I’ve never envied the jobs of Santa and his elves. Sure, it must be fun to fly all over the world in one night, but think of the pressure this man must be under. Decide who’s been bad or good, figure out what kind of loot they’re getting (or not), and then deliver it all. And the elves! They’re the ones who actually have to make all those toys. And the closer it gets to Christmas, the more the pressure ratchets up.
That’s the spirit that Santa’s Workshop seeks to recreate. You’re a team of elves, making toys and loading them on Santa’s sleigh for the big night. You can take some shortcuts, but you’ll still have to be efficient to get it all done. And you’ll need to impress Santa with your speed. But if you do it right, Santa will take your elf team with him when he goes to the tropics for vacation. Play your cards right, and your team will be chillin’ on a floaty in the warm ocean while the others sit at home, shivering at the North Pole.
How It Plays
Santa’s Workshop is a light, introductory level worker placement game that has you sending your elves to gather toy-making materials, improving their toy-making skills, and assembling toys for Santa. Doing all of this earns you points which win you the game (and that tropical vacation for your elf team).
The game is played over nine rounds (or days, in game time). Each “day” of the game consists of three phases: Start of Day, Workday Actions, and End of Day. Rather than go through every rule and circumstance of the game, I’m going to give you a high level overview of what your elves will do in the workshop each day. (Besides hang out by the water cooler and talk about who binge-watched what last night.)
The start of day phase is simply when all tokens are added/replaced to their respective areas. You know, the elves come to work, wander around for a while, get coffee, and get everything set up for work. The reindeer also load up on cookies, with each reindeer getting one cookie added to its stall.
The workday actions phase is when the real work gets done. The elves scatter to the various areas of the workshop and get busy making gifts. There are seven types of places where your elves can go. You can send them to the mailroom to pick up more gift orders from children. Here you’ll pick up new gifts (in the form of cards) to build. The cards show the materials needed to build the gift, the number of assembly tokens required, and the points each gift is worth if you build it. You can only have five unassembled gifts in hand at any time.
You can send elves to the classroom to make them better gift-makers. Elves can be trained in either materials or assembly. Higher education means you can take extra materials or assembly tokens when visiting the appropriate areas of the workshop.
Materials are the basis upon which all gifts are built, and to get them you must send elves to the appropriate areas. There are shops for metal, wood, and fabric. The first elf to visit a shop area chooses which of the two spaces to visit within the shop. Subsequent players either take the other space, or are blocked out of that shop for the round. (The rules for two player games are different.) These shops allow you to convert a specified amount of coal into the material the shop produces. Remember: Training lets you convert more.
You need to match the resources you’re gathering to the gifts you have in hand and distribute them immediately. If you can’t put the materials on gifts, you do have two other places you can put them. On your player mat, you can place metal into the mining tools area to give you the ability to take more coal when visiting the coal mine. Or, you can put fabric onto the reindeer harness upgrade spaces, giving you four cookie points. Anything you cannot place on a gift or your player mat must be discarded. No hoarding of excess!
There is another shop available for plastics. Yes, even elves can take shortcuts in gift production. Only one player can go to the plastics lab each round, and getting plastic requires no coal. Plastic can help you assemble a gift faster, but for every material you replace with plastic, the point value of the completed gift goes down. It’s just not as high quality!
Once you have the materials needed to assemble a gift, you can send an elf to the assembly hall to get the necessary assembly tokens. You cannot place assembly tokens on a gift until you have all the materials needed to build that gift. As with the other areas, there are only a certain number of spaces available in the hall and when they’re occupied, other players must go elsewhere.
Once you have the required assembly tokens, you’ve built the gift and you earn the points. The gift is placed face down in your player area, and you’ve now freed up a spot so you can possibly visit the mailroom again and get another gift to work on.
If your gift-building isn’t going well, you can visit the reindeer stable and help muck out some stalls. Note that you can only visit a reindeer who still has cookies in his stall. If you do, you’ll get the cookies that the reindeer has in its stall and the associated points. Each reindeer also has a special ability that may give you extra resources, make you the starting player for the next day, or give you Zelf.
Zelf is an elf who cares for the reindeer, but every now and then he hankers to build gifts. If you relieve him of reindeer duty for the day, he’ll go to work for you, acting as an extra elf on subsequent turns that day. He can only go to the three material shops, but he gets an extra material when he does so.
Finally, you can send your elves to the coal mine. No, it’s not a punishment. Coal is the base material from which all other materials are generated. (I don’t know how, okay. It’s some kind of freaky elf magic.) There is no limit to the number of elves who can work in the mine, and when you go you get four coal to add to your supply. (Or six, if you’ve upgraded your mining capabilities.) Excess is discarded, but not wasted. Santa has to give the bad kids something…
At the end of the day, everyone goes home. Elves are returned to the players, and Zelf goes back to the reindeer stable. If it’s the end of day 3, 6, or 9, Santa comes to inspect the progress and award bonus points to the two players with the most assembled gifts. The Santa meeple moves ahead one day on the day tracker, and everyone goes to sleep to get ready to do it all again tomorrow.
The game ends after the last inspection on day 9. During final scoring, players get one cookie for each fabric, wood, metal, and assembly token on an unfinished gift. Each player also turns in their remaining coal and gets one cookie for every two coal. These points are added to the points scored so far, and the winner is the player with the most points.
There is an advanced variant that uses “Holiday Surprise” cards to throw in some extra challenges. Each day, a new card is turned over and its effects are active for the entire day. As with many surprises, some are good and some are bad.
A Jolly Good Time, or Ho, Ho, Humbug
I’ve noted before that good Christmas-themed games aren’t easy to find. The Home Alone Game is a good choice, but it’s very light and really best suited for two players. But what if you have more people? Or you want something more “gamer-esque?” Behold, I give you Santa’s Workshop.
Santa’s Workshop is a proper worker placement game. By that, I mean that it’s on par with games like Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep. It’s lightweight, but the concepts have not been watered down or remixed with something else to pander to non-gamers. You do many of the things you do in any worker placement game: Assign your workers, collect resources, distribute resources, and work to fulfill objectives (in this case, making presents for Santa to deliver).
Still, because it’s fairly light and the theme is fun and approachable, it is a game that people with little gaming experience can enjoy. Especially since the rules are well done. Some of it may be unfamiliar at first, but once people understand how the actions relate to the theme, it comes fairly easily. And Santa’s Workshop is great at tying actions to the theme of elves getting ready for Christmas. It’s easy to explain that you get gift orders to fulfill and then gather resources to make those gifts. Some of the nit-picky details might be obscured on the first play-through, but subsequent plays see players learning how to efficiently utilize the reindeer and training to do even better. It’s one of the most intuitive worker placement games I’ve played.
Part of what appeals to me about Santa’s Workshop, aside from the theme, is that it’s worker placement with a little bit of engine-building going on. Your elves don’t have to remain static for the entire game. You can put some effort into training them so that they get bonus materials or assembly tokens. Then, if you can work your strategy right, you get gifts that play into those enhanced skills, making you more efficient than other players.
And speaking of efficiency, that’s a big part of your decisions in this game. How do you build gifts the fastest? Do you train up your elves early, even at the expense of some early assemblies, and try to complete more at the end? Or do you try to go slow and steady, accomplishing a little each round? Do you include a lot of plastic in your gifts, perhaps enabling you to complete more, faster, but for fewer points? Is it worth it to pursue some of the reindeer cookie points and if so, which special abilities on offer best complement your overall strategy? This isn’t a game that will drain your brain, but there are things to consider and strategies to chase.
If you’re an experienced gamer, or you’ve played Santa’s Workshop a few times, I really recommend adding the Holiday Surprise variant. The game can start to feel a bit stale after a few plays, but the extra cards change things up nicely. There are thirty-two cards in the deck, but only nine are used in any game. You can play many times before you’ve seen them all. And they do serve to change things up a bit. It’s not a huge change, but they do throw some interesting wrenches in your plans. (For example, one game I was really banking on getting a certain reindeer because I wanted his ability, and he had a lot of cookies available. Well, right before I was to make my move, the Spoiled Oats card came out and took away all of those cookies. Given that I lost by five points, that made the difference. But I’m not bitter.)
To some extent, your enjoyment of this game over others in the same “class” like Viticulture or Ex Libris will depend on how much you like the theme. Santa’s Workshop doesn’t really offer anything new in the genre. If you’ve played many worker placement games before, you’ve seen everything it has to offer. Where it shines is in how it incorporates basic Euro-game concepts into the theme. I’m honestly amazed that no one thought of this before. I mean, elves are workers, right? And they need resources, right? It makes perfect sense to theme a worker placement game around them and their gift-making efforts. It makes as much sense as farming, really. If you love Christmas, you’ll be more likely to enjoy the game, even if you usually prefer heavier fare.
The biggest negative to the game is that the components are a bit lacking. Everything is functional, but there are issues. First, the board warps when you take it out of the box. It was flat when we began to play, but it started warping shortly after. Looking around BGG, this isn’t an isolated problem. Some bending helped, but it’s still happening. (I bought this game last year, but never got around to reviewing it back then. Then I decided to just wait until the next holiday season. When we pulled it out again this year, it still warped.)
Second, the colors on the board are dark. You’re meant to be taking the high view of the workshop, and maybe that’s part of it. But the individual rooms are dark, and their spaces can be hard to see unless you’re playing in bright light. Also, note that the meeples are oddly shaped. They’re meant to be different, distinguishable shapes, but they’re still hard to tell apart at times. And Santa doesn’t really look like Santa. He’s kind of lumpy.
Still, everything is playable and this is all an unfortunate matter of aesthetics. It doesn’t detract from the gameplay, or the charm of playing a Christmas game. The Christmas theme, however, may be a negative for some. Some people don’t like to buy and store games that only get played at one time of year, especially if they already have other similar-weight games.
Finally, let me reiterate that this is an introductory, family weight worker placement game. In a few threads on BGG, the designer noted that he took pains to keep it at this level, even though it meant giving up some complexities and streamlining some rules for simplicity’s sake. Some people see this as “dumbing down” the game, or reducing the number of options available to unacceptable levels. Others see it as keeping the game playable by kids and non-gamers. The advanced cards bring the game up a notch, but it’s only a small bump. Gamers looking for a heavy worker placement game should look elsewhere.
I was totally charmed by Santa’s Workshop, even with the few shortcomings in components. The game weight is perfect for us, allowing us to play on weeknights and with family/friends who aren’t major gamers. And that’s really the point of this game: It’s a game to bring the family together over the holiday. The game carries the theme off well, and offers fun, easy-going gameplay that’s perfect for playing by the Christmas tree. I may not want to play it in July (then again, as hot as it gets here, a trip to the North Pole might be a good thing), but when the holidays roll around, this is one I want to have on hand.