Sunday, September 26, 2010

Musings On Santiago & Havana

Acquired two new games in the last month - got Santiago in a trade for Tribune which had been on the trade block for awhile and managed to purchase Havana 2nd hand at a reasonable price.

Santiago has been on my radar for some time. The only negatives I garnered from the reviews that concerned me were that it was somewhat abstract and that it really only played well with 5 players. Having played it once, I can see why some may criticize it as abstract but it carries sufficient theme not to put me off. I realized recently that while pure abstract games are a no-no for me, some attempt to infuse theme is usually adequate for my tastes as long as the mechanics are interesting enough. Santiago fits the bill for me and even playing with 4 on my first attempt has proved it to be a real gem. It plays quicks (45-60min) with good depth and has straightforward rules which makes it accessible for the casual or perhaps even non-gamer. It reminds me of Chicago Express (another game I'm fond of) in these aspects. However, the auction mechanics are somewhat different and in my opinion, that is where Santiago's brilliance lies.

There are 2 'auction' phases in each round. In the first, players bid for plantation tiles revealed for the round. Each player has to bid a different sum (with the exception of passing) but need not bid a sum higher than the previous bidder. A higher bid will give one the opportunity to pick a more desirable plantation tile. While the tiles which allow for 2 workers are clearly more popular, the kind of crop desired depends on the plantations which each player is attempting to expand. An early pass empowers the player with the role of the canal overseer which accords him the opportunity to earn from bribes or potentially sabotage the productivity of his opponents' plantations.

The 2nd 'auction' phase isn't a typical auction per se but a clever mechanic in which players attempt to influence the decision of the canal overseer with their 'bribes'. The overseer can either take the bribe and follow the proposed canal placement or he can choose to outbid the highest bid to place the canal wherever he desires. The overseer is free to pick any bribe he desires even if it isn't the highest offer - this places immense power in his hands since any damage made to non-irrigated plantations is irreversible. I love this mechanic! It feels like a negotiation game without...the negotiation! One issue I have with games like Chinatown is that it seems to alienate introverted players who may not be so comfortable 'wheeling and dealing' while giving an edge to more vocal, persuasive players. I suppose that's the point of negotiation games but yet an aspect which probably won't go down well with my gaming group. On the other hand, this Santiago facilitates 'negotiation' through a simple once-round mechanic. Sure, banter may help tilt the overseer's decision but ultimately, it boils down to the bribe offered and the board position.

Overall, Santiago is a definite keeper for me!

Havana on the other hand has some interesting mechanics but the means for VP acquisition is mildly disappointing. I enjoy the role selection mechanic which is reminiscent of Citadels, but is enhanced in that the combination of cards chosen further determines turn order. Each subsequent turn only allows the change of a single role card which makes the decision all the more agonizing. Each player also begins with a fixed hand of role cards which means that a role once discarded cannot be repeated till late in the game (when one is left with 2 cards in hand) or by using a specific role to retrieve a previously discarded card. Unfortunately, the game is let down by an uninteresting VP acquisition mechanic based around purchasing buildings. Buildings vary in terms of resources required and VPs rewarded. This reminds me similar mechanics in Stone Age and Keythedral, which took those games a few notches down for me. Havana could have taken some tips from Citadels in this regard by assigning some buildings with special powers. In the case of Citadels, purple buildings allow certain rules to be broken while others provide income bonuses, which adds a set collection dimension to the game.

All in all, some good ideas packed in a quick, relatively accessible game but comes across unpolished due to a rudimentary VP acquisition mechanic.

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