4 Lessons from Santorini for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

Santorini is a fantastic board game that came out about two years ago. In its heart, it’s an abstract strategy game that could have come from antiquity. It has been given the modern board game polish, though, with adorably cutesy art of Greek gods, and an incredibly photogenic set of stackable plastic components.

Santorini board game
Photo by Eric Yurko, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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Santorini is so straightforward that I can explain the entirety of the basic rules to you here. The goal of the game is to stand on a tower that is three blocks high. Start by placing your two pieces anywhere on the board. On each turn, you move one space orthogonally or diagonally. You may move on the same level, step up one level, or step down any number of levels. Then you place one building piece diagonally or orthogonally. You place a base on an empty square, turn one-story towers into two-story towers, turn two-story towers into three-story towers, and put domes on three-story towers.

That’s it. No, really. There are god cards that give you variable player powers, but you don’t even need them to appreciate the game. The rules could not possibly be simpler, and yet the strategy of the game gets pretty heady.

There are lots of reasons I love, love, love this game. For the purposes of this article, though, we’ll be discussing four lessons for board game designers to take away from it.

1. Physical game presence counts for a lot.

Santorini would be just as playable on a flat, unadorned 5 x 5 board with flat wooden pieces to signify towers. You could use two black pawns and two white pawns for player pieces. The rules of the game would not be affected in the slightest, and it wouldn’t even make it more complicated to play.

What I’m getting at is that the stylish white towers of Santorini that stand upon the floating cardboard island are purely aesthetic. There is no need for them from a gameplay standpoint, but they add a lot of value to the game as a product nonetheless. For better or worse, people judge games based on how they look and how they feel from a tactile standpoint. That means if you can turn a simple abstract strategy into a 3D and lush experience, you’ll make the game so much better for gamers.

The takeaway for game designers here is to think carefully about the user experience. The physical presence of your game will make or break it for many people.

2. Make complexity come from interactions, not rules.

As I said before, Santorini can be an extremely heady game. My fiancee has said that it’s like chess on a tic-tac-toe board – meant as a compliment! Yet the game’s rules are even simpler than chess, which has variable player powers for each individual piece – pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, king, and queen.

Santorini is as simple as Go to explain, but like Go, it is very difficult to master. The game can unfold in innumerable different ways and the appropriate tactics for each situation are always changing. None of the complexity comes from a misunderstanding of rules. It comes from the game’s interactions, which raise questions like:

  • “How do I best prevent my piece from being trapped by 2-story towers?”
  • “How do I best position myself to put domes on promising 3-story towers before my opponent can stand on them?”
  • “Should I build toward the center or toward the side?”

Questions like the above are the ones you want players asking about your game.

3. Create a light mode to make the first game easier.

Remember how I mentioned that you don’t really need the god cards to appreciate the game? As it turns out, the god cards are, in fact, purely optional. The addition of variable player powers is not needed to play the game, though it does add spice if you’ve got a few games under your belt already. As such, the first game of Santorini you play probably won’t involve the god cards – and that’s good! It allows you to learn the fundamentals of the game without having to deal with the more advanced concepts.

For game designers, the lesson to take away is to create a “light mode” for first time gameplay. Learning a board game from the rulebook remains one of the necessary evils of the hobby. Learning the rules – one way or another – is probably the most inaccessible part of board gaming. Creating a light version allows players to learn for the first time without contending with the full complexity of the game.

4. Marry abstraction to a simple theme for the best of both worlds.

The greatest trick that Santorini ever pulled was making an abstract strategy game feel thematic. It is through the great use of components, cutesy art, and especially the overall physical experience of the game that this is possible. While the abstract game in and of itself could certainly hold its own in tight-knit gaming circles, it wouldn’t place the game on the shelves of Target or Wal-Mart. To stand out in the noisy world, your game needs to look attractive and make a great first impression.

A good game is not enough. Your good game needs to be beautiful and feel special in order to be purchased. Santorini does this through a variety of different methods, and we should take note. If you are a board game designer, or perhaps more appropriately, a developer or publisher, you need to think about the game as a product and the experience as a selling point. Santorini is a textbook example of this being done par excellence.

Judicious use of different thematic elements have given the abstract Santorini the sheen it needs to appeal to gamers when shopping at the store. What’s more, the complexity of the game grows as gamers learn more, meaning the learning curve is perfectly adjusted to each player’s skillset. These qualities have put Santorini among the patheon of great games, and we can learn from them so that our own designs may one day last to antiquity.

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