Cost:$45.00 From: White Wind, Inc., 2 Milton St., Beverly MA, 01915 Players: 2-5 Playing Time: 60 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Complexity: 6 Skill level: 8 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 2.1, Fall 1993
If Modern Art is the game I unwrapped most eagerly when I returned from Europe, Santa Fe is the one I've played most often since. A well-designed game that works as well (albeit quite differently) with only two players as it does with five, Santa Fe has earned an honored berth on my gaming shelf.
In Santa Fe, players construct the routes of five railroads across the western half of the United States. Unlike many rail games, players never get to actually own or operate any of these rail lines. In this game, players are only concerned with steering the railroads' growth in the most favorable directions. Each of the five railroads has a different number of color-coded cardboard track segments available to them. When those segments run out, so does that railroad's growth. The gameboard, a map depicting the United States west of the Mississippi, features segmented pathways connecting 38 cities (including "Mexico" and "Canada"-- but let's not be picky). The railroads' expansion is restricted to these pathways, and each city is marked with a value from two to seven. All railroads begin on the eastern edge of the map. Since cities on the opposite edge take more time and effort to reach, city values increase as you move west.
One person starts the game with a wooden train marker, indicating that she will play first. Game turns consist of all players laying down a card, followed by two rounds of track laying (each round starting with the player holding the train and continuing clockwise). In each round, players may expand any of the five railroads by laying an appropriately colored track segment. There is no way to remove a track segment once it is placed-- it remains there for the entire game. Finally, players replenish their hands and the train passes to the next player.
Players start the game with a hand of cards corresponding to cities on the map. Each player lays one card face up at the start of each turn. At the end of the game, players earn points according to the number of different railroads which service the cities for which they've played cards. Thus, by playing a city card a player effectively warns his opponents that he'll be trying to steer railroads into that city. As a result, it is often better tactically to hold onto a city card until after some railroads are already connected to that city so other players won't be able to spoil your plans. Of course, it isn't always possible to wait that long. Hands are replenished after each turn, and by the end of the game players will have about eight to twelve cities in front of them.
Playing city cards isn't the only way to earn points. Whenever a city gets connected to its first railroad, the person who made the connection earns a $2 bonus. In addition, some cities are marked with certain colors. If you're the first person to bring that color railroad into that city, you earn a $4 bonus (if that's also the first railroad to reach the city, you get the $2 bonus too). Cash is converted to points at the end of the game. These bonuses can certainly add up. In fact, they often exert a hefty influence on the direction the tracks take. This is especially true when someone plays a Double card.
Whenever a player is entitled to draw a card, he may elect to draw a Double card instead of drawing from the deck. A Double card can be played instead of a city card at the start of a turn. When played, Double cards entitle the player to lay two segments of track each round instead of one (for a total of four segments on that turn). This obviously gives the player much more control over the routes taken by the railroads, which can be crucial when you need to guide a railroad toward a city for which you have a matching card. But wait-- there's more. Double cards also double all bonuses received during that turn. Playing a Double card when the yellow line is near Denver (a yellow bonus city), for example, could net up to $12-- more than you can possibly earn from some city cards. And that's still not all. Double cards also allow you to discard any number of unplayed city cards from your hand and draw replacements-- very handy when all the railroads have already bypassed Little Rock and don't seem likely to head that way again.
That's because railroads can only be built from the front. Every new track segment has to be placed in front of the line's head. This is what makes control of the line's direction so crucial, because if someone bypasses a city you want to reach, it will take a good deal of work to turn the track back around. Unless... you buy a branch card.
As with Double cards, these can be drawn in lieu of a city card. But while Double cards are free, branch cards cost $1 to buy. And where Double cards are recycled when discarded, there is a limited supply of branch cards-- two per railroad, to be exact. Branch cards must be played in the turn immediately following their purchase, thus preventing someone from buying them early and saving them until later, gaining total control over a railroad's fate. Branch cards are played at the start of the turn in addition to a city card or Double card, and entitle the player to expand a railroad from any point along its length. Thereafter, that railroad may be expanded from either its original line or the new branch. Timing the purchase and use of branch cards is a key aspect of Santa Fe strategy.
Near the end of the game, as players are struggling to reach the western cities with as many different railroads as possible, the limited number of track segments available to each railroad gives rise to interesting tactics. If an opponent is trying to bring the Great Northern into Seattle, you might branch that railroad and expend precious track segments to run out the supply before your opponent can reach Seattle. Knowing that you're about to branch the Great Northern, your opponent might play a Double card so he can build his spur faster and beat you to the punch. Of course, if you anticipate this you can play a Double card along with your branch card...
The game ends when all track segments are used or when a player is unable to play a track segment on his turn. The latter can happen when one or more railroads dead-end, pulling into a city from which there is no available exit route. At this point, players score for each city card face up in front of them-- cards remaining in their hands are worthless. Each card is worth its city's value multiplied by the number of different railroads connected to that city. Thus if red, blue, and green railroads connect to San Antonio (with a value of four), each San Antonio card would be worth twelve points. Los Angeles (valued at seven) connected to red and blue would be worth fourteen points. Each dollar a player finishes with is also worth a point, and the highest scorer wins.
The equipment in Santa Fe is slightly disappointing, given the standard set by other White Wind games (see Elfenroads, page NN). Still, even the least impressive White Wind components make most other game equipment look sickly. The game board is functional and sturdy, but nothing spectacular. The cards are resilient, easily capable of standing up to repeated use. The artwork on them is rather uninspired, though, adding nothing to the game's atmosphere. The cardboard track segments are thicker and sturdier than they need to be, which is a plus. Money takes the form of the small copper, medium silver, and large gold tiddly winks which are the standard currency for White Wind games. The nicest component in the game is the blue, wooden train engine used to indicate which player goes first each turn. Personally, I'd rather have wooden track segments and a cardboard train. But these are, admittedly, nitpicks.
Santa Fe can be taught in a matter of minutes, allowing players to dive right in. Learning strategy and tactics takes a while longer-- expect to make some major blunders in your first game. We sure did. But since Santa Fe only takes about an hour to play, you'll probably turn around and use your newfound experience in a second game immediately.
Santa Fe includes some advanced rules involving the addition of an Engineer card. The rules for using the Engineer aren't very balanced, and Alan Moon (the game's designer) admitted to me that they weren't heavily playtested. The rest of the advanced rules, which double the price of branch cards and add a charge for laying track across rivers or mountains, do work fairly well and make the game more interesting. You may want to try using them without the Engineer.
One of the best things about Santa Fe is that it plays as well with only two players as it does with a full complement of five. To be sure, the games are quite different-- you've got much more control over railroads when there's only one other player competing with you. Many games of this sort are less interesting with fewer players, but Santa Fe turns out to be just as much fun. As a result, it's received a lot of play around here when only two people are around. It's rare indeed to find a good two-player game that isn't something completely abstract like Abalone or a word game like Scrabble.
The railroad networks are often unrealistic, looping and doubling back upon themselves. The bonuses for bringing specific railroads into certain cities are Alan's concession to historical accuracy, providing incentives for players to build the rails along routes roughly parallel to their real-life namesakes. This doesn't always work, though, since other considerations-- such as stuffing your opponent-- are frequently more important. If you're a rail purist and historical inaccuracy bothers you, you might be annoyed with Santa Fe. If that's the case, lighten up! Santa Fe's much too fine a game to let something so trivial get in the way of your enjoyment of it. The important thing is that Santa Fe is a darn fun game.
Since everyone can build on all the railroads, there's plenty of opportunity for stuffing other players' plans. But one of the beauties of Santa Fe is that, since you don't own any of the railroads themselves, other players can't team up to hose the progress of "your" railroad. You'll rarely find yourself in a position where you're out of the running, since you can always try to divert other lines to your intended destination. Players often band together to guide railroads toward or away from certain destinations, enhancing the game with transitory alliances of convenience.
On paper, Santa Fe may sound rather dry. Play boils down to playing a card and laying sections of track. But in practice, the game is actually suspensful and lively. Each player tries to accomplish his goals while keeping his true goals a mystery, and there's a good deal of tension as players try to discern and disrupt their opponents' plans. Is she going to take the Union Pacific north toward Canada or south to Sioux Falls? If I steer it west instead, will that foil her plans? Or should I just make sure the Southern Pacific makes it to Phoenix? Should I play a Double card, sacrificing an opportunity to lay down another city? Tough choices, and dealing with them is what makes the game so exciting.
Santa Fe is an anomaly among rail games. There are no crayons or markers, no charts or tables to consult. Players don't buy stock, nor do they usher cargo along the rails. In fact, Santa Fe could easily be a game about laying fiberoptic cable or surveying land. The fact that the game works independent of its theme is one of its strengths. Taking only an hour to complete, Santa Fe is also one of the only rail games you can play more than once in an evening. It is simple to learn, yet has many subtleties of play to assure continued interest. That it plays so well with any number of players would be enough to recommend it. When you add in the fact that it is engaging, competitive and exciting, Santa Fe becomes a big winner. ]