I think there’s something to be said for beauty in a board game. Perhaps because the marriage of a beautiful theme, artwork, and gameplay is so damn hard to find. Board games are riddled with terrible or just plain dry artwork, even despite fantastic gameplay. Just look at Dominion and Castles of Burgundy. Even when a game manages to pull off looking nice, it might be at the cost of having meaningful and engaging gameplay. Yeah, sure it looks like nice, but a gilded and diamond encrusted snakes and ladders would still be a very ugly game, because it’s really what’s on the inside that matters.
Trite morals aside, Sagrada is one of these rare games that have beautiful everything with fun and interesting gameplay. Well, Kinda.
Sagrada is a self described game of “dice drafting and window crafting” which you know is good because it rhymes. You are tasked with designing and completing stain glass windows for the Spanish Sagrada Familia cathedral. What a stunning and original idea for a game! And it’s captured so well in Sagrada. Everything from box art to the score track is so visually appealing. Sagrada may very well be the most consistently nice looking board game ever. It is amazingly wondrous. A real feast for the eyes.
I could go on.
But I won’t. As any up and coming artisan would do, you’ll be making your window out of dice. But stained glass window making isn’t an easy profession—otherwise everyone would be doing it. There are restrictions, rules, and guidelines for you to follow as well as a limited pool of dice to draw from. If you don’t play your dice right, you may end up with a few holes in your window.
Or you might end up with holes anyway, because Sagrada is a very random game.
So how does it work?
Each round, a pool of dice is drawn randomly from a bag. There’s 90 dice total, 18 of each red, green, yellow, blue, and purple. The selected dice are rolled and then collected into a pool. Everyone gets to select a dice (or die, if you want to be that guy) for their window and place it. The person who selects last gets to take two, and then everyone else grabs another dice in reverse order to place in their windows. Any remaining dice get placed on the round counter to mark the game’s progress. The dice bag moves to the next person and a new round begins.
To start, players select what design of window they wish to painstakingly craft and are dealt a secret personal objective. Each design has a difficulty rating that will earn you favour tokens directly corresponding to that difficulty. Then, three public objectives are randomly drawn for all to see as well as three window crafting tools. The aim of the game is to complete your window following the design, while also matching as much of it as you can to the public and private objectives for the most points.
Where Sagrada really shines is the restrictions. To place one dice, it must be adjacent to another either orthogonally or diagonally. But, dice of the same colour or pip count cannot be placed orthogonally adjacent to one another. This can very well result in rounds where you have to sacrifice score on the public objective to actually place your dice. Perhaps you might even want to pass up taking a dice just so you squeeze in those diagonal colours.
Because of these restrictions, Sagrada is really a puzzle game at heart. You know deep down that you can get the perfect window, you just need to sit there and stare at it a bit longer. Surely there’s a way to make it work! Alas, bad luck or bad planning has just plain screwed you out of a solution.
But, you may remember the mention of favour tokens and tool cards. During your turn, you can pay one favour token (or two thereafter) to use a tool card to get around restrictions or change dice. The problem with the tool cards is, that even with the most favour tokens, you’ll get to use four max. And that’s the best case scenario. More than likely you won’t be using more than two. This leaves you super liable to be screwed over by randomness and restrictions.
I think this is one of Sagrada’s main flaws. Theirs is so much randomness in what colour dice are selected and what numbers are rolled with so few ways to mitigate it. In the last few rounds you can find yourself being continually locked out of placing dice because it is impossible to do so with the restrictions. It is pure futility, and not in a good sense.
Another issue with Sagrada is the utter lack of player interaction. The most the game has is pinching tools early for a discount or stealing the dice someone was going to take (usually without meaning to). There’s no satisfaction in attacking someone accidently or them attacking you unwittingly. There’s no way to avenge your stolen dice or nabbed tool card and it leaves you wanting.
Sagrada’s puzzle-y-ness, causes players to spend a lot of time thinking about their moves as well. And I mean a lot of time. You’ll sit there for several minutes trying to find out what dice to pick while everybody else is quietly fidgeting and waiting for you to get on with it.
Or conversely, you spend other people’s disgustingly long turns planning out your perfect move. Ah, it’s so obvious! You’ll grab the red five and slot it right next to the blue three, because that way you’ll get the diagonal—Goddamnit! They took the red five.
So now it’s your turn and you’ll have to do all that thinking again. Prepare to wither before the glances of one to three other impatient players.
However, almost all of these problems are done away with in Sagrada’s solo mode.
In this mode, you are given two public and two private objectives, along as many tools as you want to determine the difficulty (five being easy and one being damn near impossible). In the solo mode, you do your best to beat a score determined by the sum of all the dice you did not add to your window.
There’s a surprising amount of added depth to this mode, trying to balance out scoring on objectives and completing the window while also making sure your score target isn’t reaching a ridiculous number with all the dice you’re leaving behind.
It’s not easy either and really nails the puzzle aspect of the game. There’s no threat of annoying others, so you can really take your time to make the best moves and really get the feeling that you’ve solved it, up until a bad roll comes up or you completely forget to put in more yellow dice.
So what’s the verdict?
In the end, it’s a shame that Sagrada is a weighed down by these problems. For such a fantastically themed and designed game to feel like it’s just missing things is disappointing. I’ve certainly considered the possibility of whipping up my own attack style tool cards for player interaction, or even just throwing in a timer to force some tension into the puzzle. A different variant of the solo game with a timer every round might even be interesting. It would certainly add a bit of pace to a game otherwise not having much of it. Maybe some extra favour tokens would go a way to mitigate the randomness too.
That being said, I really do love Sagrada. And no, it’s not just because of how pretty it is. How shallow do you think I am?
Okay, I’ll admit the prettiness plays a big factor, but Sagrada is also a great game despite its flaws. It really is aided by the painstaking design and art. If Sagrada wasn’t as nice looking I might have been way harder on it.
All that being said, if you go in to Sagrada with the mindset of it being more a puzzle game than a competitive one, you’ll certainly get more out of it. It’s satisfying and stressful and swear inducing and you get to make something pretty at the end of it.
Yes, I think there’s something to be said for beauty in board games.