Author – William Long
Where to Buy – https://longgames.itch.io/santa-but
Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Except for…three Santas, one made of ill-fitting off-brand Lego, one comprised of 17 sentient pigeons in a greasy human suit, and one that’s a basketball playing golden retriever.
Okay, the poem doesn’t scan as well as the original. Then again, if there’s anything we learned from playing “Santa But…”, it’s that everything is more fun if you get weird with it. In “Santa But…”, players control a different Santa searching for clues in an unfamiliar house with the goal of giving their assigned child the perfect gift. Each Santa is equipped with a magic sack from which they can try to pull items throughout the game, though low rolls might give them less-than-ideal items. Similarly, the players can attempt any action by rolling a d6 and hoping for a high number. If a player rolls a one, the noise level increases by one and at a certain threshold the children wake up and the Santas must choose a present immediately. After gifting presents, the game ends with a short epilogue describing Christmas morning. The rules suggest simple gifts but GMs can (and should!) get weird with it. One of our kids was a firebug and wanted to burn things for Christmas.
If the game sounds simple (and weird)…then I’ve done a fine job describing it. “Santa But…” is an exceedingly simple game. In fact, the rules could be compressed to a page or two with ease, rather than the 12 pages it occupies. And it’s simplicity is one of its greatest strengths. Without any cumbersome complexities, “Santa But…” provides space for unhampered creativity with just enough structure to support a great story. Is it a perfect game? Nope. It’s swingy as hell given nearly everything resolves via an unmodified d6 roll, making a success just as likely as a failure…and yet this swingy-ness pairs well with the gonzo stories this game is made for. In our game, the players defied the odds by not rolling a single 1 the entire time and so we never got to interact with the noise mechanics. This was true even when one of my players shattered a window pane intentionally because, rules as written, he didn’t roll a 1 so the noise tracker stayed at 0.
Though we weren’t able to see the noise mechanic in action, the game did not lack for tension as the players found themselves in a series of fraught situations. This wasn’t because of anything the game provided, however; I’m just lucky to have players keen on telling an engaging story. And that’s the potential trouble with this game and all narrative-heavy games: they are dependent on the skill of the players to create an entertaining experience within the confines of the rules and, sometimes, despite those rules. “Santa But…” is an elegant game with enough substance and style to inspire creativity in DMs and players alike. And most importantly, it’s flat out fun.
DISCLAIMER: I do not know anyone involved with this book, nor did I receive anything for free in exchange for this review. I do know that the language we used in our actual play of this game probably landed us all on the naughty list for the rest of time. So I guess, in a way, we got coal in exchange for this review.