09th Jul2020

‘Sagrada’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

As I keep mentioning in my reviews, life as a board gamer has probably never been better. Modern production values have enlivened the way that board games look, and introduced new ways to experience the mechanics of the games, thanks to advances in plastic, cardboard and wood production. Modern games work best when they take classic, simple concepts and combine them with attractive, tactile components and few have done this better than the subject of today’s review; Sagrada.

In Sagrada, the players each occupy the role of someone who builds stained glass windows, although this is a very abstract concept. In gameplay terms, everyone will receive a beautiful double-layered player board with a four by five grid making up the bottom half and a beautiful stained-glass display making up the top section and denoting player colour. Into the (initially empty) bottom section, each player will slide one of two cards drawn during setup, denoting the specific “rules” for their window during this game.

Each of these cards is double-sided and has a difficulty level indicated on it with a number of favour tokens. This gives each player four choices about how their final window will look, and the harder the side you choose, the more favour tokens (which can be used in game to use certain tool cards) you’ll gain. Choose an easy window and you’ll get fewer tokens with which to “bend the rules” whilst with a more complex window, your basic die placement will become more complex.

On that note, I should mention the dice. Sagrada is a game made up of about a hundred gorgeous coloured dice, each of which is placed into a bag during setup and then drawn (two for each player plus one) and drafted during a round. The first player takes the die they want and then places into their window (slotting it neatly into one of the slots on the dual-layered grid.) The next player then does the same and so on through to the last player, who will then take their die, and the process returns in reverse order (with the last player taking a second die) back to the first player. The final die is then placed on the round tracker as a reminder.

When dice are placed into the player boards, they must follow certain rules. Each card has slots of specific colours or values, and when a die is placed in one of those spots, it must match the stipulated criteria. In addition to this, each die must be placed orthogonally or diagonally next to one that is already in place, and no die can be placed orthogonally adjacent to a die of the same colour, or showing the same value. Whilst this sounds like a lot of rules and restrictions, it’s all very intuitive in practice – and a downwards glance is usually enough to enable a player to appraise their situation at any given time.

Each game lasts for ten rounds, which in theory is just enough for every player to complete their window. Placement restrictions can make drafting impossible on some occasions, whilst on others you’ll need to spend one or more of your favour tokens on using one of the three tools that will be drawn and placed on the table during setup. These tools allow the players to do things that wouldn’t normally be allowed, such as place die adjacent to matching die, or to swap a drafted die with one from the round tracking board. To add a slight nuance here, the more a certain tool is used, the more favour tokens you’ll need to pay to use it each time.

In terms of objectives and scoring, the players are each trying to fill out their own window in line with the public objectives that have been dealt out (of which there are three) and their own secret objective. Each favour token is also worth one point if unused, whilst a gap in your window will result in a lost point. These factors are important in deciding whether you should or shouldn’t use a tool, because broadly speaking it can sometimes make sense to not actually draft a dice or to waste a favour token, even if that feels like a poor move (in effect it might be the best of several bad choices.)

The most complex thing about explaining Sagrada actually is the different objectives, which can be quite fiddly. The private ones are fine, since each is simply related to dice of a specific colour, but the public objectives might focus on placing sets of dice, or ensuring a variety of colours in each column or similar. It takes a few games to get the hang of some of these, especially when also balancing the placement instructions. A key part of the game is also in policing other people’s placement, which can feel a little mean and is, in itself, hard to keep track of.

Bearing in mind that Sagrada was released at a similar time to Azul, I always really fancied it, but never felt that I needed another abstract strategy game of this kind. As it turns out though, the two games are very different and it proves sometimes a change is as good as a rest. I haven’t played Azul for ages, and Sagrada has a lot of the same feels about it – drafting something simple and understandable and then using it in your own creation, working in an ecosystem with other players but also being very focused on your own area etc.

Sagrada does a really good job of making players feel as if they are interacting around the same game space, but in reality, it keeps you very focused on your own creation. Hate drafting dice to make your opponent’s falter is certainly something to think about (assuming you can concentrate on several individual player boards at once) but I suspect most players won’t do it in a casual setting. Instead, you get the interaction of a neat and fast drafting system that generates just enough interaction and “looking up” to feel engaging.

Whilst I found that players seemed to really enjoy watching their window take shape (scoring aside) the bit that seemed to lose people was in the scoring. In a handful of games with most of the different public objectives, there were some games where particular combinations of scoring options had to be explained and then re-explained to the detraction of the overall experience. With that said, I personally found that the scoring options began to click after a few rounds with each objective in play, and whilst Sagrada felt as though it were more complex and arguably fiddly to score in than most gateway games, it’s still simple enough.

As we emerge from Covid-19 lockdown, I can imagine that the five to six player expansion (which I haven’t tried) will be more relevant and I’d like to try playing with more than the four players accounted for in the base game, because actually I think the game weight is perfect for higher player counts where it’s actually harder to get into what I see as “interesting” and more thoughtful games. I’ve played several games of Sagrada at two player, and whilst my wife and I enjoy going head to head in some games, I don’t think this will be one of them going forwards.

Overall then, I don’t think Sagrada will replace Azul: Summer Pavillion as my go to abstract strategy game, but I do think there’s room for it on the shelf as an alternative. It is truly gorgeous and really well made, and having built up some confidence in teaching it (easy) and explaining the scoring (slightly harder) it’s a game that you can bring to the table with two new players and expect everyone to enjoy and have a decent chance at succeeding with. There’s some luck involved and whilst skill is needed, the decision space is narrow enough that everyone of a broadly similar intelligence level will feel equal.

***½  3.5/5

Sagrada is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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