Games in the Stacks: Sanssouci

The Basics:

Designer – Michael Kiesling
Publisher – Ravensburger
Number of Players – 2 ? 4
Ages – 8 and up
Playing Time – 45 minutes
Mechanic – Hand Management, Pattern Building, Tile Placement

(A quick note about this review especially the images. I was provided with a review copy of Sanssouci from the publisher, Ravensburger and upon completing my plays, I donated my copy to the library for their game collection. Unfortunately, the images I took of my plays were blurry and I couldn’t use most of them. After searching Creative Commons, I discovered that Meople’s Magazine did a review and their images are Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) which means I can use them as long as I credit them. So anything with that license are from their review’s image gallery. It was nice of them to allow sharing of their images and I appreciate it.)

Attribution (CC BY NC-SA 2.0) from Meople's Magazine
Attribution (CC BY NC-SA 2.0) from Meople’s Magazine

The Game

In Sanssouci the players are landscapers responsible for the palace gardens of the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in Potsdam. That’s right, this game is about gardening in Germany. Actually no, you are not even a gardener, you are the middle manager overseeing the staff to create an aesthetically pleasing experience for the nobles as they stroll through. Through the 18 turns of the game (corresponding to the 18 cards in the player’s personal deck), you can install different landscape elements such as hedge-mazes, statues, staircases, and fountains to allow your nobles a clear and unobstructed path through the gardens. Oh! Those nobles! They are never satisfied…In front of each player is a tableau grid which provides columns relating to specific landscaping elements and rows relating to a color and points. Points for each row increasing from top to bottom. This relates to the distance traveled by each of the nobles in the game as they stroll through the gardens. The further they move the happier they are and the more points you score!

The Rules

During each turn of the 18 rounds of the game, players have ten elements to pick from in the shared market. Players are trying to create the highest scoring garden but will never finish their entire garden or be able to fill out their entire board. They need to strategically place elements to get nobles moving down their path to score points. Players also score bonus points at the end of the game with two hidden goal cards, and completing entire rows or columns. The garden board itself is made up of 9 columns (representing each of the landscaping elements) and 6 rows of different colors and increasing points. On top of each column there is a noble specific to that column which will move down it’s specific path to score points as play progresses. There are many columns but this one is yours!

Available to all players is a market of 10 randomly placed tiles – 2 tiles per colored slot – which corresponds with the colored rows on the individual player boards. Each player has a hand of two cards from their personal 18 card deck. The cards dictate which elements can be chosen from the market. Some cards show a pair of colors, a landscaping element, or a “wild card” allowing players to choose any available item.

On a turn, five things happen:

  1. You play one card from your hand to choose an element from the market. If that card is one of the colored cards (Grey/White) then you could choose any element from the corresponding colors. If the card is a specific element, you can choose that element from any color in the market. If no tiles match the criteria of the card played then any tile from the market is available.
  2. The chosen tile is then placed into the player’s garden. Since the garden is basically a 9 by 6 grid, each spot on the board will align to only one particular tile (the landscape element and the color of the row it was in the market). When the chosen tile can fit onto your board in a free space, the tile goes on that spot. When that space is already taken, the tile is turned over to the gardener side and can then be placed anywhere in the same column or row as the original space. This makes being able to grab this tile fairly valuable when developing paths for your nobles.
  3. After placing a tile, you have the option of moving a noble. Nobles can only move over pre-printed tile spaces on the board or tiles placed during play. The noble must end their movement in the same column as they started and lower on the board than where they started. The noble is not allowed to end their turn on a gardener tile. I mean, obviously, who wants to end their stroll in a spot still under construction. However, nobles may move through gardener tiles and avert their eyes, engage in social snuff intake or just be a snobbish bore.
  4. You then score points equal to the final row wherever the noble stops. The score will be between 1 and 6 points.
  5. Lastly, the player draws up to two cards in their hand by picking up one card from their personal deck. Finally, replenish the market by placing a randomly drawn tile in the empty space.

Take a tile, place it. Move a noble or not. Refill your hand and replenish the market. That is it! This goes on until all players have used up the 18 cards in their personal deck. At the end of the game players score additional points for each completed row and column and points for each player’s two secret objective cards. The secret objective cards dealt at the beginning of the game each show one landscape element which will score points corresponding to the location of the noble in that column (basically an extra 1-6 points).

Attribution (CC BY NC-SA 2.0) from Meople's Magazine
Attribution (CC BY NC-SA 2.0) from Meople’s Magazine

The Review

Simple to set-up and play: The rules are really quick to learn. If you have some emerging gamers or people just entering into the hobby, this would be a great start. However, for those experienced gamers looking for strategy, they may find the game wanting due to all the randomness and the dry theme.

Plenty of tactical thinking but too much randomness: The random draw of the tiles in the market, their placement within the market plus the random draw of the cards in your hand of two leads to a very tactical game as you are constantly revising a strategy for your turn. This is not an altogether unpleasant experience if you like a good puzzle and don’t mind a wee bit of analysis but I tended to be very limited in my options on many turns.

Good flow to the game: In fact, I had a very similar experience with designer Michael Kiesling’s game Coal Baron. The game itself was dry but the flow of the game was so smooth that I could just enjoy the mechanisms of the game and completely forget that it was dull as dirt. That says something about the design of the game. Sanssouci had a similar feel and thank goodness because the randomness was killing me. Sometimes you had a veritable handful of useful tiles from the market and sometimes you didn’t have much but the tiny hand size of two cards minimized any chance at overthinking, The random pre-printed spaces on the player boards helped keep things from getting jammed up too much with players each vying for the same items.

No player interaction at all: I really have nothing to add.There was none. It could have used some. You could try to quickly grock out which tiles your opponents were trying to collect but blocking really didn’t seem to be a particularly useful strategy but if you really wanted to spice things up…

Use the inspansion: I loved that you could make it slightly more interesting by adding the “inspansion” that was “in” the box. It is a random overlay to put over your garden that will add or subtract points if you placed tiles in specific areas. It doesn’t do much but it does add an extra dimension to the gameplay.

Nice scoring balance: The options for scoring – secret goal cards, placement of nobles, completed columns and rows – really worked in Sanssouci. Simple enough to explain the goal of the game and complex enough to give players a choice between getting the quick points versus setting themselves up for the endgame points. the ending really ramps up nicely when some tough decisions need to be made concerning how you are going to squeak out those last couple of points.

Attribution (CC BY NC-SA 2.0) from Meople's Magazine
Attribution (CC BY NC-SA 2.0) from Meople’s Magazine

The Rub

This game has a bunch of luck. Random goal cards, the random pull of cards for your hand, and the random placement of tiles in the market provides plenty of luck with very little to mitigate it. That said, the simple rules, quick gameplay and wonderful flow makes the game perfect for emerging gamers and families. The decision space in the game isn’t overwhelming and you need to be able to plan and strategize to get ahead in the game. Every game I played ending very close between newcomers and those that played the a few times already. While experience goes help, a first timer was always in the running and never left too far behind. This is a hallmark of a well balanced game despite the large amount of randomness.

Everything moves quickly in the game but with no player interaction, any moments if AP were particularly excruciating. Sanssouci is a well designed albeit dry family game that presents a nice solitary puzzle to figure out. Perfect entry level fare but it will not live through several plays from experienced players before it gets dull.

Would You Rather…

Play Alhambra or Sanssouci? Alhambra. These games are incredibly similar in ease of play and mechanisms. However, the set collection and hand management elements of Alhambra make it a much more interesting game and less prone to the randomness of the draw. In the end though, if you like Alhambra you will probably enjoy Sanssouci but it will never replace it for you.

Play Carcassonne or Sanssouci? Carcassonne. It seems that the randomness of the draw is very similar in both games but Carcassonne is a much more satisfying game and with so many mini-expansions, it can always be rejuvenated even after it becomes dull.

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