Designed by Alan Moon
2-5 players, 60 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
The second of the 1992 releases from Whitewind is also an Alan Moon design and represents the successful melding of two or three systems that have long been popular here. Although it is 'yet another' railway game, it does manage to be noticeably different from anything else in the field and, at last, gives the route building fans a game to get excited about. Unlike 18xx, the track laying rather than train running and share dealing is the main element of play and the end result is visually impressive and interesting to see how and why players have built track. Also unlike 18xx, it plays in less than an hour.
Santa Fe owes more than a little to the route system pioneered in Wildlife Adventure, the classic design by Wolfgang Kramer. In that game players lay short plastic rods onto pre-marked routes which link locations on the map, thereby simulating the path of a safari convoy. The potential for a spin-off railway or road system was apparent to me from when I first tried it, and Santa Fe is that realisation made concrete. It also draws on Railways Rivals in the idea of being rewarded for being first to connect a town with a rail link and on Alan's own 1869 in having historical objectives for each individual railroad company as a way of encouraging broadly realistic networks.
Play revolves around five major railroads which start the game towards the Eastern edge of the map with no track. Potential routes radiate out from each home city and these are used by all players to build up the networks. Players are able to lay track for any company, subject to there being sufficient track sections left, so the lines may be built by one player or by a combination. The track segments are coloured and have rail and sleeper graphics which when they are snaking across the map look rather good. Oddly, given the spectacular Elfenroads design, the rest of the graphics in the game are distinctly ordinary, the map being the weakest part.
Players start the game with a hand of city cards, featuring one of the many map locations, which will give them an initial guide to where the five railroads might need to visit if they are to have a shot at winning. These city cards will be laid down as part of the turn to declare possible and likely destinations with which to score points (also giving the lie to the other players). Tactically, players will try and hold city cards in their hands so as to be able to build to or close to the city, without other players knowing what is happening. New cards are replenished each turn, and by the end of the game each player will have a dozen or so cards, perhaps a few more, laid out in front of him.
These city cards are not the sole determinant of victory, but will usually dictate the outcome rather than the cash bonuses you earn throughout the game by being the first to connect to towns. The game-end formula is cash plus points, the latter being earned by the value of any revealed city cards multiplied by the number of railroads connecting into that city. For instance, if you are lucky enough to have a Seattle card laid down for 7 points, with four distinct companies terminating there, it will net you 28 points. Our winning totals have been between 150 and 180 points so far, I suspect this will increase with experience.
The aim of the game then is to steer the five routes towards cities that you are holding cards for. This is done by laying a couple of track sections per turn and gradually, using a mixture of out and out fast tracklaying or subtle extensions to several lines, the networks take on a life of their own. The directions are unpredictable in the main, with only the Great Northern true to its name in the games I've played. While it sounds a little mundane, it is this phase of actually getting track onto the board that makes the game. It is interesting to watch players taking little care over card play, yet unable to wait for the next track laying opportunity which is obviously giving them a lot to think about. The feel is spot on, and Alan has clearly hit a rich vein in allowing players the freedom to guide the company routes wherever they wish.
While you can always lay track, there are two important alternatives to laying city cards during your turn. The first is the double turn card that permits you to lay four sections of track in a complete turn, doubles all earned bonuses and also lets you change your hand in the hope of obtaining better city cards. This is, as you will have spotted, a very powerful option. The x2 card is usable only once, but can be claimed by other players once discarded. There does seem to be a slight anomaly in that if all three players play a x2 together, each player will be able to pick up a replacement and repeat the exercise, though we may have missed a rule here and it isn't vitally important. It should be noted that although continued use of this card will obviously increase your trackbuilding rate, and greatly improve your chances of reaching the Western destinations in good time, it should not be used at the expense of laying down city cards - if these aren't down when the game finishes, they are worthless and the last track pieces can go down surprisingly quickly to bring proceedings to an end.
The other alternative, though strictly limited to two per railroad, is the branchline card. This enables you to build track at any point from the existing route, rather than from the railhead only as usual. These are essential if the other players have re-directed a line away from your desired destination or if you need to build a new branch out of the home city, perhaps to open up a new region. There is a clever rule that ensures that you cannot hoard these cards; they must be played in the turn after purchase, otherwise they could hinder other players unfairly.
The way the networks unfold depends very much on whether players indulge in negative play. By this I mean rather than concentrating on building their own routes towards profitable destinations, they can instead interfere with an active railhead and, perhaps, turn it South when the main builder quite obviously wishes (based on his exposed cards) to go North. This can therefore be negative for one player, but positive in that it helps another get towards his scoring cards. This level of re- routing seems entirely within the spirit of the game but I am hearing rumours of spiral lines and large hairpins appearing elsewhere in the gaming milieu.
I don't doubt this is happening, and the logical conclusion of such extreme negative tactics is for railheads to turn right around and disappearing up their own behinds (or form a return loop for the railway modellers out there). There is no questioning that this is going to offend the railway network purists, but Santa Fe is not Railway Rivals and it should probably be regarded as simply part of the game, to be prepared for accordingly. I seem to remember the same tactic is entirely possible in 18xx with no great impact on the overall result. Either way, it really does hurt when you are about to complete the Milwaukee-Seattle line and get turned back with no branchline cards left.
Despite all the possibilities for destructive tactics, on the three occasions I have played, nearly all the track builds have been positive and players have made bee-lines for the West Coast or all points South. I know I prefer this latter approach, but the interaction is definitely reduced and the game becomes more a planning exercise rather than one emphasising cutthroat stuffing. I think it will depend on extended play around the hobby before we find out what is really happening, but certainly the way we've been playing (mainly constructive, the odd mildly disruptive lay) seems to allow the game to shine. However, if stuffing is widespread (or all-out war breaks out), and the few restraints within the system don't prevent it, the game could stand or fall on this point. I don't believe for a minute that it would not be saved by some new, stiffer building rules but for the moment I shall continue to play as we are and wait for the reaction.
I am very much aware of liking Santa Fe on the basis of it being exactly the railway game I had hoped could emerge from the Wildlife Adventure system. Nevertheless, the game is undoubtedly a very good one in itself and, judging by the initial reaction, it is going down well among most gamers. As it starts with a winning formula and neatly amends it to the railway theme, I rate it as an outstanding little system that will be played for a long time to come, just about ideal for game groups looking for an hour fill-in (perhaps alternating with Airlines?) or perhaps older family play.
Santa Fe drops neatly into the refreshing category of games that plays in an hour or less yet, thanks to the freeform nature of the track building, offers plenty of scope for strategy. Like Flying Dutchman and Modern Art, you very much feel as if you have been playing for longer and the sensation is a pleasant one after the excesses of certain systems. It would be easy to accuse Santa Fe of being derivative, but this is a game which stands on its own merits and actually performs a service as Wildlife Adventure is now long out of print. Players looking for a comparable experience should try Santa Fe whose systems have been cleverly combined into a new, original game that was pretty much how I'd imagined it happening when Alan said he was working on a railway version. Imagining it is one thing, designing and balancing another, and Santa Fe has been finely tuned to make a competitive and exciting system. Highly Recommended.
On to the review of Trumpet or back to the review of Fastcard Soccer.
Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information