Walls aren't built around cities for shade. They're built to keep the danger out. As a leader in the budding port city of Saint Malo, it's up to you to lead the city to prosperity while ensuring the safety of the people from plundering pirates. And what better tools to accomplish such a task than a fistful of dice and a dry-erase marker?
An examination of Saint Malo reveals an uninspired box cover, nothing very enticing. Open the box and you'll find a few player boards which are ... utilitarian. Additionally, there are five dice with an odd assortment of symbols and, most intriguingly, a dry-erase marker for each player. Instead of collecting physical cardboard coins or resources, you'll draw them in their appropriate spaces. Instead of placing wooden buildings or characters in your city, you'll draw them into the districts of your choosing. Could Saint Malo be played with the familiar chits, tokens and wooden bits we've grown accustomed to in our board games? Sure, but the variety of buildings, resources and characters would make it a bit unwieldy. There's also an added element of finality added when drawing as opposed to tokens. It's relatively easy to move around a building token after placing it. Erasing a building you've drawn is more of an ordeal. It lends weight to your decisions in a subtle way.
A Roll of the Dice
While the markers will certainly receive the bulk of the attention from casual onlookers, it's the dice that are driving force behind Saint Malo. In an effort to build the best city, players will roll the five dice and are able to reroll any number of them up to two more times. After rolling has ceased, you will choose one of the symbols showing and take the corresponding action. The more of the same symbol that there are, the more powerful the action becomes. It's not a wholly unique idea. It's been done before and it's been done well. What sets Saint Malo apart is how it deftly combines the short-term tactical nature of dice rolling with the long-term strategic planning involved in building a city. I feel the point would best be illustrated in a series of photos.
The above scenario assumes perfect rolling of dice, which I have yet to encounter in my gaming career. Often times you will be forced to take less than ideal actions or veer from the path you had in mind. But that's OK because the above isn't the only viable means of scoring points. You can found churches of varying quality to score a mass of points at game's end. Or you can make your city a hotbed for an assortment of characters and entertain them with jugglers which will also happen to net you a tidy sum of points.
Saint Malo an interesting beast. A great roll will always be helpful, but without the proper executions and foresight, it could amount to a waste. There's a spatial element in Saint Malo that can't be overlooked. Nearly every action is dependent on proper placement to be utilized to it's fullest. Merchants are only effective when placed near crates. Housing can only be placed orthogonality from other housing. As the board fills up, the poor planning of your past will come to back to haunt you.
Is it Too Much to Ask to be Left Alone?
As you work to build a shining city on the sea, there would be those who wish to snatch away the fruits of your labor. There would be those who seek to deprive you of your hard earned prosperity. There would be pirates. As you are busy building the perfect city, there is always the imminent threat of a pirate attack. Every time there are pirate symbols rolled at the end of a player's turn, the pirates draw nearer. Once a threshold is met, the pirates attack and you will need walls or soldiers to fight them off. A lack of proper defenses will result in the loss of points at the end of the game.
Pirates add an element of tension in an otherwise low stress affair. While it's possible to get lost in managing the minutiae of your buildings and citizens, the always looming danger has you constantly hedging your bets. It's loss aversion at it's finest. It may be entirely possible to score more points elsewhere than you would lose from a failed defense, but crossing off a canon to signify your defeat to the pirates will be a constant reminder of your loss. A lingering taunt serving as a beacon of your failure. It's enough to make players change the behavior in anticipation of a moment that might not even come.
I'll readily admit that I'm a sucker for gimmicks. If you show me a game with a gimmick and I'll give it a try. But a gimmick isn't enough to keep me around. Thankfully, Saint Malo isn't a one trick pony. The dry-erase markers and boards are novel and work reasonably well, but it's much more than that. It starts with the greatly designed icons on the dice that flash and tease as they spin on the table that illicits the excitement needed from every good dice game. It then moves to a easy to understand goal with various paths in which to achieve it. And finally, the tension that keeps players on their toes that ties the experience together. Saint Malo doesn't have lofty ambitions. It's a fairly simple dice game that just happens to be a finely crafted one.