Santa Monica is a beautifully illustrated tableau-building game from AEG. Thematically, each player is building two rows of cards along the beach, one row at the bottom for the street and the other on the top for the waterfront. The locations on these cards might score points, attract visitors, move visitors, or provide activities for visitors (which scores points). In addition, players will score points for having the best waves, arranging their locations in a particular fashion, and avoiding having too many unoccupied visitors. In addition to being visually appealing, Santa Monica succeeds with a light gaming experience.
A player’s tableau in Santa Monica is built via card draft. There are always eight cards visible, with a front row of four available and a back row of cards that slide down when the front card is drafted. Moving between locations on the front row are the food truck and the foodie, who provide bonuses when the front card from that column is selected (and then moving) When taken, these cards are placed adjacent to a double-height starting location. Each card will have one or more tags, indicating that the card is a tourist spot, a favorite of the locals, a business, a sport location, features nature, or has great waves. Cards may generate resources when placed – sand dollars, locals, or tourists. Locals and tourists score points at the end of the game when participating in activities, which are also located on cards.
Cards may also move meeples when selected, helping them get to those activities. Another use for movement is the 1-2 VIP meeples who begin the game on that starting location, and score points at the end of the game for having visited cards of their preferred type (e.g., the VIP on the post office starting location earns points for being at business locations).
Locations may also be worth victory points. Most often this is for being adjacent to a particular type of location (e.g., a card depicting a surf shop might be worth points if it’s adjacent to a beach with a waves tag), or in a group of similar locations (e.g., score points if the card is in a group of at least 3 tourist locations). But points may also be awarded for other things, like how many sand dollars you have at the end of the game.
The default use for sand dollars is ‘sand dollar actions’ – there are four double-sided sand dollar punch-outs, and two are used each game, giving two special ways to draft cards. Spending sand dollars might let a player draft a card of a particular type on the back row, or draft two cards on the front row.
Game end is triggered when a player has 14 cards in their tableau (so usually 14 turns, but it can be less if a player has double-dipped with a sand dollar action). In addition to the scoring on the cards, there will be three other sets of points awarded. Exactly what they are depends on which tile is used that game, but one will always give points for waves, one will always subtract points for meeples who aren’t engaged in activities, and one will give points for some other aspect of arranging the tableau (like having a lot of one kind of card together, or making sure that waterfront and street tiles are paired up instead of having stretches of only one or the other).
A bit oddly for a light game, we found Santa Monica a bit rough around the edges during our first game. To avoid that, there are a few things I would keep in mind. First, individual turns in Santa Monica are fairly modest. This isn’t a game where you build a vast engine and then do a bunch of crazy stuff as the game goes on. There’s an even keel to the game, and there isn’t always going to be a “great” play, so don’t sweat it if you don’t seem to have one on a given turn. Second, don’t expect to be able to strike a great balance between meeples, movement, and activities during the first game. There aren’t a ton of ways during the game to move meeples, but then there’s one final movement at the end of the game (three spaces for the locals, one space for the other meeples). It’s actively a waste to get every meeple into an activity during the game. At the same time, a pile of extra meeples who don’t quite get to activity circles can mean a significant point swing. So, think about it, but don’t overthink it. Finally, keep an eye out for cards that can readily slot into your tableau for 3+ points – they really add up, and you don’t want to lose track of their value while paying attention to a grand scheme to get a lot of points from the scoring tile. Our later play went a lot more smoothly.
Once things get going Santa Monica has a solid rhythm to it, that makes it feel like take a pleasant stroll in a nice breeze – light touches here and there to expand your beach and slide the meeples to their destinations.
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