resources are provided by placing a building on a tile with that particular resource, the fish icon provides an extra bonus. Any tile with a fish icon on it also has a bonus (+1, +2, +3). When a Special Bonus card is played that gives bonus Victory Points for a fish resource, a played that has a building on these tiles will score Victory Points from the Special Bonus card as well as from the tile.
For example, Player A has a Hut on a tile with the fish bonus “+3“, while Player B has a Hut on a tile with the fish bonus “+1”. On his turn, Player A plays a Special Bonus card that provides 5 Victory Points to any player with the fish resource. That means that Player A would score 8 Victory Points (5 from the card and an additional 3 from the tile) and Player B would score 6 Victory Points (5 from the card and an additional 1 from the tile). This type of bonus is only found on the tiles that provide a fish resource.
Many tiles in the game will have a Bird Token icon on them. When a player builds on a tile with a Bird Token, they will randomly draw a token from the Bird Token draw pile to the side of the board, and keep it secret. These are bonus Victory Points that will be scored at the end of the game.
Bird Tokens come in 3 values. Seagulls are worth 1 point, Cockatoos are worth 2 points, and Parrots are worth 3 points. There is also a Bonus Scoring card that will provide 2 Victory Points for every Bird Token a player owns.
There are many different ways to score Victory Points in Santa Cruz, and as such, players will score an abundance of points throughout the game. Casasola has come up with a clever physical way to keep tally of these points while still keeping the space for a scoring track to a minimum. To the bottom-right corner of the board, 50-point Step Markers are placed. Each time a player crosses the 49 point section of the Scoring Track, he will take one of the 50-point Step Markers, place it underneath his regular Scoring Marker, and start back at the beginning of the scoring track.
So, if Player A has a total score of 52, Player A’s Scoring Marker would be on the #2 section of the Scoring Track, with a 1 50-point marker beneath it, as seen above.
Round 2: Settle
At the end of Round 1 (after all cards have been played by all players, and actions resolved), all the players will take their buildings off the board and place them back in front of them (even the ones that were destroyed by the volcano). Tiles that were discovered during the Explore round are kept face up, and players will now be able to play through a deck of action and bonus cards again. There are differences in this 2nd Round however, as players will now know the layout of most of the island, and are also familiar with the Special Bonus cards that will be played. Whereas the original round was more about Exploring and taking opportunities for resources and Victory Points as they presented themselves, the 2nd round is more about strategical planning with the knowledge of the now explored island.
(Most of the island has now been explored after Round 1 and ready to be settled)
To begin the round, each player will select 1 new Special Bonus card and place it face down in front of them, separate from their Player deck from Round 1 (comprised of an Action deck and Special Bonus cards). Then, starting with the player that is furthest behind on the Scoring Track, each player will choose a player deck to use for this 2nd Round. Players can either choose their own deck to keep, or they may choose another player’s deck. Since players choose their decks for Round 2 according to their order on the Scoring Track, the player currently in first will have to choose the left over deck.
So for instance, it is Player A’s turn to pick a deck for Round 2. He chooses to not keep his own deck, and instead chooses Player C’s deck, which is comprised of the Road Action deck (4 Roads, 1 River, 1 Ship, and 1 Double-move) and 3 Bonus Scoring cards (3 points per River building, 5 points for a player with a Fish resources, 7 points for a player with a Sugar resource, and 6 points for a Gold resource).
Before the round begins, each player will pick up the extra Bonus Scoring card and add it to their new player deck. They will then choose 1 of the Bonus Scoring cards (it could be this card if they choose), and discard it out of play. In this way, players will know a majority of the Bonus Scoring cards that will be played during Round 2, but not all of them. After all decks have been chosen and completed, the player furthest behind on the scoring track will begin Round 2, and play it exactly as Round 1 was played (even with the first action of placing a building on a Coastal tile).
After this 2nd Round is complete and all players have played their deck of cards, resolved the actions accordingly, and scored the appropriate points, the game will end. During final scoring, any bird tokens will be flipped over by players and added to their final scores. The player with the highest score, wins.
Santa Cruz provides players the option of learning in the first half of the game, to strategize and adapt for the second half. It’s not something that is seen often, and it’s nice for gamers that aren’t as interested in more unforgiving games. That’s not to say that Santa Cruz has no depth, far from it. With the game providing players a second chance, it increases the amount of strategy that can be planned around and executed. Especially when you throw in the fact that by the 2nd Round, most players have a complete understanding of what the other players will try to do (with knowledge of both their Action decks and Special Bonus cards).
There are different feels to each round. During the 1st, players tend to focus on themselves and what they are doing, exploring the island, flipping over new tiles, and trying to take opportunities when they can. Exploring the island in the 1st round is a bit more luck based. The 2nd Round however is much more cutthroat and strategy-oriented, with players vying for particular tiles and resources. Being able to maximize Victory Points with your Special Bonus cards before others, is crucial. And especially difficult when they know which cards you have. At the same time, you’re also aware of other player’s Bonus cards and possible actions. It’s quite an intriguing blend of strategy that keeps Santa Cruz refreshing from play to play.
As with all of Michael Menzel’s artistic productions (Stone Age, Pillars of the Earth, Vikings, etc), the game board is quite impressive to look at, and is full of small details that are fun to discover throughout the island. Choosing components representative of lighthouses, churches, and huts instead of different sized wooden cubes is a minor detail, but one that helps to encompass the theme of colonizing Santa Cruz. The different Action card decks and various individual Bonus Scoring cards when combined. provide a wide amount of strategies that lend well to the amount of replayability found here. Casasola has created another title that gamers should be able to enjoy for years to come.
It is important to note, that as of this writing, Santa Cruz has yet to be published in English. However, the game is language independent (there is no text on any of the cards or game board), and a copy of the English rules can be found here at BoardGameGeek. Hopefully, it will see an English publication soon, but if Santa Cruz intrigues you, it shouldn’t be difficult to find a copy, whether it be at a convention or at an online international retailer (Games Surplus, Time Well Spent).