Ebenezer’s Secret Santa Game Review

The Basics:

  • For ages 10 and up (publisher suggests 12+)
  • For 3 to 5 players
  • Variable game play length

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Memorization
  • Hand/Resource Management

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Easy
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • Mystery gifts and secret presents

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek rejected!
  • Parent Geek mixed!
  • Child Geek approved!

Overview

American religious leader and author, Thomas S. Monson, said “Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting.” The game of Secret Santa supports this ideal, by giving everyone a chance to provide a gift of gratitude in secret, knowing that they will receive nothing in return. In this game, players will try to determine who they need to thank for a secret gift they received.

Ebenezer’s Secret Santa, designed by Alasdair Stewart and self-published through the Game Crafter, is comprised of one game board, eight Secret Santa Present cards, five Player pawns, five “Yes/No” Answer cards, five Secret Santa scorecards, ten Secret Santa Clue cards, five Whom You Bought For cards, 12 Scrooge Bank cards, 80 Coin tokens, and one standard six-sided die. Not included with the game, but necessary to play, is a pen or pencil to write with and a stopwatch or some other time tracking device. Artwork is minimal and taken from various clip art resources, or so I believe. I’m certain it’s original artwork, but I don’t think it was necessarily created specifically for this game. Neither a bad or good thing. I only mention it because original artwork is sometimes important to the reader’s personal understanding of the game’s quality.

Welcome to Old London

To set up the game, first determine which game type will be enjoyed. The two choices are “Unlimited Time” and “Time Constraint”. Unlimited means the game continues until a player triggers the endgame. Time constraint ends the game at an agreed upon number of minutes played. For example 30 minutes or 60 minutes.

Second, place the game board in the middle of the playing area and have each player select a Secret Santa scorecard and the matching colored Player pawn. Selected Player pawns are placed on the “Santa’s Grotto” starting space on the game board. Place any scorecards, Player pawns, and matching Whom You Bought For cards not used back in the game box.

Third, separate the cards into their different types and shuffle each into their separate decks. Place each deck face down on their corresponding space on the game board.

Fourth, deal one Whom You Bought For card to each player. Players should keep this card hidden at all times until revealed at the end of the game. If a player is dealt a card that matches their scorecard character, all the cards are collected, shuffled, and re-dealt. This is done as many times as necessary until all players have a Whom You Bought For card that does not match their character.

Fifth, deal one Present card to each player, face-down. Players should keep this card hidden at all times until revealed at the end of the game. At this time, deal to each player one “Yes/No” card as well. Players will now have a character they will be Secret Santa to and the secret gift they will be providing.

Sixth, place 20 Coin tokens in a pool on the Scrooge Bank Headquarters space on the game board and give each player ten Coin tokens each.

Seventh, have each player look at their scorecard and cross out the characters not in the game. Players are expected to keep their scorecard up-to-date with predictions as the game is played. Information recorded is to be kept a secret.

That’s it for game set up. Determine who will be the first player and begin.

Walk These City Streets

Ebenezer’s Secret Santa is played in turns with no set number of turns per game. A player’s turn is summarized here.

Step One: Roll the Die and Move

The player takes the die and rolls it. The resulting number value determines the number of spaces on the game board the player can move their Player pawn in a forward direction (as indicated by arrows on the game board). A roll of “six” on the die is still resolved as a normal roll-and-move, but the player will be awarded a bonus turn. A player may (and is expected to) make “laps” around the game board. When the Player’s pawn passes the starting space during such a lap, they collect four Coin tokens.

Step Two: Resolve Space

After the player finishes moving their Player pawn, they resolve the space they landed on. Space actions include receiving Coin tokens, being forced to give up Coin tokens, picking up cards, and purchasing cards. Some spaces have no action and some spaces allow the player to move their Player pawn to different spaces on the game board.

This completes the player’s turn unless they play a card or get a bonus turn. The next player in turn order sequence then takes their turn using the steps noted above.

The Cards

There are several card types in the game. Each are summarized here.

Scrooge Bank Cards

These cards are drawn and read out loud by the player when they land on certain spaces on the game board. These cards could be beneficial or cause the player to take a very minor penalty. Once the card is resolved, it’s discarded.

Secret Santa Clue Cards

These cards can be purchased by the player (optional) if they land on certain spaces on the game board. The player pays the amount and then draws the card which is read out loud and immediately resolved. These cards will provide the player an action that will more times than not help determine player character identities and secret presents purchased. Once the card is resolved, it’s discarded.

“Yes/No” Cards

These cards are used to answer questions asked by opponents either through Secret Santa Clue cards or triggered by spaces on the game board. Players are not allowed to answer the question with any details. Instead, the question asked to them must be answerable with a simple yes or no. Depending on the answer, the player reveals the proper side to the opponent who asked the question. This answer (as well as the question) is visible to all players in the game (who should be adjusting their scorecard accordingly). An obvious point, but worth mentioning, players cannot lie in this game. Information provided must be as accurate and as truthful as possible.

It’s Christmas! I haven’t Missed It!

The game continues as noted above until any player ends their movement on the “Finish Square” space on the game board or time has run out (depending on what game type was selected during game set up). The endgame is then triggered and all normal game play stops.

All players now take their scorecard and write down all of their predictions regarding who bought what and for whom, as well as the number of Coin tokens in their possession. Once everyone is done documenting, the player who initiated the endgame reveals their predictions. This is done by pointing to each opponent in turn and stating to all which present that individual player purchased and for whom. In response, the opponent being pointed to will reveal their Whom You Bought For card and their Secret Santa Present card.

If the player who triggered the endgame is able to correctly ascertain each of their opponents’ secrets (for whom they bought for and what), that player wins the game. If any prediction is incorrect, each player is to hand their scorecard to the opponent on their left. The winner is then determined using the Secret Santa Prediction Points system (this is especially the case if the end of the game was not triggered by the “Finish Square” space but by running out of time). Points are awarded to the player based on how close their prediction was, receiving the maximum points if they guessed both the Secret Santa identity and their gift or partial points for only guessing half of the mystery. The player with the most points wins with ties being decided based on the total amount of Coin tokens collected.

To learn more about Ebenezer’s Secret Santa, visit the game’s web page.

Final Word

The Child Geeks had a wonderful time walking the streets of old London and trying to piece together the mystery of who bought what and for whom. According to one Child Geek, “This is like Clue for the holidays. Instead of figuring out who murdered someone, you are trying to figure out who gave you gifts.” Another Child Geek said, “The only thing I don’t like about the game is that you can get really close to who you think is the right person for each gift and be really wrong because you didn’t understand another person’s answer.” Of the two different game types, the Child Geeks preferred the unlimited time, which gave them the opportunity to dig into the mystery for as long as they wanted to, only being stopped when a player thought they knew the answers. When all the games were over, the Child Geeks voted to approve Ebenezer’s Secret Santa.

The Parent Geeks liked playing the game with their family, but found the game to be uninteresting when only playing with their peers. According to one Parent Geek, “The game is fine, but repetitive. Roll dice, move, and do what the space says. This feels out of place for a game that is all about trying to figure out hidden identities and information. Felt a bit limiting. I did like the player interaction, but I don’t think this is a game I would want to play with anyone but my children.” Another Parent Geek said, “An interesting and festive take on the murder mystery games, but you are looking for the smoking gift box and ugly tie instead a lead pipe and body. Not a bad idea, but not a game I would play except with my family.” When all the presents were delivered, the Parent Geeks decided to re-gift Ebenezer’s Secrete Santa with a mixed endorsement.

The Gamer Geeks disliked the game. According to one Gamer Geek, “This is mix of Monopoly and Clue, taking the worst elements of both and combining them to create something uniquely uninteresting.” Another Gamer Geek said, “This feels like a game designed by someone who only intended to play it with family and friends. I found the game to be very light and boring.” The Gamer Geeks really disliked the roll-and-move mechanic and found the process of learning information in the game to be way too easy to make it feel like you had to dig deep and think things through. When all the games were over, the Gamer Geeks voted and all agreed that they would prefer to eat thousands of fruit cakes versus playing another minute of the game.

Ebenezer’s Secret Santa is one of those games you will play once or twice a year during the holidays and really only with those who like casual games. I think that is just fine, as the game play is straightforward and easy to understand. The game takes ownership of the actions, giving full responsibility of deduction to the players. I liked this, as it paired well with the amount of info the player had to know, keeping game play to more of a reactionary exercise. The end result was a game that kept the players on the proverbial rails, giving them as much room as needed to ponder identities and presents.

The biggest issue I had with the game is the scorecard. It’s a one and done. You will need to copy the scorecard and create many different sheets if you want to play the game again. This is because the scorecard are crucially important to the game play and to the player. Lots of information is captured and the result is a mess of jotted down notes and captured information. You cannot use the scorecard again as a result.

The Gamer Geeks tend to be rather dramatic with their prose-like review comments, but I’ll keep mine short. I didn’t like the game. I never felt like anything more than a clerk capturing information and recording it. Players asked questions and the responses were always middle of the road. The game was not easy, but nor did I find it engaging. I felt like I was going through the motions rather than digging deep into the game play. As a result, the game always left me feeling like I wanted more.

I should also point out that this game has nothing to do with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol other than it has a few supporting characters. This is a game set (loosely) in the story’s time period, but not really. Unless an iPod was a “thing” in merry old London in the 1800’s.

If you are looking for a family game to play during the holidays, do take a look at Ebenezer’s Secret Santa. A good game, I think, for bringing to your holiday table when the family is present with a mixed skill level.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

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About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner. Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....

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