The Patron Saint of Empty Spaces
In one sense, Santa Monica isn’t anything new. Apart from its sun-bleached palette and laid-back setting, this hobby is full of perfectly serviceable tableau-builders. Bonus points if those tableaux are tiered; I’m thinking of offerings like 51st State, Imperial Settlers, or even Wingspan. Three rows of cards, each with different but complementary functions. Santa Monica only has two rows of cards. Two is fewer than three. Isn’t that a step in the wrong direction?
Nope. If anything, Santa Monica has produced some of the freshest tableaux I’ve ever laid on my table. And it has everything to do with how it goes about the process of establishing its setting.
Before you go making assumptions, let me clarify something. When I talk about Santa Monica’s setting, I’m not saying it’s good because it happens to be set on a famous beach. Not entirely. Sun-washed colors could evoke either a beachfront mural or a once-bright towel buried in the sand; depending on the circumstances, which one I prefer to stumble over is up for grabs. Nor am I saying its gameplay plays second fiddle to some nice illustrations. One only has to glance at the latest crowdfunding successes to witness some powerful examples of why I’d much rather play a good game with weak artwork than look at pretty pictures while playing a weak game.
Instead, Santa Monica is special precisely because it does exactly what I want from a game of its particular species. It takes a setting, uses familiar shorthand and legible iconography to establish the parameters of its particular conundrum, and then smashes that setting and conundrum together with all the force of two particles in a fully charged ring accelerator. There is no theme/mechanisms divide here. No false dichotomy. No assumptions about which one should matter more than the other. Just the joining of two very different hands in a perfectly functional marriage.
It’s all about setting. But that setting only works because everything within this particular merger exists to make that setting come to life.
Here’s the thousand-mile rundown. Santa Monica is a famous beach, which means it isn’t the sort of place I want to visit, and I say that as somebody who spent a very lovely afternoon there playing frisbee with some friends along that magical line where the water laps up against the sand to make a sheen of slickness that seems to go dry under the pressure of your soles. In Santa Monica, there are two types of places: beachfronts and roadside stops. There are more than that, but no matter the type, they can be divided into those two categories. Some are on the water, others are near the water. That’s the difference. Both are sandy.
There are also two types of people in Santa Monica: tourists and locals. Tourists are here for the gaudy stuff. Bright lights, spits of rock or sand that attract seabirds and otters, crummy souvenir shops that somehow sell the same crap as all the other souvenir shops. Locals, on the other hand, are here to tolerate the tourists. They have their own spots, their own sections of beach, and when some out-of-towner joins their volleyball match to reenact Top Gun, they retaliate with the world’s most withering form of passive aggression: the judgemental stare. In most cases, the tourists respond with blissful obliviousness.
Santa Monica — the board game about the beach, not the beach itself — has a card market. That card market has two types of cards. Again, there are more than two. The deck contains souvenir shops and bike rentals and picnic benches and sandy beaches that are great for building sand castles and other sandy beaches that are better for surfing or relaxation or maybe for avoiding the sharks. A little bit of everything. If you can find it in the real Santa Monica, you can probably find it in this simulacrum of Santa Monica. But the card market takes all these types and divides them into two categories: front and back. Front cards can be claimed, one per turn, and slotted into your personal stretch of beach or roadside. At that point, the card behind it, the back card, slides down and becomes a front card.
This procession isn’t always as firm as it seems. You can pay sand dollars, Santa Monica’s cutesy way of including a custom wooden token to draw eyeballs, to purchase one of two alternatives. These can be swapped out with each play, much like the endgame scoring conditions. One of these alternatives lets you take a card from the back row instead of the front. Another lets you magically swap two cards in your expanding tableau. Another lets you claim a particular type of card, no matter where it is in the market, and move someone along the beach. Same goes for the food truck and foodie who walk along the front row. Pick a card next to them and you’ll either earn a sand dollar or a free move.
I’ve mentioned movement a couple of times, which is appropriate because while the market and tableau is familiar, this is the first thing that really makes Santa Monica spark to life.
It works like this. Certain cards give you little bonuses when you add them into your tableau. Alongside sand dollars, one of the more common bonuses are inhabitants. These come in three flavors. Tourists and locals are introduced over the course of play, and can be moved to particular activities to earn extra points when the game is over, or subtract points if you fail to entertain them. Crucially, while some activities allow both Santa Monica residents and visitors to participate, greater scores await if you can match particular people to their preferred activities. This often requires some specialization, since hotels and visitor centers attract tourists, while local hotspots and apartment buildings provide residents. Further, there’s a spatial element to consider. A wedding destination with heaps of guests might sound like a nifty addition, but if it isn’t near any appropriate activities, you’ve made a mess that can erode your score rather than boosting it.
The final inhabitants of your little world are VIPs, who enter Santa Monica along with your starting placard. Each VIP has particular sights they hope to visit, and leave point-earning footprint tokens in their wake as they pass through. This provides a pleasant cascade of considerations. While you’re trying to match inhabitants to their desired activities, you’re also taking a tour of your beachfront as you build it, while also weighing adjacency bonuses and chained locale types and variable endgame scoring opportunities and—
And despite all of its very many ways to get ahead, Santa Monica never quite totters over the line that would make it overwhelming. That’s thanks to the game’s use of empty space. Or empty-ish, anyway.
If you’ve played 51st State or Imperial Settlers or Wingspan, you’ll know that every card (or nearly every card) is unique. That’s part of the draw. Like levers and gears and everything else that forms a complex economy, every card is a different producer or factory or consumer. These games are fantastic at letting you cobble together those disparate parts into a semi-functional logistical chain that churns resources into victory points. I’ve written positively about each of them.
Santa Monica does one better, and it does it in a completely counterintuitive way. Rather than making every card unique — although every card has varied artwork and effects — Santa Monica permits some of its cards to do very little. Empty stretches of beach. Windswept sand castles. A section of sidewalk with a picnic table or a bench for sitting. An overturned trashcan and a nearby raccoon, surely unconnected in terms of causality. These cards are still useful, but they’re emptier than most. Not every card has a way to earn points. Not every card has an activity for restless tourists. Some cards are mostly useful for an extra sand dollar, maybe two when the food truck is on their market space, or for completing other adjacency bonuses.
But this emptiness is part of the game’s charm. Unlike an onslaught of post-apocalyptic dwellings, flood of historical monuments, or hodgepodge of bird species, a finished section of Santa Monica looks like the sort of place you might actually visit. Even better, it’s the sort of place you might want to visit. Much like how the emptiness of outer space lends significance to a marble of blue suspended in all that vastness, certain destinations stand out both because of what’s beside them and what isn’t. Here’s where the locals hang out. Here’s the touristy part of town. Here’s a dilapidated apartment building next to a shop that sells kitsch. There, off in the distance, is the famous pier with the amusement park built atop it. And in between them, benches and sand castles.
People and emptiness. Between those two details, something wondrous happens. Here is a place that seems lived-in, traversed, wearying and rejuvenating at once, and now here are people to inhabit it, to be wearied and rejuvenated. None of the other aforementioned games went to the trouble of actually asking you to spend a day in the locales they produced. By doing so, Santa Monica’s beachfront pulls double duty, offering both another layer to the game’s conundrum and another layer to its setting.
One last note. Never before have I spent so much effort lining up each card’s segments so as to resemble the illustration from a brochure. To look at the finished thing is to behold not only a good score, not only a good factory for transforming inputs into victory points, but also a good place. I’ve written in the past about what happens when a game’s elements strike upon an alignment of purpose. Santa Monica is a near-perfect example of that phenomenon. In my estimation, that alone is worthy of praise.
A complimentary copy was provided.