The Santorini Experience

Picture of the boardgame box for Santorini I Was in the position of entertaining a tween the other day, so I busted out Santorini. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Santorini is a delightful boardgame of tower building and Greek gods. It’s a favorite around our household.

But what made it very useful in this context was something else. While it is a very deep, flexible and replayable game, its core is incredibly simple: move a builder, then place a tower piece, plus some win conditions. It literally took more time for us to open up the box and set up than it took for me to teach everything he needed to know to play.

Now, if this was all there was to the game, it would be fun but shallow(but, critically, it’s still fun in its simplest form), but the game has space for additional layers of complexity. Once you know the rules, each player can take on the role of one of the gods, which allows them to add one special move to the game (Hermes can move his units farther, for example). There are varying levels of complexity to the gods, and the game unfolds uniquely based on the interplay between the gods chosen (all to say nothing of other expansions, like heroes).

So the result is something that is trivial to learn, immediately rewarding to play, but scales up in complexity and depth with player interest. That’s pretty awesome.

Ok, so with that in mind, I want to bring up another conversation that threaded through Metatopia.

PAX unplugged is coming up in about two weeks, and a lot of people are going to be curious how it goes. Last year it was a whole new thing, and no one knew quite what to expect, and some of our guesses were just wrong.

Most tellingly, the reports from people in the dealer’s hall were wildly varied – some booths sold like mad, while others had very little traction at all. This is a little bit weird, but I have a theory about it based on my own observations. See, the PAX unplugged crowd was not the usual gaming convention crowd – they were the PAX crowd – and they brought in a different culture. This showed up in a lot of ways (they are WAY more line tolerant, for one thing) but was maybe most interesting in relation to games.

What I observed was that it was a crowd with a deep enthusiasm for games and play, but not necessarily a lot of patience. There’s a cynical interpretation of that, but I largely took it as a result of them not having bought into the various things we think about how games “should” be. Most specifically, this meant they wanted games that they could buy, walk over to a table, and play.

That makes sense when you say it out loud, but when I stop an think about most “gamer” games, especially RPGs, the disconnect becomes apparent. Most RPG purchases follow more of a pattern of “One person buys it, spends time reading it, then spends time prepping, then gathers a group to try this thing out”. I don’t tend to think much of it because that’s just how it’s done, but to a newcomer that has got to just seem stupid.

Presuming this is a market we want to reach out to (I know I do), it raises the question of what needs to change. “Quick Start” sets have been around in RPGs forever, but they are usually more like marketing promos or GM aids than anything to actually help play start quickly.[1]. Tech tricks like putting choose your own adventures in the game book have helped shorten the ramp-up for prospective GMs, but that only produces marginal results.

We’ve seen decent success with semi-RPG boardgames (Gloomhaven being the current hotness) that hit many RPG notes but use boardgame style setup. This is interesting and educational to me, but it’s not a line I wish to pursue because it solves different problems than the ones that intrigue me. That it, removing the parts that make RPGs hard also removes the parts that make them most interesting to me.

To this end I am intrigued by the rising “Larp in a Box” category, which you can see in Ghost Court and which I expect is going to EXPLODE on the scene when the new release of Fiasco comes out. Unsurprising, since the Bully Pulpit folks are crazy clever. There’s also some really neat emergent play tech happening in things like Alex Roberts’ For The Queen.

So I’m watching these things and taking notes, because the thing I realized while playing with that tween is that what I ultimately want is to be able to deliver that Santorini experience with an RPG. Get playing immediately and enjoyably, but be able to expand complexity with mastery and interest.

It should be doable. I can see the pieces of it in my head. But getting them to gel is going to be the trick.

1 – Eternal exception for the Exalted QuickStart, which was not much of a pointer for Exalted as written, but in its own terms was one of the best games I’ve ever read.

8 thoughts on “The Santorini Experience

  1. Kevin Matheny

    How much of the approach used by Rodney Thompson in Dusk City Outlaws and Spectacular do you think would work for this audience? The choose-your-archetype approach to character creation, that lets you get started in just a few minutes, seems like it would appeal.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Feeling dumb for not mentioning Dusk City Outlaws since it’s *absolutely* in this space, or at least adjacent to it. I think it’s brilliant and it’s another thing I intend to steal from. But it misses by a hair – the setting material is a little dense, and that makes it hard to pick up and go.

  2. Blue

    In terms of archetypes to pick-up-and-play, Marvel Heroic Roleplay hit an interesting note in that there was no character creation mechanic – you WERE playing an existing hero, who you already knew the foibles and personality. Just grab the appropriate datafile. And there was no worry about balance or niche protection between characters – that wasn’t expected because of the source material.

    Without working with a set IP, is that something that could be done with a reasonable collection of archetypes and some easy choice (but meaningful) customization, and still have that the character stays (an grows more) interesting over extended play?

    Right now for many games character creation is heavy and gamers like it lots of customization. Heck, we all love Sessions 0, yet that’s the antithesis of what you were describing. How can we make character creation light/minimal/quick, offloading the complexity to be picked either during play (like filling out blank aspects) or character advancement / between sessions.

    Heck, a Smallville like connection wall might be something that doesn’t get assembled session 0, but grown between every session.

    But all of getting players up and running pales compared to getting someone to go from never-played to GMing in 10 minutes. Using traditional methods I’ve got no clue, what can we do if we include youtube or web or apps – everyone has a phone or tablet these days.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yeah, that immediately identifiable it’s is a huge advantage of licensed stuff, but as Marvel keeps teaching us, that’s a double edged sword.

      It’s a tough nut to crack, but I have a few ideas. One of them is that I have been pondering what happens if we flip the PBTA model and lay out very structured GM “moves” rather than player ones. I’m still noodling on what that looks like, but it’s really interesting stuff, especially if you bring in the Fate kind of thinking about the story coming from the characters and the GM as enabler of that rather than as entertainer. Huh. That point may need to be its own mini post.

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