I had the good fortune of playing this oldie but goodie from 2003, and boy do I wish the box had come with a Warning Label. I had no clue what I was walking into at our local game night this week. Santiago seems like an innocuous game - small grid, a few tiles, no big deal. It even looks like a smaller version of Aquadukt, which is not super difficult game. However, I found Santiago to be very challenging, and even with a solid explanation of the game, I was surprised by the the complexity of the mechanics once we started to play.
The main objective of Santiago is to get your banana, paprika, potato and sugar cane fields watered and to grow them as plantations. If you do this well, and are a good plantation owner, you will receive a lot of money at the end, and win the game! This is easier said than done. Rounds begin with 4 field tiles being turned over. Each of the 4 crops (banana, paprika, potato, and sugar cane) represent a different colored tile. Each tile has 1 or 2 planters on them, which allows you to place a crop marker, e.g. small cube, or 2 on the tile once you place it.
The small cubes represent your farmer's color, and distinguish between players. The larger the plantation (tiles of the same crop next to each other) the more money you make. For example, in the above image, if you are black and have one potato tile with 2 crop markers in a section with 3 total potato tiles, you would you get 2 crop markers x 3 potato tiles = 6 dollars. If the plantation grows to 5 potato tiles, you would receive 10 dollars at the end of the game.
After everyone chooses and places their tile, a canal or water pipe is laid down and only tiles next to the canal get watered. The person who has made the lowest bid for the tiles in each round (with 3 or 4 players there are 11 rounds, with 5 players there are 9) gets to be the Canal Overseer and decide where the canal for that round is laid. Players can bribe the Overseer to lay the pipe down next to their tile after all the tiles have been laid.
Now, let me back up for a minute and describe some of the finer details of the game. First, random tiles are drawn for players to select. Then, players use money to bid for their position when it comes to selecting those tiles. (All players start with $10 and get $3 at the start of each round). The person to the left of the Canal Overseer always bids first and each player must bid a different amount. A player may bid '0' but then place 1 less crop marker on their tile, so there is a slight penalty to bidding; this can also be used to your advantage in some cases.
After everyone bids, the player who bids the most money gets to select the first tile, and so on. After all the tiles are placed, the Canal Overseer, who bid the lowest amount, may accept recommendations and money for where the canal should be laid. If your tile/crop does not get watered on this round, you will lose one of your crop makers. If your tile does not get watered on the next round, you will lose another crop marker or your land will dry up and be worthless. Note: each player is given 1 emergency canal / water pipe to lay in case of emergencies.
Finally, here are some of the mechanics I found interesting. To start, there is the position of which you draft. You could take into account the value of each tile to you, and the value of those tiles to the other players. But, if you want a specific tile, and you bid first, what do you bid knowing there are 2 players to play behind you? Then, there is the amount of money you have, which is finite and must be managed. Third, there is the issue of the Canal Overseer. They will place the water source, and may accept bribes as a source of revenue. Fourth, the person to the left of the Canal Overseer will be the first to bid for the tiles in the the next round. Fifth, other players will also get an opportunity to bribe the Canal Overseer to lay the pipe where they want. AND, players can work together if they want the canal placed in the same place. Thus, there is a lot of negotiation and game theory in the game. If I didn't say it enough earlier, let me reiterate! This game is super challenging! It's a mental twister and hair raiser, if that's even a thing! And one I obviously can't wait to play again!